For a brief time earlier this month, the National Cancer Institute, a branch of the federal government's National Institutes of Health, had posted a webpage touting the possible benefits of marijuana in fighting cancer tumors. But less than two weeks after it went up, the webpage was altered and the approving words stricken.
The webpage, added to Cancer.gov's "alternative medicine" section this month, is still there, and still says marijuana has "potential benefits" for treating symptoms of cancer — a groundbreaking assertion for a government-affiliated organization.
But the updated page deletes this praise for marijuana's ability to combat cancer.
"In the practice of integrative oncology, the health care provider may recommend medicinal cannabis not only for symptom management, but also for its possible direct anti-tumor effect," the excised passage read.
The advice is now less supportive, and refers only to symptoms, not to cures: "Though no relevant surveys of practice patterns exist, it appears that physicians caring for cancer patients who prescribe medicinal cannabis predominantly do so for symptom management."
NCI officials initially referred questions to Dr. Donald Abrams, a member of the editorial team. But in an email exchange Tuesday and Wednesday, Dr. Abrams said he was busy and referred questions back to NCI, which then pointed to a webpage written Wednesday by the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) editorial team that said the changes tried to "add clarification."
"The CAM Board lead reviewers realized that the previous wording could have been misinterpreted as being a recommendation for prescribing cannabis, which was not the intent of the board," the posting said. "In addition, the current evidence for the anti-tumor properties of cannabis is discussed only in the context of laboratory studies and not in research involving human subjects."
The posting said the work is independent of NCI and NIH.
Medical marijuana advocates said they suspected political pressure forced the change, but considered even the current website language a victory, since NCI still touts the "potential benefits" of cannabis for treatment of symptoms of people living with cancer, such as pain and sleep problems.
"We're very pleased that NCI, and really NIH, have finally recognized marijuana as a complementary alternative medicine," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, which promotes medical marijuana use and research. "That is a significant step forward. But just as importantly, it points to a contradiction in the federal policy on medical marijuana, and it's a contradiction that needs to be resolved."
Medical marijuana has become a hot topic in recent years, and 15 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis use for medicinal purposes. Rules vary across the states, though they generally require a doctor's permission to obtain or grow marijuana for personal use.
Advocates say it can relieve pain, nausea, weight loss and eye-pressure symptoms of glaucoma.
But the federal government has classified cannabis as a so-called Schedule 1 drug, meaning there is no recognized medical use.
In February 2009, The Washington Times reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration was continuing to raid medical marijuana shops — despite President Obama's campaign pledge to halt those raids.
A month later, the Justice Department announced guidelines designed to end raids on legitimate medical marijuana distributors in states where they are legal.
In addition to the contradictions between federal and state law, Mr. Hermes said, the NCI's Web posting there is now a contradiction within the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees both NCI and other federal agencies that do not recognize a medical use.
"The federal government is walking a very fine line with respect to what is really a double standard, that is, [it] can say that marijuana has therapeutic value, and yet at the same time say that there's no evidence that supports really the statements being made," he said.
A spokesman for HHS did not respond to a request for comment in time for this article.
An NCI spokeswoman directed questions about political pressure to Dr. Jeffrey White, director of the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine. But the spokeswoman said Dr. White wasn't available for an interview until Thursday.
In a sign of how far the medical marijuana industry has moved into the mainstream, marijuana industry advocates hosted a Washington press briefing Wednesday to talk up the industry's economic impact and plead with the government to recognize them as legitimate.
"The truth here is that the industry is creating jobs, generating tax revenue and providing a product to patients that is far less harmful than many pharmaceutical products out there, and it is just time the government treats it like a true American business," Steve Fox, spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said at a briefing at the National Press Club.
Industry officials project that the legal medical cannabis market will reach $1.7 billion in 2011.
• Josh Brown contributed to this report.
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