More MS news articles for Feb 2002

Examining medical value of marijuana

California studies will try to determine reputed benefits

Monday, February 18, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Researchers next month will begin the first study since the 1980s of the reputed medical benefits of marijuana, signaling that the long debate over the drug's merits could be settled in hospitals and labs rather than in courts and Congress.

Scientists at the University of California's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research will conduct tests to determine whether smoking marijuana -- dubbed "medipot" -- can help HIV-infected patients and those with multiple sclerosis by easing pain or treating nausea.

The center is funding the experiments as part of a three-year, $9 million program set up by the California Legislature. The researchers are based at UC-San Diego and UC-San Francisco.

The federal government, which approved the clinical trials, is providing the marijuana cigarettes. The National Institute of Drug Abuse controls the only legal source of marijuana in the United States, grown at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.

According to some marijuana advocates, the California study reflects a new awareness within federal circles that research may provide answers at a time when eight states have legalized medical marijuana, even though federal law continues to make it a crime to buy and possess the drug.

A March 2001 Pew Research Center poll showed that 73 percent of Americans believe that physicians should be able to prescribe marijuana.

The liberalization of marijuana laws in some states and research done in England and Canada have put pressure on agencies such as the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration to approve more research, said Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

For years, some researchers and marijuana advocates have accused the federal government of refusing to fund medical marijuana studies for purely political, non-scientific reasons.

Federal officials disagree and argue that their approval of the California studies was consistent with past policy.

"The question of whether marijuana has any legitimate medical purpose should be determined by sound science and medicine," DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson said in November, noting that past studies have shown no medical benefit from smoking the drug.

But researchers say the federal government's approval of the new trials is a significant departure from the past stance of regulators who have rejected research proposals since the mid-1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, state health departments ran studies to explore marijuana's effects as an anti-nausea drug on more than 1,000 patients. But the programs all ended in the mid-1980s, when the "Just Say No" mantra of the Reagan administration dominated American drug policy.

Dr. Donald Abrams, an AIDS researcher at UC-San Francisco, who will conduct a study of marijuana's effects on HIV-infected patients, said the federal government was interested solely in research on the harmful effects of marijuana over the last 15 years.

The university trials will be the first to specifically study whether there are medical benefits from the drug, he said.

"There's somebody paying to do them now," Abrams said of the new studies. "If it wasn't for the state of California, I'm not so sure we'd be any further along."

The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC-San Diego was created by the state as part of an effort to set guidelines following the 1996 voter-approved medical marijuana law, which exempts California patients from state drug laws regulating possession or cultivation of marijuana.

Its first three studies will test whether smoked marijuana is able to treat muscle spasms, loss of function and related pain in MS patients and alleviate neuropathy, a severe nerve pain common among HIV-infected patients. Another sub-study will explore the effects of repeated marijuana use on patients' driving skills.

Seven other proposals from the California center are in the pipeline for federal approval. The results of the new studies will not be known for at least two years.

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