Pubdate: Mon, 21 May 2001
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2001 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Susan Taylor Martin
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


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

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

"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 generally
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

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

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

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."
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