The top doctor in the US has acknowledged for the first time that marijuana has legitimate medical applications, potentially signalling a change in Washington’s attitude to the drug. Speaking to CBS this week, the new US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, said: ”We have some preliminary data that for certain medical conditions and symptoms, that marijuana can be helpful.”
The 37-year-old, British-born physician took up the office of Surgeon General in December. Though he did not explicitly endorse legalising cannabis for medical purposes, he did suggest US drug policy ought to be science-led. “I think we have to use that data to drive policymaking, and I’m very interested to see where that data takes us,” he said.
Marijuana remains illegal under US federal law, but Dr Murthy’s remarks will likely amplify calls for the Justice Department to downgrade its designation for the drug, which it currently classifies as a Schedule I Controlled Substance – alongside heroin and LSD – meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Cocaine and methamphetamine fall into the lesser category, Schedule II.
Despite the federal ban, 23 states and the District of Columbia have already legalised medical marijuana, while the drug is now also legal for recreational use in Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and Washington state.
Dr Murthy may be the first Surgeon General publicly to acknowledge the medical benefits of marijuana while in office, but Joycelyn Elders, Surgeon General under the Clinton administration, suggested in 1993 that legalising drugs would significantly reduce crime in the US. Dr Elders was later ousted from her post following criticism from conservatives over her controversial views.
Last year, in an interview with The New Yorker, President Barack Obama said he believed marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer”. The President, who has written about smoking marijuana as a young man, said he saw the drug, “as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life.”