Democracy, Hypocrisy and Medical Marijuana

This Jan. 26, 2013 photo taken at a grow house in Denver shows a marijuana plants ready to be harvested. Last fall, voters ma
This Jan. 26, 2013 photo taken at a grow house in Denver shows a marijuana plants ready to be harvested. Last fall, voters made Washington and Colorado the first states to pass laws legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and setting up systems of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores where adults over 21 can walk in and buy up to an ounce of heavily taxed cannabis. Both states are working to develop rules for the emerging recreational pot industry, with sales set to begin later this year.(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Last week was a strange week to be an American. I was moved by the president's inauguration speech, like when he invoked, "We, the people," in that hypnotic way and said, "You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."

Democracy is both one of those ancient values and perhaps our most fundamental enduring ideal. So, imagine my surprise when the day after those words were spoken, a U.S. Circuit Court failed to acknowledge the medical efficacy of marijuana and remove it from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

The continued classification of cannabis on Schedule I will make it difficult for the 18 states (and the District of Columbia) that have already approved medical marijuana to securely and legally represent the will of their citizens. It is certainly not encouraging for the 10 additional states with bills pending. With those 10 states on board, we have a clear majority. We, the people, are lifting our voices, we are casting our votes, and we are still not being heard.

This administration has some big decisions to make in the coming months about how it will respond to these votes and voices. We, the people, have achieved critical mass on this issue. It's time for the administration to spend some of that freed-up second-term political capital on an issue whose depth has been largely obscured by jokes about Cheetos.

Why should you, the person who is not and would never choose to be a medical marijuana patient, care about this? Because it's a poor reflection on "our most ancient values and enduring ideals." Because it fills our prisons and keeps the 44 million uninsured Americans from a broad-spectrum medicine they could grow in their own backyard. Because it wastes law enforcement resources and keeps us from the revenue and entrepreneurship opportunities that this plant could provide. This is not about whether you like marijuana or not, this is about democracy and hypocrisy.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has, since 2003, held patent number 6630507 on medical cannabis. The abstract states that "Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties ... This new-found property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of a wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases." What diseases don't fall into one of those categories? That's not a rhetorical question. I really can't think of one. Now that there is increasing evidence showing cancer and Alzheimer's can be inflammatory diseases, that list covers pretty much everything that isn't a birth defect. This is a federally held patent. How, then, can it be anything but hypocrisy for the court to say that marijuana has no medicinal value?

It's a legal Mobius strip. The court says marijuana stays a Schedule I drug because the studies are "wanting." But here's the rub: If the studies are wanting, it's because marijuana is a Schedule I drug. A researcher who wants to investigate cannabis has to get a special permit from the DEA. This is preventing the depth and breadth of studies we need to develop federally legal medicine from cannabis. Regular citizens see the hypocrisy in this -- it's part of why they're voting to have access to the whole plant, based on overwhelming anecdotal evidence and the limited research allowed.

Cannabinoids have their own signaling system in our brains, which runs in the opposite direction to all other neurotransmitters. A whole different way of signaling than what was previously known. It's called Retrograde Signaling. This rather startling discovery wasn't made until after marijuana was already on Schedule I. Hard science: the cannabinoid system spans all regions of our brains and moves in the reverse of all other known neurotransmitters. This system also extends to our lungs, liver, kidneys, blood stem cells, immune system, and the cells that interface between our blood and lymph. That is huge enough, one might think, to not have research limited by permits from the DEA.

I'm excited by the science to come. I want to understand the complexities of our relationship to this plant that we've been dancing and healing with for thousands of years. Go ahead and isolate those cannabinoids, discover new receptors, bring on the remixes and mashups. Make new medicine. But in the meantime, we have the whole plant. It has the capacity to heal without damage. The drug war has done nothing but damage. Also, there are real opportunities for entrepreneurship here. Colorado and California have been home to an innovative marijuana middle class where slices of the pie are distributed with a fairness not seen in other billion dollar businesses. It has been a business of, by, and for the people.

In the inauguration speech, Obama also said, "We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." We, the people, couldn't agree more, Mr. President. I hope you count our votes and hear our voices, lifted, loud and clear.