The physicians group said its intention is to open avenues for clinical research toward the development of cannabis-based medicines and alternative ways of delivering the drug.
A Southern Baptist public policy expert, however, noted that declassification is not needed for conducting marijuana-related research.
The AMA, at its interim policymaking meeting in Houston, rejected a proposal to outright urge the rescheduling of marijuana, which now is considered a Schedule I controlled substance, the most restrictive category. Schedule I, which also includes heroin and LSD, is the only classification of controlled substances that cannot be prescribed by a physician.
The group also rejected an amendment that said "smoking is an inherently unsafe delivery method for any therapeutic agent, and therefore smoked marijuana should not be recommended for medical use."
The AMA claims 250,000 members, but that figure often is questioned by various estimates that it represents only 25 to 40 percent of U.S. doctors.
As part of the new policy, the AMA said it was not signaling approval of the 13 states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
"This should not be viewed as an endorsement of state-based medical cannabis programs, the legalization of marijuana, or that scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of cannabis meets the current standards for a prescription drug product," the AMA said.
In response to the AMA's revised policy, the Drug Enforcement Administration said, "At this point, it's still a Schedule I drug, and we're going to treat it as such," and the Food and Drug Administration, which in the past has rejected the use of marijuana for medical purposes, declined to comment, The Los Angeles Times said.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based marijuana advocacy group, called the AMA's policy change "big news" and said it "falls in line with what is quickly becoming a universal understanding in American medicine: Marijuana has undeniable medical uses and federal law should reflect that reality."
"The AMA's previous position was often cited by medical marijuana opponents as evidence that the drug's medical efficacy was in question," the MPP's blog said. "This new policy will go a long way to convincing politicians and policy makers that the compassionate use of medical marijuana should not be blocked by outdated marijuana laws."
Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the devastating effects marijuana use has on millions of people causes him to remain opposed to any changes in policy that diminish public perception of marijuana or that enable easier access to its recreational use.
"I recognize, however, that the drug may have some beneficial medicinal benefits," Duke told Baptist Press. "For example, it's possible that it may be useful for people suffering from glaucoma and for those who need an appetite stimulant.
"If responsible, rigorous research by qualified scientists can demonstrate that the active ingredient in marijuana has useful medical benefits that cannot be achieved through other less dangerous sources, then I would not be opposed to its application in those situations, so long as they are administered under close medical supervision," Duke said.
"However, I am opposed to any effort to declassify marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance in order to make this determination. Schedule I classification does not prevent research on marijuana's potential medicinal benefits. Until the drug is proven to have real, unique medicinal value, it must remain classified as the dangerous drug that it is," he said.
In its report to the House of Delegates in Houston, the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health wrote, "Results of short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis.
"However, the patchwork of state-based systems that have been established for 'medical marijuana' is woefully inadequate in establishing even rudimentary safeguards that normally would be applied to the appropriate clinical use of psychoactive substances.
"The future of cannabinoid-based medicine lies in the rapidly evolving field of botanical drug substance development, as well as the design of molecules that target various aspects of the endocannabinoid system. To the extent that rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule I will benefit this effort, such a move can be supported," the report said.
The AMA took a stance on two other controversial issues, passing a resolution opposing the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and another resolution arguing that bans on "gay marriage" negatively impact the health of homosexual partners.
The resolution on the military policy says it violates the confidentiality of military doctors and patients, the Houston Chronicle reported. The "gay marriage" resolution said bans reduce the likelihood that same-sex partners will have health insurance. Some critics of the AMA's actions said the problems cited could be fixed without reversing military policy or overturning marriage laws.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.
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