WASHINGTON – The medical community is torn over whether marijuana has medical value, agreeing only that the current body of research is scant.
Anecdotally, marijuana has been purported to ease symptoms associated with AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
But few scientific studies exist to support or refute such claims, said Franklin Evans, retired medical director of the drug dependency program at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
“Large numbers of people with diverse ailments say marijuana helps them and has less debilitating side effects than some other drugs,” said Evans, also a member of the Addictions Committee of the Medical Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland. “But there has been depressingly little research about it,” because of the stances of the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Researchers testing marijuana must get approval from the FDA and the DEA. They also must get a government-approved source of marijuana, most likely from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which grows its own marijuana in Mississippi, said Don McLearn, an FDA spokesman.
The Glaucoma Research Foundation has issued an official statement saying it does not advocate the use of marijuana to treat glaucoma because “there has been no scientifically verifiable evidence demonstrating that it is a safe and effective treatment for glaucoma.”
The American Medical Association has not yet taken a stance on marijuana’s medical value because not enough research has been done, spokesman James Stacey said. But, Stacey said, “We think controlled studies would be very helpful at this point.”
The AMA is the largest physician’s association in the country.
The California branch of the AMA opposed Proposition 215, the voter initiative allowing doctors in that state to recommend marijuana for patients with a litany of illnesses, including cancer and glaucoma.
While California’s affiliate of the American Cancer Society took an officially neutral stance on 215, the board of directors said it did not believe the initiative would “substantially improve the quality of life for cancer patients,” in its position statement.
But the national cancer group issued a statement “supporting the research of any agent … for which there may be evidence of a therapeutic advantage,” including marijuana.
And several health groups, including the California Nurses Association and the American Public Health Association, endorsed the California measure.
The major active ingredient in marijuana, delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol, was approved by the FDA in 1985 for alleviation of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.
But many patients say taking the FDA-approved pill, Marinol, is less effective than smoking marijuana, said Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the 1993 book, “Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine.”
Along with heroin and LSD, marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. These drugs are described as having high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use and a “lack of accepted safety for use … under medical supervision.”
Morphine and cocaine, commonly considered more addictive than marijuana, can be prescribed by doctors in some cases because they have an accepted medical use, according to the federal drug schedule. Marijuana’s short-term effects include impaired motor ability, sleepiness and increased heart rate, said Lela DiPaula, spokeswoman for the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. Its long-term effects include memory impairment and increased risk of chronic bronchitis and lung cancer, DiPaula said. -30-