Medical Marijuana Slowly Gains Ground
Clinical Studies Begin to Replace Emotion with Evidence
August 29, 2003 -- A sea change in science is slowly turning the tide of the medical marijuana debate.
For hundreds of years, marijuana has been used to treat a wide variety of illnesses. But the herb has been illegal throughout the modern era of scientific medical research. Patients swear the drug works to relieve pain, prevent seizures, and counteract the nausea-inducing effects of cancer chemotherapy. But by today's standards, there's no definitive proof that this is so.
Why not? Nearly all U.S.-funded marijuana research has looked for harmful effects from using marijuana as a recreational drug. Meanwhile, there's been little money -- and huge regulatory hurdles -- for studies of marijuana's benefits. That's now changing despite the fact that marijuana remains classed as a Schedule I drug -- a dangerous compound with no medical uses.
Why now? Evidence is beginning to break down the wall of emotion preventing medical marijuana research.
Expert Panels, Breakthrough Findings
It was never clear exactly how marijuana -- which scientists call cannabis -- exerted its euphoria-inducing effects on the brain. Then, in the 1980s, a series of breakthrough studies showed that the body actually makes its own cannabis-like compounds -- cannabinoids.
Why are they there? That question led to the discovery that the body has an entire system based on cannabinoid signals. The signals seem to calm down overexcited nerve cells, says Igor Grant, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) at the University of California, San Diego.
"It may be the cannabinoid systems -- this is a crude example -- but I think of them as our internal shock absorbers," Grant tells WebMD. "They are circuits that prevent overexcitability, kind of dampers. If that's correct, there are going to be a number of medical applications. For example, I wouldn't be surprised if there were applications for epilepsy and other types of seizures."
Grant isn't the only scientist excited by these possibilities.
In 1997, a National Institutes of Health expert panel concluded that more needs to be known about possible marijuana benefits. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine agreed. It pointed to several areas crying out for clinical marijuana research, notes CMCR co-director Andrew Mattison, PhD.
"There are cannabinoid receptor systems in the brain areas that regulate motion -- and, in retrospect, we know that people with multiple sclerosis and difficulty with spasticity sometimes use medicinal cannabis. That is one of the Institute of Medicine indications for clinical trials," Mattison tells WebMD.
"There is a cannabinoid receptor for pain, another site that modulates appetite -- there's going to be a wealth of basic science research that will hopefully have clinical and practical applications to many different medical indications."
Early Clinical Findings Support More Research
Although funded through 2003 and only at various University of California locations by the California state legislature, the CMCR has, by default, become the national clearinghouse for marijuana research.