Groundbreaking AMA Medical Marijuana Policy Spearheaded by University of Washington Student

November 15, 2009 – Marijuana has long been classified as a dangerous drug with no medical benefits. But thanks in part to the work of a University of Washington sunilmedical student, the American Medical Association this week urged the federal government to reconsider.

“It’s a huge shift on medical ideology,” said Sunil Aggarwal, who’s been studying the medical uses of marijuana for 10 years. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since I was an undergraduate and found out that marijuana wasn’t a horribly dangerous thing.”

Since 1997, the American Medical Association has taken a hard line against the drug, endorsing its classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance — the most restrictive category — and asserting its lack of medical value. Aggarwal’s research, published in his dissertation and in two articles in the Journal of Opioid Management — helped convince AMA members that the drug has potential.

At its annual meeting Tuesday, the country’s largest physicians’ organization adopted a policy that urges the federal government to reclassify, or “reschedule,” the drug.

And cannabis activists cheered.

“It’s like part of the Berlin Wall coming down,” said Vivian McPeak, founder of Seattle Hempfest — the largest pot rally in the nation — and one of 400,000 people nationwide authorized to use medical marijuana.

“For the longest time, those of us working for medical marijuana have been hearing this argument that none of the medical organizations or establishments have supported medical marijuana. With the AMA now doing pretty much an about face, who’s going to be able to say that?”

Aggarwal’s path to the 250,000-member organization began last spring, when the UW chapter of the medical student section of the AMA endorsed his resolution to reschedule the drug. After he got it through a national meeting of the student section that June, he presented the idea and his research to the AMA’s 2008 annual meeting, where the organization agreed to study the issue for a year.

Aggarwal served as expert reviewer of the groundbreaking report released Tuesday.

His only complaint? The AMA should have gone farther.

The report drafted by the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health asks for a “review” of marijuana’s classification but neither demands the government reschedule the drug nor emphasizes the need Aggarwal believes hundreds of thousands of patients have for the drug’s medicinal properties.

“I tried as best as I could to make the language stronger than it was, but that was as far as it was going,” Aggarwal said. “But I realized that even at that level, it would still be a big shift.”

And not just for the medical community. Speaking at Hempfest last year, Aggarwal urged the crowd not to feel like criminals.

“We have to change the way people think about people and cannabis,” he told the crowd. “This is a staple of the earth and a basic medicine for a lot of people.”

The government hasn’t shown any sign of following the AMA’s suggestion just yet, though it’s hardly the first organization to call for change. Last year, the American College of Physicians also urged the government to reconsider marijuana.

Aggarwal, who expects to stay in what he calls the now “exploding” field of cannabinoid science after he graduates in June, is sure change is coming.

“I’m pretty happy,” he said. “This Schedule 1 thing is going to be a thing of the past.”

Hear his speech to Hempfest below:

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