More MS news articles for December 2000

Cannabis research: a story of highs and lows

http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4107366,00.html

Lee Elliot Major
Guardian Unlimited

Monday December 18, 2000

The scientific case for decriminalising cannabis for medicinal use remains inconclusive. Research hitting the headlines during December has highlighted the downs as well as highs of taking marijuana.

A serious blow came when researchers at New Zealand's Asthma and Respiratory Foundation scotched claims that the drug is less harmful than tobacco. The Otago University academics found that smoking cannabis five times a week does as much lung damage as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. The project concluded that smoking cannabis "caused disease, phlegm and coughing fits" - after scrutinising the lungs of 943 people aged 21.

But then clinical trials at an East Anglian hospital brought fresh hope for the campaign to legalise the drug which was recommended for the treatment of constipation, gout, malaria, rheumatism and menstrual problems by the Chinese as long ago as 2800 BC. Ten out of 13 multiple sclerosis sufferers reported significant relief from pain, in a small-scale trial at the James Paget Hospital , in Norfolk.

More highs were to come. Aberdeen University scientists announced they had developed a new method for making cannabis soluble for the first time. The technique could mean that cannabis is one day delivered in sprays, aerosols or injections, consigning the need for rizzlas and tobacco to the ashtry of history.

But before the government could start caving in to the demands to legalise the medicinal use of cannabis, the issue became distinctly hazy again. Marijuana, new research suggested, could become an oral contraceptive for the future. US researchers discovered that consuming marijuana can make sperm sluggish, reducing the chances of having children. (For those trying for babies the research also suggested a good reason for only smoking after, and definitely not before, having sex.)

The scientists from University Buffalo , New York State, identified chemicals in the drug which can overload an important signalling system in the brain involved in fertility. When consumed by men or women, marijuana can reduce the chances of sperm breaking through the surface of an egg and hinder the development of a newly-fertilised embryo.

Steering ability of another kind is also impaired by smoking cannabis, according to research at the UK Transport Research Laboratory . The drug makes people drive badly - but less so than alcohol or fatigue, the experiment found. Volunteers drove more slowly and cautiously while under the influence of cannabis, but their steering ability was badly affected. And volunteers found it particularly difficult to follow a figure-of-eight loop road when given a high dose.

But whatever the hazards of the drug, those using cannabis for medicinal purposes at least appear to have won the popular vote. An ICM poll carried out for the Guardian revealed that 71% of people supported the proposition that the Metropolitan Police should be persuaded to take no action against the medicinal use of cannabis. Only 48% supported this in April 2000