When acting U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Rosenberg got himself into hot water earlier this month for calling medical marijuana “a joke,” Tom Angell got angry. The Brooklyn resident and founder of Marijuana Majority, a marijuana law reform advocacy group, says medical cannabis has been extremely important to his family and was put off by the dismissiveness of the country’s top drug cop.
“My mom uses medical marijuana to deal with the severe pain caused by multiple sclerosis,” says Angell. “This issue is not a laughing matter for her and millions of other people who have seen the benefits of cannabis for themselves.”
During a Q&A with reporters on November 4, Rosenberg stated: “What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal — because it’s not…. We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it a medicine — that is a joke.” Extracts or components of marijuana have great medicinal promise, he added. “But if you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana — which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana — it has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine.”
The reaction from medical marijuana advocates, lawmakers, and the general public was swift and angry, with many calling for President Obama to fire Rosenberg. Angell’s Marijuana Majority went a step further, launching a Change.org petition demanding that the president give Rosenberg the ax. More than 100,000 people have thus far signed the petition, and today, a group of medical marijuana patients and advocates are delivering it to DEA headquarters.
Although he’s not the first person to adopt such a stance, Rosenberg’s view is, according to Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, inappropriate for someone in his position. Gottfried introduced the medical marijuana program to New York nearly twenty years ago in the form of the Compassionate Care Act, which was passed in Albany late last year. “President Obama should find someone with a more responsible stand,” he says.
“The head of the DEA should not be so out of line with states, such as New York, who have determined there indeed is serious medicinal benefit from cannabis,” says Evan Nison, co-founder of the New York Cannabis Alliance. “We have patients here in this state who clearly prove there is indeed medical benefit from marijuana and it’s no laughing matter. Chuck Rosenberg should be fired for being so out of touch with medical research and the American people, who clearly don’t view medical marijuana as a ‘joke.’ ”
After California’s medical marijuana program was passed in 1996, Barry McCaffrey, then head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said that medical cannabis wasn’t medicine but a “Cheech and Chong show,” remembers Douglas Greene, legislative director and board member of Empire State NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). “Eighteen years later, the DEA still views cannabis as a joke. President Obama and Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch need to call on [the] acting DEA administrator to resign for his callousness toward sick and dying people who benefit from medical cannabis,” Greene says.
In response to demands that Rosenberg be fired, the DEA released the following statement: “To clarify, acting administrator Rosenberg indicated that marijuana should be subject to the same levels of approval and scrutiny as any other substance intended for use as a medicine. DEA supports efforts to research potential medical uses of marijuana. To this end, DEA has never denied a registration request from anyone conducting marijuana research using FDA approved protocols. Acting Administrator Rosenberg was also clear to point out there are a number of marijuana components and/or extracts which appear to show promise as medicines, but have not yet been approved as safe and effective. His comments reflected the fact that FDA has not approved any medicinal uses for smoked marijuana.”
Nonetheless, many enraged New York residents who signed the petition came out with statements describing their medical conditions and how marijuana could or has helped them:
“I’m signing because I am a cancer survivor and chemo was no ‘joke,’ ” said Kimberly Marker of Pleasant Valley.
“I am an epileptic and marijuana helped me for years and it shouldn’t be a crime to use it,” said Anthony White of Brooklyn.
“As a physician, I recognize the medical potential of marijuana as an effective treatment for serious illnesses and I’m disturbed that the head of the DEA finds it appropriate to make these kinds of statements without a medical degree,” said Shyvonne Brooke of New York City.
“I’m a patient and this guy is totally unqualified for his job,” said Noah Zheutlin of Ithaca.
“[New Yorkers] have a medical marijuana program that’s coming here, and seriously ill people in this state are going to be able to use medical marijuana with their doctors’ recommendations,” says Angell. “It’s offensive that the federal government’s top drug official would call that a joke. We need someone at the DEA who’s gonna respect what the science says on drugs and not bring a failed ideological drug war approach.”
New Yorkers who need or rely on medical marijuana have already had a hard time convincing state officials to pass legislation. It took almost two decades for Gottfried’s Compassionate Care Act to become law — and even it has been criticized as still too limited. “This type of commentary from the Obama administration doesn’t help at all,” says Angell. “If he doesn’t act to make a change soon, this is going to be a continuing political problem for his administration.”