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California and the West

Scientists Announce Studies on Medicinal Value of Pot

Health: State plans to use $3-million research projects to set guidelines on patients' use of the drug.

February 23, 2001|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — More than four years after California voters legalized medical marijuana, researchers announced Thursday the first batch of studies planned under a $3-million state effort to determine what value pot has as medicine.

The four studies approved by the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research are the first step by the state to set concrete guidelines for use of the drug by patients suffering illnesses including AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cancer and glaucoma.

Research teams at UC San Francisco and UC San Diego will look at smoked marijuana's effect on HIV-related pain. Another study will focus on what help pot can provide to ease spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis. A fourth research team will examine concerns over the drug's effect on the driving abilities of patients with AIDS or MS.

Igor Grant, a psychiatry professor at UC San Diego and the center's director, said university research unfettered by any political agenda should answer basic questions about medical marijuana while helping to "reset the national thermostat on this issue."

For years, the federal government has been largely unwilling to fund exhaustive clinical studies of pot's potential therapeutic value, preferring instead to support research into the drug's effects as an illegal narcotic.

But federal officials have increasingly called for scientific proof in the face of a ground-swell movement that resulted in legalization of medical marijuana in California and a half-dozen other states. The drug remains an illegal narcotic under federal law, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to medical marijuana next month.

Grant and others hope the California research effort, which won state funding last year, can spur even more ambitious medical marijuana studies backed by the federal government.

Though the four studies could begin as soon as May 1, a key hurdle remains.

The only source of research-grade marijuana in the U.S. is a federal farm at the University of Mississippi. The California researchers have yet to win approval from a fleet of agencies--including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration--that will be needed to obtain the research cannabis.

Grant and the researchers don't expect snags. Federal regulators are interested, he said, as long as marijuana researchers are "serious people looking at serious medical questions and not approaching it from some advocacy position."

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