Marijuana is not yet legitimate medicine. But we’ve bought the lie

Opinion: Arizona can continue the fantasy that medical marijuana is what it says it is – medicine – or we can acknowledge that the science is still very much lagging.


Arizona lawmakers are continuing work on a bill to reform medical cannabis laws.

Parents of autistic children argued that medical pot has benefited their kids and thus should be added to the conditions of eligibility for low-cost medicinal cannabis cards.

I have no beef with them or the lawmakers pushing through reforms. I have a beef with us, the people of Arizona.

Why do we keep living this fiction that medical marijuana is real? That the stuff bought at the dispensaries can be used to legitimately treat disease?

The big lie Arizona keeps telling itself

Medical marijuana is the lie that led Arizonans in 2020 to pass Proposition 207 to legalize recreational weed – the party pot.

It was the camel’s nose that got under the tent in 2010 and began the further decriminalization of a favorite, and what seemed at the time fairly benign, street drug.

Arizona bill:Would cut price of medical cannabis cards by $100

Today the camel is fully in the tent where we fan it with palm fronds and feed it grapes.

Lots of Americans wanted to legalize marijuana. They were sick of the drug wars and the bottomless pit of spending on police raids and prison housing. Sick of the bloody interdictions and all the nonviolent junkies in jail.

Both sides fought to legalize pot

What began as a liberal enterprise to end the Nixon War on Drugs had in the end the support of conservatives like William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Pat Robertson.

Thus, legalization was a bipartisan project. We all own it. And any of us with any sense knew that medical marijuana was the useful fiction to start treating drug users with health care instead of tossing them in the clink.

Legalization has won. So why do we keep pretending that dispensary marijuana is medicine?

Why do we treat that pot like pharmaceutical drugs that have gone through the gauntlet of hard research and clinical trials to finally win approval to be popped, injected or inhaled?

Little evidence of marijuana’s health effects

In 2019, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an important essay in The New Yorker pointing to a report by the National Academy of Medicine and the many unknowns about the effects of marijuana on health.

While there is evidence that marijuana can treat pain, he wrote, “very little is known about the efficacy, dose, routes of administration, or side effects of commonly used and commercially available cannabis products in the United States.”

He continued:

“Is it good for epilepsy? ‘Insufficient evidence.’ Tourette’s syndrome? Limited evidence. ALS, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s? Insufficient evidence. Irritable bowel syndrome? Insufficient evidence. Dementia and glaucoma? Probably not. Anxiety? Maybe. Depression? Probably not.”

What is becoming clear is that today’s legal, more potent marijuana, has unexpected consequences, wrote Gladwell, as he thumbed through chapters 5 through 13 of the National Academy of Medicine’s 2017 report.

“Does the use of cannabis increase the likelihood of fatal car accidents? Yes. By how much? Unclear. Does it affect motivation and cognition? Hard to say, but probably. Does it affect employment prospects? Probably. Will it impair academic achievement? Limited evidence. This goes on for pages.”

FDA is well aware of our mind games

As the state of Arizona does follow-up reforms to its medical marijuana laws, we bathe in the cognitive dissonance that dispensary pot is medicine backed by science.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration is well aware of our mind games. On its website this day, it tells us, “The FDA understands that there is increasing interest in the potential utility of cannabis for a variety of medical conditions.”

Then it drops the hammer:

“To date, the FDA has not approved a marketing application for cannabis for the treatment of any disease or condition.”

Yes, the FDA tells us, the agency has green-lighted one cannabis-derived drug product: Epidiolex (cannabidiol), and three synthetic cannabis-related drug products: Marinol (dronabinol), Syndros (dronabinol), and Cesamet (nabilone).

It warns about ‘serious safety risks’

All require prescriptions.

“Importantly, the FDA has not approved any other cannabis, cannabis-derived, or cannabidiol (CBD) products currently available on the market.” 

FDA authorities close with a warning that unapproved cannabis-derived products are being used to treat things such as AIDS wasting syndrome, epilepsy, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis spasticity and chemotherapy-induced nausea. 

“The use of unapproved cannabis and cannabis-derived products can have unpredictable and unintended consequences, including serious safety risks.

“Also, there has been no FDA review of data from rigorous clinical trials to support that these unapproved products are safe and efficacious for the various therapeutic uses for which they are being used.”

Admit it: The science on this is lacking

On March 20, Arizona lawmakers in the House Health and Human Services Committee passed proposed reforms to medical marijuana, as reported by The Arizona Republic’s Ryan Randazzo.

The proposed legislation, which enjoys wide support, would reduce the maximum price of medicinal cannabis cards to $50 from $150, add autism and post-traumatic stress disorder to conditions eligible to receive cards and wave the card fee for military veterans.

Among other things it would also outlaw medical marijuana edibles in the shapes of animals, fruit, toys or cartoons to align with rules for recreational cannabis and would authorize DHS to set aside $10 million a year for cannabis clinical trials, increasing that figure from the current $5 million.

I have no serious disagreements with the bill. I like the greater investment in clinical trials.

My point is that we can continue our fantasy that medical marijuana is what it says it is – medicine – or we can acknowledge that the science is still very much lagging.

I know science took a beating in the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one trusts scientific authority anymore, but we don’t want to live in a world guided by psychics and soothsayers.

If we’re going to restore science to its place of authority, we can start by casting off the myth of medical marijuana.

Phil Boas is an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at

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