More MS news articles for May 2001

A shift in policy on marijuana research

The modest change is reflected in government support for studies into whether the drug could have a medical effect.

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2001

In a field near the University of Mississippi, marijuana grows big and bushy under the hot southern sun.

But these crops aren't planted on the sly by college kids or farmers seeking a lucrative, though illicit, second income. Instead, they're being raised by scientists under contract to the U.S. government.

Despite last week's Supreme Court ruling that federal law does not permit even the medical use of marijuana, the government quietly has begun to back research into whether the nation's most popular illegal drug could help patients with AIDS, cancer and other diseases.

"It's only after half a dozen states passed medical marijuana laws in the last few years that the government was sufficiently embarrassed to open the door just a crack to allow a few studies to go forward," says Dan Abrahamson, the San Francisco-based director of legal affairs for the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation.

Federal support for research into medical marijuana reflects a significant if modest shift in the official stance toward marijuana, even as President Bush and his nominee for drug czar continue to take a hard public line against all illegal drugs.

Although marijuana has been grown for scientific purposes in Mississippi for two decades, availability used to be limited to researchers studying the drug's effects on behavior and reasoning. Only recently has the government agreed to give marijuana to researchers looking into its medical effects.

The change was prompted in part by a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, a federal advisory panel, that found enough evidence of marijuana's benefits to warrant further research.

"Controversies concerning the nonmedical use of marijuana spill over into the medical marijuana debate and obscure the real state of scientific knowledge," the report said.

The study noted that marijuana is not a "completely benign substance" but rather "a powerful drug with a variety of effects." When smoked, marijuana can increase the risk of cancer, lung damage and pregnancy complications.

"However," the report continued, "except for the harm associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications."

Marijuana is derived from the cannabis sativa plant, which contains about 60 chemicals known as "cannabinoids." These are thought to have some therapeutic value in relieving pain, controlling nausea and stimulating appetite, making them potentially useful in the treatment of such diseases as AIDS and cancer.

"The effects of cannabinoids on the symptoms studied are generaly modest; and in most cases there are more effective medications," the 1999 report said. "However, people vary in their responses to medications, and there likely always will be a subpopulation of patients who do not respond well to other medications."

The federal government's supply of marijuana is grown under tightly controlled conditions in Oxford, Miss. After harvesting, it is sent to the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, where it is made into marijuana cigarettes and distributed nationwide to researchers who meet the government's tough criteria.

Much of the investigation into marijuana's therapeutic effects is taking place in California, where the University of California last year established the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. The center has recommended funding for studies that would use marijuana cigarettes from the federal source to test the following:

The effect of marijuana on relieving nerve pain associated with HIV infection.

The efficacy and safety of smoked marijuana for the treatment of pain, muscle spasms and loss of function in patients with multiple sclerosis.

The effect of repeated treatment with medical marijuana on the ability to operate a motor vehicle. Patients with HIV-related nerve disorders or spasticity associated with M.S. would be evaluated using driving simulators.

One nearly completed study at the University of California has found some modest weight gain in HIV-infected patients, although it has shown no reduction in HIV levels themselves. And in a separate study, the San Mateo County Health Department is awaiting its first shipment of cigarettes for research into whether smoking marijuana can help HIV and AIDS patients suffering from a disorder that causes numbness and pain.

The U.S. government also has a request from Canada for marijuana cigarettes to use until that country can develop its own source of research-grade marijuana.

In December, the Canadian government awarded a five-year, $3.8-million contract to a private company to grow marijuana in a former copper and zinc mine in northern Manitoba. The first crop is due to be planted next month and ready for shipment by year's end.

Last month, Canadian Health Minister Alan Rock also unveiled proposed regulations that would make it easier for individuals to obtain marijuana for medical use.

Canadian doctors already are allowed to help patients apply for an exemption to the country's drug control laws. About 250 Canadians have such exemptions, which permit them to grow and possess government-set amounts of marijuana for their own use subject to review every six months.

The new plan would increase the review period to a year, let doctors determine the needed amount of marijuana and permit designated individuals to help patients raise the plants.

"Canada is acting compassionately by allowing people who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses to have access to marijuana for medical purposes," Rock said in announcing the proposed changes, due to take effect by July 31.

Last week's Supreme Court ruling will have no direct effect on medical marijuana laws in California, Arizona, Colorado and six other states. Patients still could use marijuana for medical reasons in states that allow it, legal experts said. But it would be more difficult to obtain because distribution violates federal law.

Opponents charge that making marijuana available for medical use is a de facto step toward legalizing the drug. They also say it would aggravate the nation's substance abuse problem, especially among young people.

However, the 1999 Institute of Medicine report, done by some of the country's top scientists, found no evidence that sanctioning the medical use of marijuana would either increase the drug's use by the general population or lead to use of harder drugs like heroin and cocaine.

"Because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use," the report said, "marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, 'gateway' to illicit drug use."

- Susan Martin can be contacted at