Pubdate: Sat, 15 Mar 2014
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News, The (VI)
Contact:  2014 Virgin Islands Daily News
Authors: Evan Halper and Cindy Carcamo, Los AngelesTimes


WASHINGTON - The Obama administration handed backers of medical 
marijuana a significant victory Friday, opening the way for a 
University of Arizona researcher to examine whether pot can help 
veterans cope with posttraumatic stress, a move that could lead to 
broader studies into potential benefits of the drug.

For years, scientists who have wanted to study how marijuana might be 
used to treat illness say they have been stymied by resistance from 
federal drug officials.

The Arizona study had long ago been sanctioned by the Food and Drug 
Administration, but under federal rules, such experiments can use 
marijuana only from a single, governmentrun farm in Mississippi. 
Researchers say that the agency which oversees the farm, the National 
Institute on Drug Abuse, has long been hostile to proposals aimed at 
examining possible benefits of the drug.

"This is a great day," said the Arizona researcher, Suzanne A. 
Sisley, clinical assistant professor of psychology at the 
university's medical school, who has been trying to get the green 
light for her study for three years. "The merits of a rigorous 
scientific trial have finally trumped politics.

"We never relented," Sisley said. "But most other scientists have 
chosen not to even apply. The process is so onerous. With the 
implementation of this study and the data generated, this could lead 
to other crucial research projects."

Backers of medical marijuana hailed the news as an indication that 
the government had started coming to terms with one of the more 
striking paradoxes of federal drug policy: Even as about 1 million 
Americans are using marijuana legally to treat ailments, scientists 
have had difficulty getting approval to study how the drug might be 
employed more effectively.

"The political dynamics are shifting," said Rick Doblin, executive 
director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic 
Studies, or MAPS, a group based in Santa Cruz that is raising money 
to help fund studies such as Sisley's. The group counts several 
prominent philanthropists among its backers, including two Pritzkers 
and a Rockefeller.

Government officials said the approval did not represent a change in 
underlying policy, just a recognition that Sisley's proposal meets 
official standards for research using illegal drugs. The research 
still requires approval of one more agency, the Drug Enforcement 
Administration, but Sisley and Doblin expressed confidence that that 
would prove a lesser hurdle.

In its letter approving the application, a government review panel 
noted what it called "significant changes" in the study that 
justified approving it now. Doblin said the changes did not affect 
the "core design" of the study.

Federal restrictions on pot research have been a source of tension 
for years. Researchers, marijuana advocates and some members of 
Congress have accused the National Institute on Drug Abuse of 
hoarding the nation's only sanctioned research pot for studies aimed 
at highlighting the drug's ill effects. They had pointed to Sisley's 
experience as a prime example of what they called an irrational and 
disjointed federal policy.

"You have impossible burdens," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who 
has enlisted other members of Congress to lobby the administration to 
give researchers more access to the drug.

"These are not people who are going to be involved with some 
clandestine production of the drug or do something nefarious. They 
are trying to do scientific research that will add to the body of 
knowledge and safety," he said.

Blumenauer likes to recount the story of a doctor who works with 
children who have violent epileptic seizures. The children's parents 
"have found that the use of marijuana has reduced the frequency and 
intensity of these horrific episodes. But because of our stupid 
research policies, it is easier for the parent to get medical 
marijuana than for a researcher," he said.

Scientists say more research could help determine more precisely 
which ailments the drug can treat and could eventually lead to 
regulation by the FDA as a prescription drug. That would allow 
patients to know what they are consuming. Currently, users of medical 
marijuana often have little information about the potency and purity 
of the pot they buy. Physicians who prescribe the drug do so on the 
basis of evidence that is largely anecdotal.

At the core of the debate is an issue that has implications for 
research and the movement to legalize marijuana for recreational use, 
as Colorado andWashington have done. Currently, federal law 
classifies pot as more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine. As 
a "Schedule 1" drug, marijuana is designated as having "no currently 
accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," as well as 
being a drug that puts users at risk of "severe psychological or 
physical dependence."

Researchers say that classification needs to change for science to 
proceed uninhibited. Making the change, though, would be a retreat in 
the war on drugs. The Obama administration could reschedule the drug 
without congressional action, but has shown no inclination to wade 
into that fight.

Before Friday's decision, over a 10-year period, the government had 
approved just one U.S. research center to conduct clinical trials 
involving marijuana use for medical purposes - a University of 
California, San Diego facility created by the California Legislature.

The scientist who runs that center, Igor Grant, said his success in 
getting Washington's sign-off was due in large part to something 
other scientists do not have: the full force of the state. Blocking 
his work would have been a direct affront to lawmakers in Sacramento, he noted.

Grant's studies looked at such questions as whether pot could help 
ease the nausea and vomiting associated with cancer treatment or the 
severe appetite suppression experienced by those with HIV, which causes AIDS.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom