Imagine if Big Pharma developed a new drug they claimed would cure cancer, but instead of providing proof of its efficacy, they demanded a stamp of approval from Congress and gave generously to Congressional political races.
There would be widespread outrage, and a demand for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to step in and do its job.
So why has the multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry – selling marijuana-infused candies, sodas and other foods – been given such a pass?
The Rohrabacher/Leahy Amendment, a pesky congressional rider protecting the industry from FDA enforcement passed under the guise of protecting medical marijuana patients, prevents much action by the government.
The FDA relies on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to take enforcement action when a company refuses to comply with the terms of an FDA warning letter. Because courts have interpreted the Rohrabacher Amendment broadly to prohibit the DOJ from taking any enforcement action, the FDA is highly limited in what it can do. In reality, the Rohrabacher/Leahy Amendment has enabled the growth of a massive, addiction-for-profit industry that is rapidly becoming this generation’s Big Tobacco.
No one wants to arrest and imprison seriously ill people. Everyone is in favor of responsible research to find new medicines that will help those who are suffering. But let’s also be honest about what’s really happening: Companies that are selling high-potency marijuana gummy bears and lollipops are not interested in medicine, they are interested in marketing kid-friendly products to hook the next generation of lifelong customers.
Studies demonstrate a clear link between higher prevalence of marijuana use among youth and density of registered marijuana growers and adult users. Youth are more likely to try new methods of marijuana use, such as edibles or vaping. Pot shops are also linked to higher levels of property crime in nearby areas. These shops also tend to locate in disadvantaged minority neighborhoods where the residents are less able to fight back against predatory marketing practices.
Thankfully, some progress is being made.
A promising CBD medication derived from marijuana is in the final stages of approval, with more than 1,000 families having received it during the research process. Congress has put forward worthy proposals to responsibly research new medicines derived from the hundreds of compounds found in the raw marijuana plant. In contrast, the Rohrabacher/Leahy Amendment runs counter to responsible medicine, enabling fly-by-night operations to sell contaminated products and avoid consumer protections.
The FDA has already begun to send warning letters to companies claiming that marijuana can cure cancer and treat other illnesses. Tragically, some of these products, which were marketed to desperate parents for the treatment of childhood epilepsy, were found to contain dangerous levels of mold or pesticides – or were found to be missing the active ingredient entirely.
This year, the House spending bills have no pro-marijuana riders. Let’s keep the spending bills clean. It’s time for the Rohrabacher/Leahy Amendment to go, and be replaced with real research. Critically ill patients deserve nothing less.
Kennedy was a member of Congress from 1995-2011. Kevin Sabet is president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).