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World Health Organization Accused of Suppressing Finding That Marijuana Is Relatively Safe


February 1998

In a report published in December 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) scrapped a finding that marijuana, even if consumed on the same scale as alcohol or tobacco, is probably safer than either, according to a February 21 report in the New Scientist, a British Magazine (David Concar, "High anxieties: What the WHO doesn't want you to know about cannabis," New Scientist, February 21, 1998, p. 4; Tim Radford, "UN report leaked," The Guardian (UK), February 19, 1998; "WHO denies buckling on drug-use safety," Washington Times, February 20, 1998, p. A15).

The suppressed passage said that the comparison of marijuana with alcohol and tobacco was made "not to promote one drug over another but rather to minimise double standards that have operated in appraising the health effects of cannabis." The final WHO report, "Cannabis: A Health Perspective and Research Agenda" did not include the comparison passages reportedly because of pressure from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the UN International Drug Control Programme. The comparison report says, "In developed societies cannabis appears to play little role in injuries caused by violence, as does alcohol." WHO denied that it bowed to political pressure in not including the cannabis findings. It said it dropped the comparisons with other drugs because "the reliability and public health significance of such comparisons are doubtful."

In the comparison report, marijuana fared better in five out of seven comparisons of long-term damage to health. However, the comparison paper says that marijuana smoking can produce symptoms of psychosis in susceptible people, and "may be a contributory cause of cancers of the aerodigestive tract."

The WHO report was one of 16 commissioned review papers in WHO's review of marijuana and health since 1982. The whole series of papers will be published in 1998 as an Addiction Research Foundation book by the Addiction and Mental Health Services Corporation of Toronto (AMHSCT). In a op-ed in the Globe and Mail in Toronto, Sociologist Chief Scientist at AMHSCT, Robin Room, who coauthored the WHO marijuana report, said, "The report acknowledged the existence of our comparison paper, and WHO staff have sent copies of it on request. I would therefore not be accurate to say our paper has been suppressed" (Robin Room, "On Contrasting Marijuana With Tobacco and Alcohol," Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 5, 1998, p. A19).

World Health Organization - 20 Ave. Appia, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland, Tel: (011) (41) (22) 791-2111, Washington regional office - 525 23rd St., NW, Washington, DC 20037, Tel: (202) 974-3000.

New Scientist, - 151 Wardour St., London W1V 4BN, ENGLAND, Tel: (011) (44) (171) 331-2701, Fax: (011) (44) (171) 331-2777, Washington office - Tel: (202) 331-2080, Fax: (202) 331-2082, E-mail: <>, Web: <>.

Addiction and Mental Health Services Corporation of Toronto - 33 Russell St., Toronto, Ontario M5S 2S1, CANADA, Tel: (416) 595-6000, Fax: (416) 595-9997.