More MS news articles for April 2001

Conference aims to explore use of medical marijuana

Minnesota considering funding research on controversial issue

Published: Saturday, April 7, 2001

Wearing a pinstripe suit and authoritative manner, George McMahon spoke Friday morning to a conference on medical uses of marijuana sponsored by Minnesota's departments of Health and Public Safety.

Then, while others sipped coffee during a break, the 50-year-old Iowa man grabbed his briefcase, walked just outside the door and lit up a joint.

The act was legal, since McMahon is one of eight people left on a discontinued federal program for compassionate use of marijuana because of medical problems. In his pocket, he keeps his government-grown marijuana in a prescription bottle with a label reading: "Smoke up to 10 marijuana cigarettes."

"If I didn't smoke the marijuana, I would not be functional," he said.

McMahon's move was a dramatic illustration of the conference's main point: that many people suffering from such illnesses as multiple sclerosis and cancer can relieve their pain and nausea by smoking marijuana.

Friday's program focused on whether the state ought to push forward with research on the medicinal value of marijuana.

"We didn't just come here today to talk about this and then forget about it," promised Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver. "Our intent is to move forward."

Gov. Jesse Ventura this week said he supports legalizing marijuana for medical use. Citing the pain relief he said his mother received through conventional medicines while dying of a respiratory disease in 1995, he said other patients should have equal access to a medicine that relieves their suffering.

On his regular Friday radio show, he blamed pharmaceutical firms and government for blocking legalization of marijuana for medical use. "If you have the ability to get a drug from a plant and you can grow it yourself, well that takes them out of the mix," Ventura said. " . . . You wouldn't have to pay a pharmaceutical company to process it, create it and do everything they do so that they make their millions, and you wouldn't have to pay tax to the government."

Last week, the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Finance Committee considered a bill to put $100,000 into research on medical uses of marijuana; it was laid over for possible inclusion in the omnibus bill. Another proposal would remove criminal penalties for sick people who use marijuana to relieve their symptoms.

A 1980 state law allows research on marijuana, but few researchers are currently involved in studies, according to Dave Holstrom of the state Board of Pharmacy. Researchers must also receive separate permits from the federal government for any clinical trials involving marijuana.

The information session was billed as an attempt to spur research by the academic community, but organizers acknowledged that few if any researchers attended the event other than one who appeared on a panel.

Instead, the audience of about 100 was made up largely of proponents of legalizing marijuana. Opponents also passed out information.

Stanley Thayer, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Minnesota who conducts basic science on the effect of some chemicals in marijuana on the brain, said the forum was not well publicized to potential researchers.

"The researchers are more interested in the science. This has a lot to do with the politics," Thayer said. He suggested that research should be focused on developing an effective way of delivering the medicine in marijuana other than smoking, which he said could never pass muster with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The audience at Friday's seminar was largely sympathetic to legalization. Advocates claim that many people with multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, glaucoma and cancer can find relief from pain, nausea, vision problems and appetite loss by using marijuana. Eight states have authorized medicinal marijuana use.

In 1988, McMahon was hospitalized for chronic pain after several surgeries and broken bones he had suffered over the years. Smoking marijuana helped him regain his appetite and ability to sleep, which McMahon says allowed him to heal, although pain and muscle spasms recur if he doesn't smoke marijuana regularly.

The opposing point of view was expressed by Jeanette McDougal, co-chairwoman of Drug Watch Minnesota, who called medicinal marijuana proposals a foot in the door for legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

This report contains information from the Associated Press and from staff writer Bill Salisbury.
Debra O'Connor can be reached at and (651) 228-5453.