10 US Surgeons General and Their Views on Medical Marijuana

Responses to our question, "Should marijuana be a medical option?"


The first Surgeon General of the United States was appointed and confirmed in 1871 (then called Supervising Surgeon). According to surgeongeneral.gov, the duties of the Surgeon General are to "protect and advance the health of the Nation through educating the public, advocating for effective disease prevention and health promotion programs and activities..." and to "articulate scientifically based policy analysis and advice to the President and Secretary of Health and Human Services."

Surgeons General are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Several "acting" Surgeons General (who do not require a Senate confirmation) have been assigned the position when an official Surgeon General resigned or the Senate stalled confirmation of a Surgeon General candidate. The chart below only includes official Surgeons General who were confirmed by the Senate.
Should marijuana be a medical option?
Pro Con
3 1
Not Clearly Pro or Con No Position Found
5 1

2017-Present Jerome Adams (appointed by President Donald Trump)
Not Clearly Pro or Con
"Under medical marijuana, I believe it should be like any other drug. We need to let the FDA vet it, study it, vet it. The FDA has actually approved cannabidiol oil and some derivatives of marijuana, Marijuana is not one substance. It's actually over 100 different substances, some of which benefit, some of which are harmful…

[W]hile I want to make sure we can get the ingredients of medical marijuana appropriately derived so that folks can access treatment, I also have concerns about us encouraging folks to go out and smoke because there's unintended consequences.

I don't want 10 years down the road where we're seeing an epidemic of lung cancer among folks who are smoking medical marijuana."
Scott L. Miley, "U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams Supports Studying Medical Marijuana," newsandtribune.com, Dec. 1, 2017

2014-2017 Vivek Murthy (appointed by President Barack Obama)
Not Clearly Pro or Con
"My position is that we have to see what the science tells us about the efficacy of marijuana and I think we're going to get a lot more data on that. We have some preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful. So I think we have to use that data to drive policymaking, and I'm very interested to see where that data takes us."
"New Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy: Measles Vaccine Is Safe and Effective," CBS News, Feb. 4, 2015

2009-2013 Regina M. Benjamin (appointed by President Barack Obama)
Not Clearly Pro or Con
"There's evidence that shows that it's useful for medicine, but we need to investigate how to avoid the adverse effects of smoking marijuana."
Deborah Solomon, "Doctor's Orders," www.nytimes.com, Jan. 7, 2011

2002-2006 Richard H. Carmona (appointed by President George W. Bush)
Not Clearly Pro or Con
"Medical use of marijuana, as a drug, is allowed in many states but still remains federally illegal except for special approved uses… Although there is evidence that some components of marijuana may have medicinal value, the FDA has not put marijuana through the appropriate scientific testing and due diligence to ensure it can be safely and effectively used as a drug and not cause harm to the user.

This is the standard and the law for all new drugs attempting to reach the market in the U.S., but this rigorous approval process has not been applied to marijuana and therefore the public could be at risk."
Richard Carmona, "Clearing the Air about Marijuana,” medium.com, Nov. 4, 2016
[Editor's Note: Dr. Carmona also made the following statement in a June 19, 2005 New York Times article titled "Health-Conscious," by Deborah Solomon, available at www.nytimes.com: "I cannot recommend to anyone that they smoke, first of all. Smoking is so bad for you. I can't say it would be safe to eat it, because no one has studied the long- or short-term gastrointestinal effects."]

2002-2006 David Satcher (appointed by President Bill Clinton)
Now Pro
"I think obviously physicians make decisions based on their relationship with a patient. Do I believe that medical marijuana should be available in that equation? I do, yes. I'm not convinced that there's any evidence that marijuana is any more harmful, maybe not as harmful, as alcohol and tobacco. I'm not pushing marijuana, I'm just saying … physicians ought to be able to make decisions about the use of medical marijuana. I'm not advocating for any new drug on the street."
Patti Singer, "Former Surgeon General on Guns, Drugs, Money for Zika,” democratandchronicle.com, Sep. 12, 2016
[Editor's Note: Prior to Dr. Satcher's Pro position above, he made the following Con statement in a Jan. 17, 2001 Letter to the DEA: "In response to your request dated December 17, 1997, and pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)... the Department of Health and Human Services recommends that marijuana continue to be subject to control under Schedule I... As discussed in the attached analysis, marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision."]

1993-1994 M. Joycelyn Elders (appointed by President Bill Clinton)
Pro
"The evidence is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS -- or by the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat them. And it can do so with remarkable safety. Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day."
"Myths about Medical Marijuana," Providence Journal, Mar. 26, 2004

1990-1993 Antonia C. Novello (appointed by President George H.W. Bush)
No Position Found
No position found as of Mar. 7, 2018.

1982-1989 C. Everett Koop (appointed by President Ronald Reagan)
Con
"Based on scientific evidence published to date, it is the opinion of the Department of Health and Human Services that marijuana has a broad range of psychological and biological effects, many of which are dangerous and harmful to health…

Marijuana is not a benign drug. As Surgeon General, I urge other physicians and professionals to advise parents and patients about the harmful effects of using marijuana and to urge discontinuation of its use."
"Surgeon General’s Advisory on Marijuana" (draft version), profiles.nlm.nih.gov, 1982
[Editor's Note: In addition Dr. Koop’s above Constatement, he later opposed a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana in California, stating in a Nov. 4, 1996 Letter to the Editor, published at sfgate.com: "Proposition 215 seeks to legalize marijuana for terminally ill patients. No physician, including myself, is opposed to compassionate care in end-of-life circumstances. But Prop. 215 goes far beyond that limited goal and could allow unlicensed physicians to offer marijuana for even minor health complaints in prisons and in the workplace. I urge you to join me and the California Medical Association in opposing Prop. 215."]

1977-1981 Julius B. Richmond (appointed by President Jimmy Carter)
Not Clearly Pro or Con
"Surgeon General Julius B. Richmond announced Wednesday the government has approved plans allowing 4,000 cancer specialists to prescribe synthetic marijuana pills to control nausea and vomiting for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol pills [later formulated into the pharmaceutical drug Marinol (dronabinol)] will be distributed by the National Cancer Institute through hospital pharmacies, and cancer specialists with federal drug clearances will be allowed to write prescriptions for them, Richmond said. The capsules contain a synthetic form of THC, which is found naturally in marijuana. Richmond said the Food and Drug Administration will continue to regard THC as an investigational or experimental drug."
San Bernardino County Sun, Sep. 11, 1980

1969-1973 Jesse L. Steinfeld (appointed by President Richard Nixon)
Pro
"It [marijuana] should be an option for patients who have it recommended by knowledgeable physicians. I don't recommend it for recreational use."
July 2003, as quoted in the Marijuana Policy Project's (MPP) "Medical Marijuana Endorsements and Statements of Support," available on www.mpp.org (accessed Jan. 27, 2009)