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UC Research Center to Study Medical Value of Pot

Health: The aim of the San Diego facility will be to develop data to help counties implement new state law.


SAN DIEGO — In an effort to determine whether marijuana has medical value, the University of California on Tuesday announced a new cannabis study center to include researchers, doctors and patients throughout the state.

With its headquarters at UC San Diego, the center will attempt to develop scientific data to help counties craft guidelines for the medical use of marijuana, which was decriminalized by a 1996 ballot initiative adopted by California voters.

Although many cancer patients and others say marijuana relieves their suffering when other remedies prove useless, scientific proof has been limited, officials said.

Some counties, notably San Francisco and Santa Clara, have plunged ahead with the law. Others, including Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego, have been confounded by unanswered medical questions about what kinds of conditions are best treated with marijuana.

Since Proposition 215 was adopted by 56% of voters, the issue has been caught in nonstop controversy. One problem is that federal law still labels marijuana an illegal substance.

On Tuesday, just as the UC announcement was being made, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a request from the U.S. Department of Justice to postpone a lower court ruling in an Oakland case that would have allowed so-called cannabis clubs to distribute marijuana.

Dr. Igor Grant, a professor of psychiatry at UCSD who will serve as director of the center, said the high court decision shows why the center is needed. "Without reliable, substantial information about marijuana, I'm doubtful that any progress will be made" in resolving the controversy, he said.

The center will concentrate on conditions for which anecdotal evidence and early research suggest marijuana might be useful to relieve pain, nausea and loss of appetite: cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis. Grant said both clinical trials and basic research will be conducted.

The state, under a bill sponsored by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), has funded the center with $3 million, with millions more expected to come from federal grants as researchers at other UC campuses begin applying.

The National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences and federal drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey have all called for additional studies to examine whether marijuana's value can be scientifically proved.

UC San Francisco cancer specialist Dr. Donald Abrams hailed the creation of a center as a major step. Abrams just completed the first clinical trial using inhaled marijuana in treating persons with HIV.

Abrams said the initial findings are positive enough to merit follow-up studies. "This state funding will allow that to happen quickly so that we may finally get some needed answers," he said.

Dennis Peron, founder of the San Francisco Cannabis Club and the chief author of Proposition 215, was critical of what he called yet another misguided marijuana study.

"We already have more than 10,000 studies--this drug has been studied like crazy," Peron said in San Francisco. "Look at it this way: They just found out how aspirin works. They'll never understand how marijuana works. One day, they'll just have to accept that it works."

Peron called the study a thinly veiled stall tactic. "Essentially, they're trying to stall the whole marijuana revolution," he said.


Perry reported from San Diego, Glionna from San Francisco.

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