AMA shelves report urging drug decriminalization Draft copy sparks outrage among some members


A report commissioned by an influential committee of the American Medical Association has been shelved after some medical experts who reviewed a draft copy expressed outrage at its recommendation that marijuana be legalized and criminal penalties removed from other illegal drugs.

As a result, the volatile issue will be absent from the association's agenda when its annual meeting begins today in Chicago.

The draft report, which was commissioned to look at ways to reduce the harm drugs cause to those who use them, said that neither criminal penalties nor treatment programs have substantially deterred drug use.

It also suggests allowing addicts to refuse treatment, dropping criminal penalties for using illegal drugs, devising a way to sell marijuana over the counter and preventing undercover law-enforcement officers from buying drugs and arresting dealers.

The report did not specify which drugs its recommendations would affect, but it did not exclude drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

The report was prepared for the association's Council on Scientific Affairs, which examines scientific and public-health issues for discussion by the House of Delegates, the group's policy-making body.

The report was shelved after objections were raised by prominent medical groups that were asked to comment on the draft, and by doctors within the AMA, one of whom provided the New York Times with a copy.

Several of those doctors said in interviews that a national organization representing nearly 300,000 doctors should not be endorsing the greater availability of hazardous substances.

Dr. John Morgan, a professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York Medical School, said AMA officials had asked him to write a report on "harm reduction," which he defined as helping drug abusers minimize the dangers to themselves without demanding that they stop using drugs. He said the House of Delegates had requested such a report.

Morgan, who has spoken out for the liberalization of drug laws, said that in some resolutions by the house he had found much of the language on harm reduction that he then used in the report.

"To my amazement," he said, "the House of Delegates wanted to explore the issues of drug legalization."

Morgan said in a telephone interview that he was assisted by Lynn Zimmer, a sociologist at Queens College in New York, and Ethan A. Nadelmann, the director of the Lindesmith Center, an institute based in New York that promotes more liberal drug policies.

"The AMA has not been quick to own important issues in drug policy," said Nadelmann, who has expressed views that coincide with those in the report. In other countries, he said, doctors have taken more of a lead in changing attitudes about drugs.

Dr. John J. Ambre, the director of the AMA's Office of Medical Information Services, said he had recruited Morgan to prepare the draft report.

Calls to other AMA officials were referred to Mark Stuart, a spokesman for the organization, who said he expected that a revised version of the report would be submitted at the group's interim meeting in December.

"The council decided it wasn't ready for the House yet," he said. Stuart said it was not uncommon to hold back a report for revision and submit it later.

Dr. Herbert D. Kleber, a psychiatrist who is medical director of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, said he heard that the report was put aside after AMA officials realized what it recommended.

The draft report was circulated to the American Psychiatric Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, all of which urged that it be reconsidered.

In a joint letter to the AMA, officials of the three groups said that the report raised serious policy concerns and that many of its recommendations were based on ideology rather than scientific data.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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