Cheech & Chong Medicine or Monty Python Warfare?
by Brian C. Bennett

Former American drug "czar" Barry McCaffrey used to derisively refer to the medical use of marijuana as "Cheech & Chong medicine." This past Monday on Phil Donahue's new show on MSNBC, McCaffrey continued to rail against the medical use of marijuana, but has changed his tune a bit, now calling it a scheme concocted by "pothead Californian's." McCaffrey continues to insist that smoked marijuana simply can't be considered medicine until federal organizations like the FDA and NIH conduct "proper" studies to determine the efficacy of smoking marijuana for the variety of ills its adherents claim it provides relief.

This begs a question, one that never seems to be asked when folks like McCaffrey avail themselves of the hot seat. Quite simply, the question that needs to be asked is: "Does lighting tetra-hydrocannabinol (THC) on fire cause it to not be effective?" You see, THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and the one that leads recreational users to smoke it. But a synthetic form of THC is available as medicine in pill form, and classed as a "Schedule III" substance in the DEA's taxonomy of "dangerous" drugs - legally available with a doctor's prescription. Plain old marijuana meanwhile, is classed as a "Schedule I" substance - something that, according to the DEA has "no currently accepted medical use," and "high potential for abuse."

Apparently, the DEA has decided that the medical effects of marijuana are significantly different from the synthetic form of its most popular active ingredient. I'm not privy to the arcana of combustion chemistry and pharmacology, but I am experienced enough to know that simply lighting THC on fire does nothing to alter what it does to humans. In other words, if synthetic THC is medically effective, so is the natural form. I wonder if Cheech & Chong helped create the DEA drug schedule.

I'm not sure why Mr. McCaffrey has stopped using the cultural icons Cheech & Chong to deride those who find marijuana an effective medicine, but I've become increasingly convinced that the drug war itself can best be understood in terms of another comedy icon. Many years ago, the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus did a sketch about an intrepid hunter who stalked his prey - a mosquito, with machine guns and bazookas. A more apt parallel of America's drug war would be very difficult to find.

Most of the military power applied in the war on drugs is directed against Colombia and other nations where coca plants and opium poppies are grown. Remember, these are plants we're talking about here. Television news programs routinely show images of armed helicopters, crop dusters and troops with automatic weapons when airing stories about the drug war, sometimes including vintage footage from the Vietnam War. On the home front, the Python-esque footage is usually groups of 10 to 15 heavily armed burly men in flak jackets, breaking down the front door of someone's home and swarming in to force the inhabitants to the ground cowering in fear of their lives. Tune in to "COPS" to see it for yourself.

Although you may be unaware of it, over the past year Canada and several European nations have decided that it really isn't appropriate to hunt down and kill their citizens for the truly heinous act of lighting the "wrong" plants on fire and inhaling the smoke. The U.S. meanwhile, continues to harness military brutality in its hunt for the wily and elusive mosquito. Of course, it isn't Cheech & Chong or Monty Python who are running the American drug war, as there is nothing at all funny about killing or jailing people over what they choose to do to themselves.

Written Aug 1, 2002

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