In the 1890s, the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. of Great Britain promised that its product — a substance that consumers were instructed to smoke three times each day — would cure everything, from asthma to influenza to whooping cough. Carbolic smoke balls became widely popular, especially as a “treatment” for influenza. The company’s fortunes declined only when one fastidious smoke ball user contracted influenza and sued the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co., which had guaranteed that the “medicine” would protect against this epidemic.
Today, we laugh at the quack medicine that led Victorians to perch over carbolic smoke balls, hoping to cure asthma or other ailments by inhaling the smoke. And we shake our heads when we read about how cocaine was similarly abused here in the United States in the name of medicine. But the lure of quackery never diminishes.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against the “medical” marijuana proponents in Gonzales v. Raich, a case that endeavored to return the United States to 19th-century medicine by legalizing “medical” marijuana.
“Medical” marijuana is a myth, no less so than carbolic smoke balls. Marijuana is no more a medicine than cocaine. Like any complex compound, marijuana is composed of hundreds of chemicals, and indeed some of them may, on their own, have medicinal affects. But the same could be said of virtually any substance.
Opium poppy provides real medical derivatives, such as morphine, but that doesn’t mean that the ill should start using — and abusing — heroin. Indeed, medicinal derivatives of the marijuana plant — Marinol, for example, which contains synthetic THC — already exist, and have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA was created precisely to combat the medical fraud and quackery that led to the phony medicines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the decades since enactment of the Food and Drug Act, a regulatory system has been developed to protect the public health by ensuring the integrity of medicine. To be approved by the FDA, a drug must be proven to be safe and effective through a wide range of scientific tests, including rigorous clinical trials by the best scientists in the nation. Only then does the FDA allow a new drug to be sold to patients.
The FDA’s excellent scientists have never determined that smoked marijuana is safe and effective. That is an obstacle that the pro-marijuana forces would like to remove, which is why Gonzales v. Raich sought to make our federal drug-approval process subservient to state referenda. If the FDA is going to stop quackery, after all, the quacks need to stop the FDA.
The ultimate goal, of course, is the legalization of marijuana — the “medical” marijuana movement is simply a means to that end. Survey data clearly demonstrate that “medical” marijuana is largely being used for recreational or emotional reasons rather than medical purposes. In Oregon, for example, Dr. Phillip E. Leveque, a pro-marijuana activist and physician, has personally written prescriptions for more than 4,000 people to use marijuana over the last several years. His license to practice medicine was finally suspended in March 2004 by the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners for his failure to provide proper examinations or oversight of this “treatment.”
The consequences of this kind of quackery are real and tragic. Last year, 14-year-old Irma Perez was laid to rest in California after dying from an ecstasy overdose at a party. Her friends, having recognized that Irma felt unwell after taking the MDMA pill, attempted to give her marijuana because they believed “that drug is sometimes used to treat cancer patients.” Had she received early — and real — treatment, Irma likely would have survived the overdose.
The Supreme Court has taken a step toward ensuring that more Irmas aren’t given carbolic smoke balls in their time of need.
Rep. Mark E. Souder, Indiana Republican, is chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources and co-chairman of the Speaker’s Drug Task Force. Along with six other members of Congress, he submitted an amicus brief in the case of Gonzales v. Raich.