Marijuana plant

This Date in UCSF History: Professors Stir Drug Debate

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Originally published in Synapse on September 20, 1990.

A high-level state advisory panel, including four UCSF faculty members, ignited the latest episode in the long debate over governmental drug policy by suggesting that the current legal approach to controlling drugs has failed.

The California Research Advisory Panel, established in the 1965, is charged with reviewing therapeutic and treatment issues related to controlled substances, and issues annual reports to the governor and legislature which have tended to be primarily of a technical nature.

However, this year’s report has been the focus of considerable controversy and even an attempt to block its publication.

“Panel: Legalize drug use in state” trumpeted one major local daily newspaper after the report was released.

Subsequent editorials and letters heatedly argued over the merits and hazards of drug legalization — causing at least one of the report’s principal authors some chagrin.

“We never said ‘let’s legalize drugs’,” said Frederick Meyers, UCSF Professor of Pharmacology who has served on the panel for 22 years and is currently the vice-chairman.

“The media just reported it that way to sell papers. What we suggested is that, as current policies have so obviously failed to control both individual and societal damage associated with drug use, the legislature ought to move cautiously in the direction of decriminalizing some drug use and actually increasing regulation of others.”

“There is a difference between ‘legalizing’ a free-for-all and reprioritizing so that you don’t spend all your resources on a prohibitionist approach,” said David Schieser, executive secretary to the panel.

“The last thing we want is to allow the alcohol or tobacco industry to jump in and push the consumption of other drugs as well. There is a whole grey area of positions between prohibition and legalization, and the report suggests that somewhere in that grey area may be a more effective approach than anything yet tried.”

Some modest proposals

The panel’s report suggests that any valid drug policy should adhere to four basic principles, which Meyers contends usually are ignored by policy makers: 1) separately consider the different drugs involved and do not look at the issue as one massive drug problem; 2) distinguish between the chemical effects of the drugs themselves and the criminal activity associated with them; 3) design any legislation so that it is subject to change with experience; and 4) consider alcohol and nicotine as “drugs,” not separate substances just because they are legal.

The report goes on to make three specific recommendations for initial changes in policy: 1) permit the possession of syringes and needles; 2) permit the cultivation of marijuana for personal use; and 3) forbid the sale or consumption of alcohol in state-supported institutions devoted wholly or in part to patient care or educational activity — meaning hospitals and schools.

Meyers feels that these are relatively conservative proposals, which should be implemented as experimental policies subject to evaluation and change.

He also contends that the opposition to such proposals comes primarily from people with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, such as law enforcement officials, drug treatment providers, and politicians who are terrified of being seen as being “soft on drugs.”

An attempt to “censor” In fact, the report was controversial even before the media got wind of it, as it was delayed for months while panel members debated both the substance of the report and the proper role of the panel in making such recommendations.

The report then encountered opposition from California Attorney General John Van dc Kamp, whose office for the first time refused to fund state publication of the report. Meyers and other panel members responded by using their own funds to disseminate the section of the report containing the policy recommendations.

Donald Wesson, UCSF Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, was appointed to the panel eight years ago by the California Medical Association. He was among those panelists initially opposed to making the policy recommendations, even where he agreed with the positions taken. “The policy issues arc not data-based and are really more philosophical questions about how the world works, and 1 thought having them in there might damage any objective credibility the panel might have,” says Wesson.

“Plus, the members of the panel had as diverse views on those issues as any group of people, with everyone sure that their opinion was correct.”

Other UCSF-associated members of the eight-person panel include Thomas Hazlet and Luis Icaza, both Assistant Clinical Professors of Clinical Pharmacy.

Wesson’s reluctance to make policy recommendations was softened by the Attorney General’s attempt to squelch the report, however.

“I felt it was totally inappropriate to try to censor the report,” he says. “Fred Meyers is courageous in sticking to his convictions and using his own money to do so.”

Contributing to the debate Panel members remain hopeful that the report may have some positive impact on the drug policy debate, which has heated up considerably in recent years.

Official governmental policy at most levels has been to reaffirm and intensify legal attempts to cut off the supply of illegal drugs, the most striking recent examples being the military exercise undertaken in Northern California in August, and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates’ recent statement that casual marijuana users should be shot.

United States “drug Czar” William Bennett, in announcing the second annual report of his “war on drugs” Sept. 6, contended that such approaches are working, as street prices of drugs are up and the purity of those drugs is down, which Bennett says will lead to less drug use.

On the other side, a growing number of public figures have called for relaxing the prohibitionist approach, with more resources devoted to drug treatment and education.

“This year, there is a current of recognition that the “war on drugs” is lost, and that it is actually harmful,” argues Meyers. “The legislature is well-advised by our panel that you can take a few tentative steps without precipitating a disaster, without increasing drug use. People at the extremes have dominated the debate for too long.”

Wesson agrees, and notes that “If the debate triggered by the report contributes in any small way towards the realization that current drug control policies are irrational and should be re-thought, that would be a very desirable contribution.”