Published Monday, April 10, 2000
Jill Burcum / Star Tribune
IOWA CITY, IOWA -- George McMahon, a northwestern Iowa man who is one of eight people allowed by the federal government to smoke marijuana for medical reasons, has crisscrossed the country for years urging government leaders to grant other patients the same right.
At times, it's been a lonely crusade. McMahon, who helped found the advocacy group Patients Out of Time, has been stopped by police and confronted in his hometown by those who think he has simply hoodwinked the government into legalizing his drug habit.
But to borrow a phrase from a famous song that became an anthem for the first generation to make pot use widespread, McMahon thinks the times they are a-changin'.
At the nation's first-ever medical conference on the therapeutic use of marijuana, held at the University of Iowa this past weekend, McMahon and other activists were joined in their cause by a group that some might find surprising -- doctors, scientists and health-care providers from some of the nation's top medical centers.
Nearly all who presented at the conference were as vocal and adamant as McMahon in calling for more research into the plant's potential medical benefits and the removal of the stigma associated with its use.
"This is such a milestone," said McMahon, who smokes about 10 joints a day for the pain from a rare, genetic condition. "This has been my dream for years. We still have a long way to go, but this is really going to help because it shows that this is not about drugs and drug abuse but about helping patients."
The conference, sponsored by McMahon's group and the University of Iowa's Medical School and College of Nursing, attracted about 150 people to the school's Iowa City campus. Hundreds of others attended across the nation via satellite link-up at other colleges and medical centers, according to Melanie Dreher, one of the event's organizers and the dean of the University of Iowa's College of Nursing.
"We are united in a single issue -- how to get marijuana for the patients who need it," Dreher said. She, along with other presenters, estimated that thousands of people use marijuana in the United States for medical reasons.
"We need to give people what they need to translate it into practice," she said. "We can't just keep looking the other way."
While this may have been the first medical conference focusing on marijuana, it was by no means the first or strongest show of support for the plant's potential place in medical treatment. Medical studies suggesting possible therapeutic uses for it have existed for 20 to 30 years. And in recent years, in particular, support for research involving the plant appears to have gathered momentum among scientists and the public.
Perhaps the most impressive vote of confidence from the scientific community came in March 1999. Scientists from the prestigious Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academies of Science, reviewed existing studies involving the plant. Then they issued a report that called for more research of the plant's uses and suggested that it may have some value in treating the nausea of cancer patients, and people with multiple sclerosis.
In February, a study in Nature, one of the world's top scientific journals, suggested that compounds in marijuana could help patients with multiple sclerosis.
The issue has also gathered political and public support recently as well. In the past year, the Clinton administration has called for relaxing restrictions on marijuana research in the United States. Voters in several states, including Alaska and Washington, have approved measures that offer a legal shield to those who use it for medical reasons.
"The public has always been way ahead of the politicians," said Dr. Denis Petro, a Virginia neurologist who has published several studies suggesting that marijuana may help multiple sclerosis patients.
The conference offers an opportunity to continue this momentum, numerous attendees said.
"We're hoping that all of this opens a new era for [marijuana-based] drugs," said David Hadorn of G.W. Pharmaceuticals, which hopes to begin research studies of drugs containing marijuana compounds in the United States this year. "I think the world is starting to realize that this is a real potent medicine with real broad-based applicability."
Despite the scientific approach taken by the conference, it did demonstrate that marijuana, as with politics, makes for some strange bedfellows. The conference attracted a fair number of those who resembled the stereotypes of recreational drug users as well as those with legitimate scientific interests in the marijuana plant. People wearing 'Got hemp?' T-shirts or shirts emblazoned with the plant's well-known leaves were sprinkled throughout the blue-suited crowd of physicians and pharmaceutical company types.
"This is a different crowd," said Dr. Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a professor of neurology at the University of South Florida.
Other physicians also said they were somewhat taken aback by the crowd that was unusual by medical conference standards. Still, they said, the information was so desperately needed, that it didn't matter.
Dr. Patricia Connell, director of a northeastern Iowa hospice program, was one of them. After seeing some patients in her program die slow, painful deaths after traditional medications couldn't help them, Connell said she knows first-hand of the need to learn and discuss the latest information about the option of using marijuana. She said it's something that increasingly discussed, though not in the open, by many health care providers, particularly in her field.
Medicine, she said, needs to explore more options for patients that can't be helped by traditional medicines.
"All you need to do is see one patient die an agonizing death to make
you want to know why there wasn't something else that could have been used,"
Connell said. "If this is something that could help, then we need to be
talking about it."