Pot Shots

Although Thomas believed the report's conclusions would be positive, he did not know exactly what it would say. So it was a lucky break for him when on March 16, the day before the news broke, "a sympathetic reporter was kind enough to give us an embargoed copy." MPP's local PR firm, Rabinowitz Media Strategies, had booked Thomas to be interviewed on CNN that day, and having the report in advance gave him the advantage of being able to comment on point. He began telling reporters he was ready to discuss the report before the embargo was lifted on March 17.

But when the IOM learned that MPP had an advance copy, spokesman Dan Quinn called Thomas and beseeched him not to break the embargo, lest other news outlets decide to do so as well. (For example, The New York Times has a policy of not breaking embargoes unless someone else does it first.)

Thomas had been planning to hold a news conference outside the National Academy of Sciences on March 17, immediately following the release of the report that would take place inside. Thus, recognizing that having the report gave him a bargaining chip, he agreed not to break the embargo, in exchange for a promise that the IOM would not break up his news conference.

The question we normally ask about a drug is whether it's safe and effective. And while the IOM report was unequivocal in its finding that marijuana works for some patients, it carefully hedged the issue of health risks. By calling marijuana smoke a risk factor for cancer and lung damage, it gave the government one last myth to work with: the idea that marijuana is dangerous.

If McCaffrey's strategy was to play up the harmful effects of smoking, it definitely worked. In her story on March 18, New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote that marijuana smoke "can cause cancer, lung damage and complications during pregnancy." In that and subsequent stories, the Times loosely used the word "toxic" to describe pot smoke. Obviously, there is some risk in smoking burning leaves, but marijuana is relatively safe, as drugs go, according to the report. And the IOM found no proof that it causes cancer.

Perhaps the biggest wild card was where the editorials would come down on the implications of the report for government policy. In what Americans for Medical Rights spokesman Dave Fratello calls "the most significant policy outgrowth of this entire report," the IOM recommended that the government begin limited experiments to provide medical marijuana to patients who need it.

It's too early to tell, but so far, no major paper has defended McCaffrey's wait-and-see attitude. First to depart from the status quo were New York Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times, which came out in support of medical marijuana on March 19. The Sun-Times mocked the drug czar as apparently "in search of a yes man," while the Tribune called for "courageous political leadership."

On March 20, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Dayton Daily News, and the Louisville Courier-Journal chimed in on the call for a change. Sample quotes: Though McCaffrey "appears likely to shelve the study," his "exaggerated fears and inflexible views should not trump the legitimate needs of suffering people." On March 22, the Atlanta Journal opined, "This report gives the Clinton administration a strong scientific basis to abandon its illogical policy."

Meanwhile, the editorial writers in New York, Washington, and L.A. have been silent. What are they waiting for? Perhaps in a situation like this, the truth can come only from a conservative and former medical marijuana user like Richard Brookhiser. In a March 22 New York Times op-ed, Brookhiser wrote, "For obvious reasons, there has been no leadership on this issue from President Clinton, who began his career of evasion at the national level by telling us he didn't inhale."

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