Last week U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar stated that "there really is no such thing as medical marijuana" in a press conference on the topic of opioids. This comment drew immediate backslash from the medical marijuana community, who were quick to point out the absurdity of such a statement. However, Mr. Azar’s comments highlight the fundamental disconnect between federal marijuana laws, the federal government’s own involvement in medical marijuana, and the majority of state laws with regard to medical marijuana.

Knowing Falsehood

Mr. Azar went on to qualify his statement with, “there is no FDA approved use of marijuana, a botanical plant. I just want to be very clear about that.” While this comment is technically true, the basis for it is not. Marijuana was, for centuries, a common medicine used in American medicine. Up until 1947 the American pharmacopoeia still listed marijuana as medicine.

What’s more, Marinol, a synthetic analogy to THC, has been a FDA-approved medicine to treat several conditions since 1986. Further, in late 2017 Epidiolex, a synthetic CBD-based analog was approved by the FDA for medical use. These two drugs, analogous to the primary active ingredients in marijuana are approved for medical use and do have medical efficacy. While Mr. Azar is technically right that there is no FDA approved use of marijuana proper, in practice, the primary ingredients in marijuana are both FDA-approved for medical use. This seeming inconsistency from the FDA, and the federal government more generally, further highlight the absurd doublespeak inherent in how the federal government approaches medical marijuana.

Systematic Misrepresentation

Beyond clearly inconsistent positions as to the medical efficacy of marijuana, the federal government further highlights its own inconsistency with a series of patents it holds on medical marijuana. The most well-known federal patent on the medical aspects of marijuana is patent number 6,630,507. Granted in 2003 to the Department of Health and Human Services, this patent contains a detailed list of medicinal applications for CBD. This patent stands in stark contrast to the federal government’s claim that marijuana has no medical applications.

Further, while patent number 6,630,507 is the most well-known, several other federal patents for marijuana-based compounds and derivatives have also been given. The most important patents include:

  • United States Patent 4,876,276, granted in 1989 to Yissum Research Development Co of Hebrew University, for the use of marijuana to treat acute chronic pain.
  • United States Patent 5,538,993, granted in 1996 to Yissum Research Development Co of Hebrew University, for the use of marijuana derivatives.
  • United States Patent 6,448,288, granted in 2002 to University of Massachusetts (UMass) Interneuron Pharmaceuticals Inc, for the use of marijuana derivatives in combating cell proliferation (cancer).
  • United States Patent 7,179,800, granted in 2007 to Virginia Commonwealth University, for the use of marijuana derivatives in the treatment of pain, inflammation and autoimmune disease.
  • United States Patent 20130059018, granted in 2014 to GW pharmaceuticals for the use of marijuana derivatives in the treatment of cancer.

In total, over 150 federal patents have been given to various domestic and foreign companies, government agencies, and individuals. Thus, while the federal government continues to claim that there is no medical value in marijuana, it seems perfectly willing to give out over a hundred patents to individuals, corporations, and itself for marijuana’s medicinal properties.

Consistent Inconsistency

While marijuana continues to remain a Schedule I drug, the federal government will continue to claim that there is no medical value. This position is patently absurd as the FDA has approved two synthetic marijuana based medicines, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office has given out over 150 patents for the medical benefits of marijuana (and some of those patent holders include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), the National Institute of Drug Abuse continues to deliver medical marijuana to the four remaining patients in the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program, and a supermajority of states have recognized some medical benefits of marijuana. 

Even with such clear evidence that marijuana has medicinal value, the fact remains that Mr. Azar was not incorrect. As far as the federal government is concerned, as absurd as it is, there is no FDA-approved use of marijuana. Perhaps in the light of such stunning and obvious inconsistency, Congress - or Mr. Trump himself - could rectify this glaring injustice. Sadly, these glaring inconsistencies are well known, well documented, and yet nothing has been done.