More MS news articles for April 2001

Scientists study medical applications of marijuana

Updated 12:00 PM ET April 18, 2001
By Dharshani Dharmawardena & Hemesh Patel
Daily Bruin
U. California-Los Angeles

(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES -- In the winter of 1983 a chance encounter with a tree changed Scott Imler's life forever. While skiing, the teen-aged Imler, co-founder of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Cooperative, ran into the tree and split his head open.

Because of the severity of the injury, Imler developed epilepsy, a condition characterized by seizures and pain.

To ease his suffering, he needed to take specific drugs like Valium, medicines known as barbiturates or downers that had serious side effects.

"They kill your blood cells and cause liver damage," Imler said. "If you take them in large doses, you can't do anything."

Discouraged with the drugs' side effects, Imler then turned to marijuana for medicinal use. Currently he takes three to four "puffs" a day for pain relief.

Because extensive clinical trials have not been completed, scientists must rely on anecdotal situations such as Imler's and research trials on animals to understand the relevancy of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

But use of marijuana is not without negative effects.

"We don't know if the benefits outweigh the (costs)," Tashkin said.

The psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which, is a compound that plays a role in physiological processes such as memory, mood and appetite, according to Professor of Medicine Donald Tashkin.

"There are a number of potential therapeutic uses of cannabinoids," he said. "The scientific basis for medical applications of cannabinoids comes from animal studies."

Tashkin said animal trials have shown that THC reduces pain and could lessen muscle spasms, symptoms of both multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

Because of such results, many patients suffering from terminal illnesses, such as certain types of cancer and AIDS, have turned to marijuana for relief.

Recent research conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that compounds in the drug increase appetite.

AIDS and cancer patients often experience a lack of appetite because of the medicines they take. The substances in marijuana may be a factor in stimulating a craving for food for some of these patients.

For Imler, the benefits not only include alleviation of seizures, but also a new lease on life.

"I don't sit in front of the TV anymore," he said. "The effects of the (other) drugs can be debilitating."

Despite the positive side of using marijuana for medicinal use, Tashkin pointed out the serious health risks associated with continued use of the drug.

He said previous research at UCLA has shown that smoking marijuana is a significant risk for head and neck cancer in young patients.

Other negative effects include abnormalities in the airways of habitual marijuana smokers.

Researchers believe that THC suppresses the functions of macrophages in the lungs, which defend against infections, and may lead to cancerous growths, according to Tashkin.

Imler said most users of medicinal marijuana smoke the drug, which is one of the major negative effects of using the substance. But it is the act of smoking that gives immediate relief.

At the same time, patients also have the option of ingesting THC in pill form.

"Any physician can order that," Tashkin said. "But the disadvantage is a delay in the onset of THC."

According to Imler, physicians can only give a recommendation for marijuana, not a prescription. At LACRC, members grow their own plants for patients with such recommendations.

Michele Pearson, Director of Ancillary Services at the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center said the pharmacy at the center does not dispense marijuana for medicinal use.

She said because the center provides services paid for by student fees, it has to cater to the needs of most students, and the majority of UCLA students don't come to the center for severe medical issues like cancer or AIDS.

According to Pearson, if patients are so ill that they need the pain relief provided by such drugs as marijuana, they would most likely be unable to maintain an active campus life.

"We don't see those kinds of patients here, and if they do, we refer them out," she said.

(C) 2001 Daily Bruin via U-WIRE