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Experts urge new study of medical uses of marijuana

graphic February 20, 1997
Web posted at: 11:35 p.m. EDT

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The smoke still hasn't cleared in the debate over the medical use of marijuana, but a prestigious panel of experts said Thursday there is promising evidence that smoking pot may ease the suffering of some seriously ill patients.

After a two-day meeting sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the chairman of an eight-member panel of specialists suggested that some new studies should be done.


"I'd say that for at least some of the potential indications, we feel that it looks promising enough to recommend that there would be some new controlled studies done," Dr. William Beaver, a professor of pharmacology at Georgetown University, told a news conference.

The news briefing was interrupted repeatedly by pro-marijuana demonstrators.

The panel concluded that while marijuana smoking may help some patients deal with cancer, AIDS or glaucoma, there is little hard scientific evidence.

Although a final committee report is not complete, "the general mood was that for some indications, there is a rationale for looking further into the therapeutic effects of marijuana," Beaver said.

NIH might finance studies

Another panel member, eye specialist Dr. Paul Palmberg of the University of Miami School of Medicine, said that in at least one of his patients, smoking marijuana had been an effective treatment for glaucoma some years ago.

"(Marijuana) is definitely effective for some patients in which nothing else worked eight or 10 years ago, (but) that may not be the case now ... it needs to be looked at again," Palmberg said.

Dr. Alan Leshner, head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, organized the meeting after California and Arizona enacted state laws that allow medical uses of marijuana. Under U.S. law, marijuana is illegal and has no approved clinical use.

Leshner said NIH would finance medical marijuana studies, if proposed research is approved by the agency's peer-review process.

'We don't trust you'


The panel's findings didn't appease those who advocate immediate legalization of marijuana for medical uses. The news conference was interrupted four times by ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, and members of the Marijuana Policy Project.

"This is a stall tactic," said Steve Michael of ACT UP. "We don't believe you. We don't trust you. This is political science pure and simple."

Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project held up a set of handcuffs as a symbol of "the government's health care plan" for patients who seek prescriptions for marijuana.

After smoldering for years, the debate over medical marijuana heated up last year after the votes in California and Arizona. However, given the federal law against its use, the Clinton administration warned that doctors prescribing the drug would be punished.

Benefits of smoking marijuana touted

But the White House did ask NIH to see if marijuana, when smoked, has any medical benefit.


"The major problem here is getting good, scientific data. That is the bedrock of the whole enterprise," Beaver said.

Marijuana's active ingredient, a compound called delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, exists in pill form. But proponents of the drug say it's much more effective when smoked, because that way patients can control the dosage.

Marijuana has been widely touted as a treatment for the drastic weight loss associated with AIDS and for reducing the nausea caused by chemotherapy.


"Three years ago, I lost 40 pounds due to AIDS wasting syndrome," AIDS patient Kiyoshi Kuromiya said. "I since regained that 40 pounds thanks to smoked marijuana."

Panelist Dr. Kenneth Johnson of the University of Maryland Hospital said it's possible that smoked marijuana helps to control some multiple sclerosis symptoms. But there have been no comprehensive studies, he said.

The panel's final report is due out in about a month.

Correspondent Jeff Levine and Reuters contributed to this report.


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