Source: High Times Pubdate: March, 1998, No. 271 Author: Paul Armentano, NORML Director of Publications Contact: Website: http://www.hightimes.com/ Editors note: You may email the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) at - check out their sharp updated website at: http://www.norml.org/ FEDS STONEWALL MEDICAL-MARIJUANA STUDY - UNTIL IT SWITCHES FOCUS TO 'RISK FACTORS' Last August, amidst fanfare generated by a National Institutes of Health report endorsing medical-marijuana research, NIH Director Dr. Harold Varmus announced that the agency "is open to receiving research grant applications for studies of the medical efficacy of marijuana," adding, rather disingenuously: "We want to make clear what has always been the case." Dr. Donald Abrams, a noted AIDS researcher and professor at the School of Medicine of the University of California at San Francisco, might beg to differ. In 1992, Dr. Abrams designed a pilot study that would have compared the effectiveness of inhaled marijuana with that of synthetic THC as a treatment for the weight loss associated with AIDS "wasting syndrome." He quickly secured private funding for it, and also gained approval from the Scientific Advisory Board of the San Francisco Community Consortium, the California Research Advisory Panel and the federal Food and Drug Administration to move ahead. Half a decade later, Abrams may finally be getting a severely truncated and re-directed version of his idea off the ground. "When we first embarked on this, all the medical-marijuana advocates were weaving this government-conspiracy business, and I just told them, 'God, you are so paranoid!'" Abrams told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. "But now, after butting my head on this thing for years, I'm just as paranoid and just as convinced that there are politics being played." The "politics" inherent in medical-marijuana research involve the drug's illegality. As marijuana is a Schedule I substance, research on it may only take place if approved by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - the only legal US supply source - or if an importation license is secured from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Abrams soon learned that neither agency was interested in permitting research that sought to determine whether marijuana was anything other than the "Devil's Weed." In 1994 the DEA denied Abrams' request to carry out his study using Dutch-grown marijuana, and advised him to obtain his supply from NIDA, from whom he then requested 5.7 kilograms of government-grown marijuana. After he waited nine months for a response, NIDA flatly rejected the request and attacked his methodology. Abrams later wrote NIDA head Alan Leshner, "Dealing with your institute has been the worst experience of my career." Abrams spent the next year revisiting his study's protocol to address many of NIA's concerns. His 1996 protocol called for an inpatient study at a local hospital that would have measured such details as caloric intake, weight change, energy expenditure, immune function, viral load and hormone levels. An NIH grant-giving committee denied this protocol as well. "Two of the reviewers questioned why in the world we would ever consider studying [the medical potential] of such a... substance," Abrams told the Washington Post after this rejection. One NIH reviewer had actually worried that AIDS patients using marijuana to boost their food intake might raise their cholesterol levels, putting them at long-term risk of developing hardening of the arteries. This past May, Dr. Abrams revised his protocol yet again. Rather than estimating the relative medical efficacy of marijuana and synthetic THC, the latest version will instead seek to determine whether either cannabis-derived drug may have potential harmful effects on HIV-positive patients. Specifically, the study will examine whether marijuana interferes with the effectiveness of the new protease-inhibitor drugs frequently prescribed in AIDS treatment. Abrams requested nearly $1 million to complete the 18-month study. The NIH approved his application on September 18. "Only after Abrams revised the study to limit its scope to determining if there are risk factors associated with the use of marijuana by HIV-positive humans did NIH allow the trial to go forward," observes Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the NORML Foundation. "This approved protocol is a far cry from what Abrams proposed five years ago, and demonstrates that Washington's definition of 'open to research' is far different from anyone else's." At least two additional medical-marijuana research proposals are awaiting NIDA approval. One study proposes to examine the use of marijuana in acute migraine treatment, while the other requests government-approved marijuana for distribution in a Massachusetts state research program. If Abrams' ordeal serves as any lesson, medical-marijuana proponents and researchers shouldn't hold their breath - --- For more information medical-marijuana research, please contact the NORML national office at (202) 483-5500 or Rick Doblin of MAPS at (704) 334-1798. Copyright 1998 by Trans-High Corporation. Redistributed by the Media Awareness Project, Inc. by permission of High Times and NORML.