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NORML Special News Bulletin

Contacts: Allen St. Pierre; Paul Armentano, (202) 483-8751

Politics, Science Clash In IOM Medical Marijuana Report Committee Praises Therapeutic Value Of Marijuana, But Offers "No Clear Alternative For People Suffering From Chronic Conditions ... Relieved By Smoking Marijuana"

        March 16, 1999: Washington, D.C.:   Marijuana constituents, known as cannabinoids, hold value as medicines to treat a number of serious ailments, but should not be used by most patients until a non-smoked, rapid onset delivery system becomes available, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Institute of Medicine report concluded.

        Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of The NORML Foundation, dubbed the report a "political, rather than a scientific" document.

        "This report ignores the testimony of hundreds of patients who gave first hand accounts before the IOM in praise of marijuana's medical value, and holds marijuana to a higher scientific standard than that applied to other medications or required by law," he said.  St. Pierre noted that the IOM researchers recommended some patients engage in the short term use of smoked marijuana only after their use of all other conventional medications has failed.  The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act does not require a drug to demonstrate "superiority" over all existing medicines before receiving federal approval, and no such hurdle exists for any other drug.

        Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School and a peer reviewer of the IOM report, called the document a "compromise."

        "This report tries to find a middle ground between the political exigencies of an Administration that wants to deny marijuana's medical value, and the reality that a growing body of the American public are using it successfully as a medicine," he said.  Grinspoon called the report "tepid" in its support for the use of inhaled marijuana, and said that researchers diminished the importance of "mountains" of anecdotal evidence demonstrating marijuana's medical benefit in the treatment of movement disorders like Multiple Sclerosis and several other serious ailments.

        Grinspoon also criticized the report for omitting any discussion of marijuana vaporizers as an alternative delivery device for cannabinoids.  He said that such devices already exist and deliver marijuana's therapeutic compounds safely to human patients while eliminating other unnecessary carcinogenic constituents.

        The IOM report, commissioned two years ago by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), follows a 1982 report by the agency that determined, "Cannabis and its derivatives have shown promise in the treatment of a variety of disorders, [including] glaucoma, ... asthma, ... and in the nausea and vomiting of cancer chemotherapy."

        The new report praises the medical value of compounds found in marijuana such as THC and cannabidiol (CBD).  "The accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation," it states.  The evidence "suggests that cannabinoids would be moderately well suited for certain conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting."

        However, the report fails to recommend most patients seek medical relief from whole smoked marijuana, despite its admission that "there are patients with debilitating symptoms for whom smoked marijuana might provide relief." Instead, researchers argue that, "There is no clear alternative for people suffering from chronic conditions that might be relieved by smoking marijuana, such as pain or AIDS wasting."

        St. Pierre criticized that assertion.   "It is nothing less than an act of political cowardliness for the IOM to admit that inhaled marijuana benefits some patients, while at the same time recommending to those patients that their only alternative is to suffer," he said.   "Clearly, the time has come for this Administration to amend federal law to allow seriously ill patients immediate legal access to medical marijuana."

        The IOM report did dismiss allegations that marijuana is causally linked to the subsequent use of other illicit drugs, that the drug has a high potential for addiction, or that it holds short term immunosuppressive effects.   The researchers also concluded that "the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range tolerated for other medications.