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Medical Marijuana Backers Slam New Federal Research Guidelines

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 29, 1999 (Washington) -- A handful of demonstrators carrying signs and banners emblazoned with the phrase "Stop Arresting Patients for Medical Marijuana" on Monday angrily urged the federal government to overhaul regulations on cannabis research scheduled to take effect Wednesday.

Standing outside the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on a frigid November day, about a dozen members of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) complained that the new rules were both inhumane and unworkable. The group delivered its written protest in the form of a letter to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, co-signed by former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, 33 members of Congress, and a number of medical groups and celebrities, including actors Susan Sarandon and Woody Harrelson.

In another statement, the group says that unless the rules are softened to make it easier for patients to get medical marijuana and for pharmaceutical companies to research the drug, "we will continue to change the laws on the state level, making sure that at least half a dozen state legislatures pass favorable medical marijuana bills next year." Currently, at least six states have approved the use of medical marijuana, including California and Maine. However, doctors who write a prescription for pot to treat symptoms like AIDS- or cancer-related wasting or vomiting could face revocation of their federal prescribing privileges.

"What they [the administration] are afraid of is that if they open the compassionate access program ... some of their staunch Republican opponents in Congress will give them a hard time," says Chuck Thomas, the MPP's communications director. The marijuana backers say they are particularly concerned about a provision in the rule that all but eliminates individual consent waivers for medical marijuana. The program currently provides marijuana to eight individuals who have a government-sanctioned prescription, but no more of these compassionate use exemptions are being granted.

At the demonstration, George McMahon produced a round tin of 300 marijuana cigarettes which the FDA has OK'd as a treatment for a genetic condition that causes him intense nerve pain and muscle spasm. McMahon tells WebMD that he's gotten relief from his condition using legally smoked marijuana for 10 years. Another advocate, liver failure patient Jim Haden, pleaded tearfully with federal officials not to make him a criminal for taking medical marijuana. "I don't mind the dying part, but I really don't want my sons and my wife and my family to see me suffer through it," Haden says.

Although the Institute of Medicine suggested earlier this year -- in a landmark report done for the White House -- that there was value in granting individual waivers to research, federal drug officials dispute the finding.

"According to the Institute of Medicine, smoked marijuana isn't going to be a medicine. So I think what we're looking at is: how do we investigate other chemical compounds that are in smoked marijuana that might have modest potential benefit?" Barry McCaffrey, director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, tells WebMD.

Alan Leshner, PhD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, tells WebMD that four or five federally sponsored studies of medical marijuana are currently underway. "It's an attempt to expand research; but research, as opposed to what some other people want, is ... just another vehicle to distribute marijuana more readily," Leshner says.

Another beef the marijuana protestors have with the new regulations has to do with guidelines that detractors say "would still place a much greater burden on medicinal marijuana researchers than on drug companies that develop and study newly synthesized pharmaceuticals." The gripe is that marijuana protocols would face additional bureaucratic hoops in the form of a special HHS review panel.

According to neurologist Dennis Petro, MD, "There's actually no incentive for a pharmaceutical company today to do this research, because of these guidelines."