The American Medical Association’s Harmful War on Cannabis

The American Medical Association (AMA) has become unmoored in history, seemingly unaware that both racism and the War on Drugs are no longer tolerated by society. A confluence of recent activities and events having to do with their stance on medical cannabis puts them in a poor light and throws into question whether doctors — or patients — are at all served by this group. As a practicing primary care physician for twenty years, a medical cannabis expert, an Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical, a Board Member for the group Doctors For Cannabis Regulation, and a former Associate Director of the Massachusetts Physician Health Program, I feel that a spotlight on some of the AMA’s recent activities will show how far they, as an organization, have strayed from their fundamental dictate to ‘do no harm’.

Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

On November 3, 2020, in Mississippi, a ballot initiative legalizing medical cannabis was passed by 74% of the electorate. This was widely celebrated as a victory by activists and patient for the one issue that seems to unite Americans, as 94% of Americans are in favor of legal access to medical cannabis. Democracy worked! A happy ending? Not so fast.

A lawsuit was brought to bear against this outcome, which made its way to Mississippi’s Supreme Court, based on the most flimsy of pretexts. This lawsuit was predicated on the fact that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that law was passed at a time when Mississippi had five congressional districts — now it has four — making it impossible to adhere to. Obviously, the intent of the law was for it to be proportional to the number of congressional districts, not exactly one-fifth of the signatures.

One would ordinarily dismiss this as a cynical attempt to subvert the will of 74% of the electorate, just absolute political nonsense. Right? But…guess who signed on to this lawsuit? The American Medical
Association
(AMA), an organization that purports to “tirelessly to preserve health care access and coverage for Americans across the nation — especially the country’s most vulnerable patient populations.” In fact, the AMA said, “cannabis for medicinal use should not be legalized through the state legislative, ballot initiative or referendum process.” The subtext of this is, “silly little patients shouldn’t get involved in these complex issues that we big, smart doctors should handle.” And the worst irony? The patients are right about cannabis! It is an incredibly helpful and relatively non-toxic plant-based medicine used to effectively treat a variety of medical woes. Many doctors are having a difficult time seeing through the Drug War ideology they have been fed in medical school — and ever since — to learn about these benefits. Physicians have a duty to keep up with medical advances in the field of cannabis that have been made since they have left medical school — just as they do in other fields. This is part of the mission of our advocacy group Doctors For Cannabis Regulation.

On May 14, 2021, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled and actually struck down the medical cannabis law. The citizens of Mississippi are so upset about this miscarriage of justice, they want to impeach the state Supreme Court judges who are foisting this ridiculous judgment on them. But what about the AMA? One must ask if this obscene behavior is completely unrelated to another scandal they have recently been involved with? Earlier this month, Dr. Howard Bauchner, the editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was placed on administrative leave and then resigned after a blog came out under his watch that said, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in healthcare?” https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n851

JAMA has always frustrated me due to it’s biased and one-sided anti-cannabis reporting. In my opinion, it has consistently reported and highlighted negative studies and has largely ignored the ones that put medical cannabis in a positive light. In fact, in Dr. Lester Grinspoon’s landmark book Marihuana Reconsidered, (Harvard University Press, 1971, reviewed on front page of NYT book review), he concluded that, “The fact of the matter is that during the year 1969 the information on the subject of cannabis available in the Journal of the American Medical Association was less credible and useful than that published during the same period by the magazine Playboy.” Nothing seems to have changed since that time.

Every year hundreds of thousands of American citizens are arrested for cannabis related charges, with Blacks arrested at four times the rate as whites for cannabis possession, despite essentially equal rates of use. In 2019, more than 500,000 people were arrested for simple cannabis possession. Involvement in the criminal justice system is far worse for one’s health than the usage of cannabis is. Cannabis is ground zero for the fight for racial justice in America simply because of the racial disparity in arrests. The AMA has been opposed to every single legalization measure. Now, they have actively obstructed progress in this critical area, in the most cynical and calculated of ways, by their participation in this nonsensical lawsuit in Mississippi.

The American Medical Association has far more to apologize for than merely their racial insensitivity, and for hiring editors that think, somehow, impossibly, that “no physician is racist”. They owe us all, doctors and patients alike, an apology for perpetuating this senseless War on Cannabis that has needlessly harmed the health and well-being of so many Americans, mostly dark-skinned.

Doctors For Cannabis Regulation calls on the American Medical Association to reform their racially harmful position on cannabis, to adopt a pro-legalization stance, and for them to provide a formal apology for consistently being on the wrong side of the War on Drugs. The AMA, if it wishes to represent U.S. physicians, must truly start doing no (more) harm.

Peter Grinspoon, M.D.

Doctors For Cannabis Regulation

Massachusetts General Hospital

Harvard Medical School

Peter Grinspoon, M.D. is a primary care physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, an Instructor at Harvard Medical School and a certified Health and Wellness Coach. He is a board member of the advocacy group Doctors For Cannabis Regulation. He is a TEDx Speaker and a Contributing Editor to Harvard Health Publications. He spent two years as an Associate Director of the Massachusetts Physician Health Service helping physicians with addiction and mental health issues. He is the author of the memoir ‘Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction’.

Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR) serves as a global voice for physicians and other health professionals who support cannabis legalization and science-based regulation. DFCR promotes public education, research, and advocacy to support legislative changes necessary for improved public health, social justice, and consumer protections. To learn more about DFCR’s work, please contact us at www.DFCR.org

Peter Grinspoon, M.D. is a primary care physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, a board member for Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.