Marijuana Researchers Make Progress in the Lab, but not in Washington

Marijuana Researchers Make Progress in the Lab, but Not in Washington

Published on 24 May, 2007
in The New York Times


There’s more encouraging scientific news on the use of marijuana to alleviate pain: a study has shown that effective doses of cannabis can be delivered with vaporizers, which enable patients to get the therapeutic benefits without inhaling harmful smoke. Meanwhile, though, researchers are still struggling against their biggest bureaucratic obstacle, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

On Wednesday they made their case at a press conference on the sidewalk outside the headquarters of D.E.A., which still hasn’t followed the recommendation of its own administrative law judge in a medical-marijuana case. In February, as I noted, the judge concluded “that there is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes” and ruled that Lyle Craker, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusetts, should be given permission by the D.E.A. to grow it for researchers.

The ruling became final last week, but the D.E.A. still hasn’t acted and refuses to comment on the issue, as the A.P. and the Washington Post reported in articles about the press conference. Marc Kaufman of the Post quoted a researcher who joined Dr. Craker on the sidewalk:

“The D.E.A. has an opportunity here to live up to its rhetoric, which has been that marijuana advocates should work on conducting research rather than filing lawsuits,” said Richard Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has fought for years for access to government-controlled supplies to test possible medical uses of marijuana.

“It’s become more and more obvious that the D.E.A. has been obstructing potentially beneficial medical research, and now is the time for them to change,” he said.

The Bush administration has been claiming that there’s no evidence for the efficacy of medical marijuana, but a study in Neurology earlier this year found it was comparable to morphine at relieving pain. Now the lead author of that study, Donald I. Abrams, and colleagues have published a paper in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics addressing another of the White House’s criticisms of medical marijuana: the danger of inhaling toxic byproducts when it is smoked.

The researchers gave marijuana to patients through vaporizers that heated it just short of combustion. “This study,” said Dr. Abrams, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, “demonstrates an alternative method that gives patients the same effects and allows controlled dosing but without inhalation of the toxic products in smoke.” Here are more details of the study from U.C.S.F.:

Under the study protocol, the participants received on different days three different strengths of cannabis by two delivery methods-smoking or vaporization-three times a day. Plasma concentrations of THC were measured along with the exhaled levels of carbon monoxide, or CO. A toxic gas, CO served as a marker for the many other combustion-generated toxins inhaled when smoking. The plasma concentrations of THC were comparable at all strengths of cannabis between smoking and vaporization. Smoking increased CO levels as expected, but there was little or no increase in CO levels after inhaling from the vaporizer, according to Abrams.

“Using CO as an indicator, there was virtually no exposure to harmful combustion products using the vaporizing device. Since it replicates smoking’s efficiency at producing the desired THC effect using smaller amounts of the active ingredient as opposed to pill forms, this device has great potential for improving the therapeutic utility of THC,” said study co-author Dr. Neal L. Benowitz, U.C.S.F. professor of medicine, psychiatry and biopharmaceutical sciences. He added that pills tend to provide patients with more THC than they need for optimal therapeutic effect and increase side effects.

Researchers hope to do more experiments with vaporizers, but they’re stymied by the limited supply of marijuana available from the only legal source, a federal farm in Mississippi. They’re also frustrated by what they say is the poor quality of that product. They say that a new supply of better marijuana from Dr. Craker would be a boon to research.

Does anyone have any guess why the D.E.A. keeps refusing to give him permission to grow it?

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