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Medical study a score for marijuana

A federal study concludes that marijuana's active ingredients have potential value in treating Americans with cancer and AIDS.

Thursday, March 18, 1999

By Judy Packer-Tursman, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Marijuana is often less helpful for relieving symptoms of debilitating illnesses than drugs already on the market, but its active ingredients do have potential value as medicine to treat thousands of Americans with cancer and AIDS who are suffering from pain, uncontrolled nausea and vomiting or loss of appetite.

    Related link:

Web site of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, including full text of the report and audio of yesterday's press


That's the conclusion of an advisory panel from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, which the White House commissioned two years ago to review the scientific benefits and risks of medical marijuana.

In releasing the panel's lengthy report yesterday, John A. Benson Jr., dean and professor of medicine emeritus at Oregon Health Sciences University School of Medicine in Portland, Ore., who helped lead the review, said: "Some have dismissed medical marijuana as a hoax, ... [while] others claim it is a uniquely soothing medicine that has been withheld from patients through regulations based on false claims."

He said both sides have claimed scientific evidence to support their views, but often the evidence simply isn't there.

Federal officials said "at least $600,000" of the National Institutes of Health's $9 billion budget for grants this year was going toward medical marijuana research.

They noted that getting NIH funding is a highly competitive process.

Benson urged the federal government to support more research into the therapeutic value of marijuana, noting, for example, that the panel found no compelling evidence that marijuana should be used to treat glaucoma, migraines or movement disorders, such as Parkinson's disease - but mainly because appropriate studies have not yet been conducted, not because data conclusively show that marijuana fails to work.

Although Benson and co-principal investigator Stanley J. Watson Jr., a research scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told the news conference that their job was to look at the science and not delve into policy issues, they said the panel didn't find that smoking marijuana causes people to use "harder" illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

Nor did it conclude that approving marijuana's medical use would increase its use among the general population.

After spending 11/2 years looking into the matter with the assistance of more than 35 leading scientists in the field, Benson said the institute's findings "reflect the promise" of new scientific research into medical marijuana.

But he repeatedly cautioned that marijuana's potential as a medicine is limited by the harmful effects of smoking the drug.

He said that until researchers find other effective ways for marijuana's rapid delivery, such as inhalers, the panel recommends that only terminally ill patients or people with debilitating symptoms that don't respond to approved medications use marijuana, and then perhaps only for as long as six months.

He added that patients for whom marijuana is prescribed should be enrolled in closely supervised clinical trials.

White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey commissioned the $896,000 study after voters in Arizona and California approved ballot initiatives supporting medical marijuana.

He stated at the time that there was "not a shred of scientific evidence that shows smoked marijuana is useful or needed."

Voters in Alaska, Nevada, Oregon and Washington has since followed Arizona and California's lead.

Yesterday, McCaffrey downplayed the IOM study, saying it "shows there is little future in smoked marijuana" as an approved medication.

He said the Clinton administration would continue to rely on the judgments of top federal health officials on all issues related to marijuana's medical value.

But spokesman Scott Ehlers of the Drug Policy Foundation - whose board chairman is Ira Glasser of the American Civil Liberties Union and whose executive committee includes former Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders - said the IOM study "bolsters our argument that marijuana is useful for a variety of ailments. ... It backs up what patients have been saying all along - that marijuana is useful and it helps them."

Ehlers said the institute came out with a similar report on marijuana's therapeutic value in 1982, "and that report was ignored. ...

The government is not looking into marijuana's use as a medicine, and they're actively rejecting studies."

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