Medical Marijuana Slowly Gains Ground
Clinical Studies Begin to Replace Emotion with Evidence
Early Clinical Findings Support More Research continued...
The CMCR works closely with state and federal regulators - including the FDA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (the only legal source of marijuana in the U.S.). CMCR provides funds for clinical trials of marijuana. It's won national praise for holding its investigators to the highest scientific standards.
Even before the CMCR was up and running, one stubborn researcher managed to launch a marijuana clinical trial. Donald Abrams, MD, now chief of hematology/oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, is best known for being one of the first doctors to recognize and treat the illness that came to be known as AIDS. AIDS patients have long used marijuana to fight the terrible wasting the disease causes. It's also been said to help an extremely painful condition known as peripheral neuropathy -- a painful nerve disease that has few effective treatments.
Abrams wanted to get federal approval to see whether marijuana really works for this condition. But years of effort proved futile in the face of opposition by federal agencies. Finally, Abrams had a brainstorm. Marijuana affects the immune system. It was just possible that the drug was making patients worse, not better. He submitted a research proposal to look for a harmful effect of marijuana -- and finally won the approval he sought.
The results of that trial appear in the August 19 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. And they contradict previous studies done in the test tube and with lab animals.
"Much of the published work on marijuana and the immune system is focused on animals and in vitro studies," Abrams tells WebMD. "And, well, if you flood a lot of petri dishes with THC [the active ingredient in marijuana], the immune-cell cultures are going to do poorly.
"In our clinical trial we really didn't see any detriment to the immune system from smoking cannabis. Basically we saw no perturbation of HIV viral load, no detriment to the immune system, and no significant interaction with anti-HIV drugs."
With CMCR funds, Abrams is now doing his peripheral neuropathy study. And he's well on the way to launching a study to see whether adding marijuana to other pain drugs can give relief to dying cancer patients. Overall, the CMCR now has five full-fledged clinical trials under way, which will enroll some 450 patients.
Doctors' Shifting Attitudes on Medical Marijuana
In the last week of July 2003, Medscape -- WebMD's web site for medical professionals -- asked its members what they thought about medical marijuana. It wasn't a scientific poll, although a member's vote is counted only once. Still, the results were surprising. There was a huge response. Three out of four doctors -- and nine out of 10 nurses -- said they favored decriminalization of marijuana for medical uses.