Medical experts urge marijuana research

By Joel Kirkland

    WASHINGTON -- Cutting through some of the scientific and political smoke, a panel of medical experts recommended Friday that scientists test evidence that using marijuana can reduce suffering in AIDS cases and other illnesses.

    In the report issued by the National Institutes of Health, a nine-member group of private physicians and nurses said that although there is preliminary evidence that smoking marijuana has substantial therapeutic effects, more and better scientific studies are needed.

    "It was difficult to compare marijuana with products that had received regulatory approval under more rigorous experimental conditions," the experts concluded.

    In response, NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus said the institute is open to competitive funding applications for scientific studies of marijuana.  The NIH has rarely funded comprehensive studies of the therapeutic uses of marijuana.

    In recent months the issue of medicinal marijuana has ignited political sparks.

    Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld is entangled in a fight with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) over Weld's nomination as ambassador to Mexico.  Helms' major criticism is Weld's support of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, which Helms said makes Weld unqualified to pursue anti-drug efforts with Mexico.

    The Clinton administration became embroiled in the issue of legalized marijuana when a federal judge in April barred the administration from taking action to punish doctors in California who recommend marijuana to patients.  Voters in California and Arizona legalized medical marijuana use in November.

    Smoked marijuana is known as an effective appetite stimulant for people with AIDS and cancer patients with nausea.   Also, marijuana has relieved symptoms for patients with glaucoma, neurological and severe pain disorders, spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.

    "We tried to look at it as any other drug -- what do we know about the risks, side-effects, benefits, and what we don't know; to answer questions about marijuana," said committee chairman Dr. William Beaver of Georgetown University School of Medicine.

    In the report, Beaver said marijuana is "promising enough" to recommend new controlled studies.

    Aside from legalization issues, major arguments against prescribing long-term use of smoked marijuana is its potential damage to human lungs and the immune system.

    The panel said researchers need to develop an inhalant system that could deliver purer forms of marijuana's active therapeutic ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) without the harmful combustion compounds found in smoke.  An inhalant also would improve the reliability of controlled marijuana experiments.

    Though THC is legal in a capsule form known as Dronabinol, doctors say the benefit of inhaling the cannabis leaf's THC chemicals is that it acts almost immediately after being absorbed in the lungs.

    Panelist Dr. Paul Palmberg, an ophthalmologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine, said one of his glaucoma patients is among only eight U.S. patients supplied marijuana by the government.

    Since studies by the NIH, along with the Food and Drug Administration, are instrumental in approving new drugs for the U.S. market, the study eventually could lead to a policy shift.

    Currently, the administration opposes medical marijuana use.  "We have not been in favor of any form of medicinal use.   We think that sends the wrong message," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.  "But at the same time, we have acknowledged that it should be explored as a question of science."

    Some critics fear the study is the beginning of a movement to legalize marijuana.

    Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project, a group favoring medical use of the drug, said the government is moving too slowly.  "If we wait for enough research to satisfy rigid FDA requirements ..., thousands of patients will be arrested and sent to prison in the meantime," he said.

Chicago Tribune
Saturday, Aug. 9, 1997, Sec. 1, Pg. 3.