Surgeon General Says Yes to Science, Admits Weed Has Medical Benefits

Vivek Murthy says marijuana is ‘helpful’ for certain medical conditions. Could this be the tide-turner for legalization?

02.05.15 4:57 PM ET

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy believes in science.

As he answered questions Wednesday about the measles outbreak that is turning into the year’s first public health emergency, the 37-year-old doctor assured Americans that vaccines are safe and that government policy is informed by sound data and scientific consensus. When CBS This Morning host Gayle King pivoted to ask Murthy for his views on marijuana, the country’s youngest ever surgeon general gave an answer that was at once historic and entirely consistent with his scientific approach. 

“We have some preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful,” Murthy said. “We have to use that data to drive policy making.”

While a first for a surgeon general, this was not actually a risky statement. Murthy’s belief is in line with the positions of the American College of Physicians (PDF), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association (PDF), the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (PDF), The California Medical Association (PDF), Dr. Sanjay Gupta, countless less famous but equally sincere physicians, and laws in 23 states and the District of Washington that permit the use of marijuana for medical conditions including multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, epilepsy, and a host of cancer-related symptoms. 

But the statement also seemed to put the nation’s top health official in direct conflict with federal law. To the Department of Justice and its Drug Enforcement Agency, marijuana remains, along with heroin, a Schedule I narcotic, defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use.” Cocaine and crystal meth, on the other hand, are listed as Schedule II drugs, with “less abuse potential.” 

This absurd policy has been inexplicable for so long, that the nation’s highest officials have given up trying to defend it.   

“I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol,” President Obama said to The New Yorker’s David Remnick about marijuana last year. Casual as his remark seemed, Obama rocked the drug reform movement. Just weeks after the president said what a sizable majority of Americans already agreed with, a group of 18 representatives from nine states took a stand on the issue and, in a gesture of bi-partisan consent, wrote a letter (PDF) that called on Obama to take executive action. 

“We were encouraged by your recent comments in your interview with David Remnick,” the name-dropping representatives wrote. “Classifying marijuana as Schedule I at the federal level perpetuates an unjust and irrational system. We request that you instruct Attorney General Holder to delist or classify marijuana in a more appropriate was, at the very least eliminating it from Schedule I or II.”

Nine months later, in his exit interview with Katie Couric, Holder passed the buck right back. 

“At the federal level marijuana is still classified in the same category as heroin,” Couric said. “In your view should that change?”

“I think that’s certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves,” Holder said, “whether or not marijuana is as serious a drug as is heroin.” Couric nodded and as Holder weighed the pros and cons, she pressed him on decriminalization. That, he said, is “something for Congress to decide.”

Congressional action might be Holder’s preference, but it is not actually mandated by the law. 

“Eric Holder could initiate that process today if he wanted to,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a decriminalization advocacy group, and pointed out that the 1970 Controlled Substances Act gives the attorney general sweeping power to define and classify the full schedule of illegal drugs. At the same time, Angell said, “Congress could pass a bill to move marijuana from Schedule I to a lesser one, or make it unscheduled, like alcohol or tobacco.” 

But as public opinion on the issue passes the super majority mark, neither branch of government has made a move. “In essence, the Justice Department and Congress are both begging each other to fix federal marijuana laws,” wrote Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post. An aide to Senator Rand Paul told The Daily Beast that the Kentucky lawmaker is considering a bill this year that would reschedule the drug. “It’s a work in progress,” the aide said, but couldn’t offer any specifics.  

In his interview with Couric, Holder left open the possibility that his department could one day endorse rescheduling marijuana. Whatever is decided, Holder said the government should let science be the guide. “Use science as the basis for that determination,” he said. 

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A Department of Justice spokesman said, “the Department supports research into potential medical uses of marijuana.” Surgeon General Murthy told the Daily Beast that “marijuana policy—and all public health policies—should be driven by science” and that “the Federal Government has and continues to fund research on possible health benefits of marijuana and its components.” 

The problem with this, said Angell, is how difficult it is even for academic institutions to gain government approval for such studies. The American Medical Association (AMA), one of the most conservative organizations on marijuana decriminalization, changed its long-held position on classification in 2009. Marijuana’s ongoing schedule I classification “limits the access to cannabinols for even research,” said Edward L. Langston, MD, an AMA Board of Trustees member. “It is very difficult,” he told American Medical Newsto legally research the substance. A report by the AMA Council on Science and Public Health that same year found that, “bureaucratic hurdles apply to cannabis research that do not impede other drug investigations.” 

Evidence for the claim is not hard to find. At the University of Massachusetts, an agricultural professor has been trying for more than 15 years to gain approval to grow cannabis for research. In Kentucky, the DEA finally released a shipment of research-bound hemp seeds last May, but only after the state’s agricultural commissioner sued the agency in federal court. 

The medical community and public opinion has come a long way in the 20 years since Dr. Jocelyn Elders, Surgeon General under President Bill Clinton, took flak for defending decriminalization. But even as a new surgeon general calls for more science, Angell said the research opportunities won’t change until the laws do, and that politicians are lagging behind most Americans on the issue.

“They don’t realize that a majority of Americans are ready for medical marijuana to be legalized,” he said. “They perceive it as dangerous when it is not.”