Most physicians support access to medical cannabis — why doesn't the federal government?

Most physicians support access to medical cannabis — why doesn't the federal government?
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Voters overwhelmingly support medical cannabis access; increasingly, their doctors do, too. 

According to several recent surveys of practicing physicians, the majority of health professionals now support legal access to medical marijuana.  

Specifically, a survey of practicing physicians in New York State reported that 71 percent of respondents believe that cannabis ought to be legal for medical purposes, and 76 percent acknowledge having had patients who reported using marijuana for symptomatic relief at some point in their lives. 

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More recently, a survey of primary care physicians in Minnesota reported that 58 percent of providers agree with the statement, "[M]edical cannabis [is] a legitimate medical therapy." 

These results mimic the support shown in recent national polls. For instance, a WebMD/Medscape survey of over 1,500 health professionals nationwide reported that two-thirds of respondents believe that cannabis should be a legal medical option for patients.  

A separate survey of the attitudes of general physicians and nurses in North America and Europe similarly found that 71 percent believe that cannabis possesses therapeutic efficacy.  

That’s the same conclusion drawn by experts at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which in 2017 acknowledged that there is “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis and its organic constituents “are effective” for the treatment of chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, nausea and other conditions. 

It’s also the position held by a number of prominent health organizations, like the American Nurses Association, which states: “Marijuana (cannabis) … has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of symptoms in a variety of conditions." 

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Therefore, the American Nurses Association actively supports patients' rights to legally and safely utilize marijuana for symptom management and health care practitioners’ efforts to promote quality of life for patients needing such therapy.”

Critics will counter that American Medical Association still remains skeptical of the legitimacy of medical cannabis, and that the agency would like to see the substance tested in additional well-controlled clinical trials. But despite the AMA’s name recognition and lobbying clout, its views no longer speak for most physicians. In fact, fewer than one in four practicing physicians even belong to the AMA. 

Perhaps more importantly, the federal government’s views on medical cannabis continue to be out of step with those of the public and the growing percentage of health professionals. But it remains improbable that this "flat earth" position — which classifies that cannabis plant as a substance with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” —  can continue for much longer.  

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia (as well as the U.S. territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) permit physicians to recommend marijuana therapy. Some of these state-sanctioned programs have now been in place for more than two decades, providing safe and effective physician-supervised cannabis access to well over a million Americans. 

Congress must no longer hide its collective heads in the sand. It is time that leadership in both political parties come together and move expeditiously to amend federal law in a manner that rightfully recognizes cannabis as a legitimate therapeutic alternative that is supported by the majority of patients and their doctors.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? and the author of the book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws.