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January 16th, 2009
11:22 AM ET

Keeping the lid on pot

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

This week the Drug Enforcement Administration overruled one of its own administrative judges, nixing a plan that would break the government’s monopoly on legally growing marijuana for research purposes.

The rejected application came from Lyle Craker, a plant researcher at the University of Massachusetts. He wants to produce strains of pot that could be used in medical research. The jury is still out on this one. Some studies show that marijuana helps ease pain in patients with muscular dystrophy or the eye disease glaucoma; others find that pot restores the appetite of AIDS and cancer patients who are otherwise too nauseated to eat. But some doctors aren’t swayed. Still others say it would be better to distill one or more of the chemicals in marijuana, to produce a more traditional medicine.

As things stand, all marijuana used for research is grown by ElSohly Laboratories, a government-sponsored private company in Oxford, Mississippi. That gives the federal government veto power over any new study. The arrangement also discourages private companies from taking part. Rick Doblin, head of a group called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which sponsored Craker’s application, told me, “No pharmaceutical company would spend ten  million dollars or more to obtain approval for a medicine and then have to purchase it from a monopolistic competitor.”

Doblin says the DEA decision is a parting shot by the Bush administration, a backhanded way to block further research. Unanswered is whether Barack Obama will take a different approach. During the campaign, he said he would stop federal raids on people using marijuana with a doctor’s prescription, but lately he’s shown a more cautious side. In December, in response to a popular question on his website, the incoming administration posted, simply, “President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.”

I asked a spokesman in the Transition Press Office if Obama would support research like Craker’s. He couldn’t say.

Should the government allow more research on medical marijuana? Tell us.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (73 Responses)
  1. Christy

    Even if this is the most evil, dangerous drug out there (which I doubt), wouldn't it be a GOOD THING to investigate and sceintifically document it? Regardless of one's view of consumption safety, the research must be done so those very views can be properly informed. If academic research is monopolized by government allowances, then where does common-place research take place? Illegal drug farms, that's where! Who would you rather get your "facts" from???

    January 19, 2009 at 03:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. steve Loudon, TN

    as a chronic pain patient with a variety of conditions, like osteoporosis (have broken many many bones, including spinal fractures that are excrutiating), allergies to all opiates, intolerant to NSAIDS, glaucoma, Pot holds the promise of a means of me having a productive life.....I cannot hardly move dueto pain, I am disabled and in low 60's in age and not ready to give up. Suicide has been an option that I do not wish. Can anyone imagine the box I am in.....I am also allergic to most antibiotics, IVIgG caused a near fatal allergic reaction, I am back on extremely high dose prednisone just to survive. People who do not suffer cannot understand the devastation of unremitting handicap, uselessness, and pain. and the personal destruction it causes in families. Gov't decides on my quality of life or forces me into bad decision and illegality......My God, is there no mercy or understanding in these arrogant idiots.

    January 19, 2009 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. George Cotter

    Yes, unbiased research should be done.

    January 19, 2009 at 10:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. CA girl

    Elizabeth, I agree with you. In my opinion, one reason why the Bush administration is so against medicinal marijuana is because they are an antiquated bunch. Once they are off to greener pastures (dead), I could see research begin with little opposition. Another reason, IMO, is that the drug companies wouldn't be making much money if it were something that could just be grown from Mother Earth. I've seen cancer patients that benefit from the "munchies" and eat shortly after a chemo treatment.

    January 19, 2009 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Paul Armentano

    In her 2007 ruling, Drug Enforcement Administration law judge Mary Ellen Bittner determined that the private manufacturing of cannabis by the University of Massachusetts is "in the public interest" because there is "currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes."

    How ironic. While pot is only a phone call away for America's teenagers, it remains out of reach for those qualified researchers who wish to study its therapeutic utility in clinical trials.

    Meanwhile, investigators in Europe - where the private production of medical-grade cannabis is less restricted - are developing various cannabis-based drugs to treat debilitating conditions like multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. One such drug - a cannabis plant-based extract known as Sativex - is already legal by prescription in Canada, Spain and in the United Kingdom.

    The DEA's rejection of Judge Bittner's decision clearly puts politics and ideology before science. President Obama has pledged to end this practice. He can start here.

    Paul Armentano
    Deputy Director
    NORML | NORML Foundation
    Washington, DC

    Note: Mr. Armentano is the author of book, "Emerging Clinical Applications For Cannabis & Cannabinoids: A Review of the Recent Scientific Literature, 2000 — 2009." He is a former consultant to GW Pharmaceuticals, manufacturers of Sativex.

    January 19, 2009 at 13:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Eddie

    After more than 17,000 research projects, over 200 medical applications, the LaGuardia report, the Schaffer Commission, over 70 international, national, state and local medical organizations which have asked for immediate legal access and/or further research, how
    can you ask such a question? How much more research is needed?

    Recent trials in Italy have shown that marijuana is effective in the treatment of MSRA, (the flesh-eating disease), which kills more people in the US than hiv/aids. How can we ignore this?

    A person should ask, why does a government, "for the people, by the people", deny "the people" the possibility of medical advancements that would improve the quality of life, not only for Americans, but for the world?

    "Should the government allow more research on medical marijuana?" We have been researching marijuana since the 1950's.
    We have learned a great deal about this ancient medicine. It's time for human trials. It's time for application. It's time for change.

    January 19, 2009 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Joel

    YES, it's time for a scientific approach to this problem. Stop arresting sick and dying people

    January 19, 2009 at 21:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Brian Kerr

    The jury is not out. The jury has been in for 5000 years.
    Cannabis is the safest of all drugs even aspirin is far more dangerous to people and aspirin can be found in every medicine cabinet in the country. Cannabis should be in the medicine cabinet too and should be legalized and regulated in its use just like Alcohol is.

    Regardless of the law Cannabis will be used.

    January 19, 2009 at 22:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. radicalruss

    "Should the government allow more research on medical marijuana?"

    What a ridiculous question! How could the answer possibly be "no!"? The comments here have been in the affirmative, without a single contrary response.

    For what kind of defense could a "no!" elicit? "Marijuana is terribly bad, so terribly bad that to study how terribly bad it is would be far too terrible!" How can something be so dangerous that it is better to not know exactly how dangerous it is?

    If cannabis did not exist and then one day, researchers emerging from the deepest jungles of the Amazon discovered cannabis, not only would the government encourage the research, but the discoveries that research unlocks would bring more funding and a declaration that these researchers had discovered the miracle plant! It can feed you, clothe you, house you, treat your illnesses, expand your mind, and provide all the fuel oil you need, Mr. President! Send more researchers!

    Instead we debate whether we can even talk about considering perhaps studying maybe if it someday could possibly be used in very limited medical situations involving very few people with only the most devastating of conditions. All because a few uptight people are afraid letting cancer patients smoke a doobie after chemo will lead our nation's teenagers over the abyss into a Cheech & Chong lifestyle that will eventually lead to heroin.

    I have personally seen too many medical marijuana patients to count, all of whom live fuller more productive lives, with less reliance on dangerous toxic pharmaceuticals, because of cannabis. I'm way past studies; I've seen the proof with my own two eyes.

    It will be nice when the scientific and medical community catches us to the people on this issue.

    "Radical" Russ Belville
    Associate Director – Oregon NORML
    Host – NORML Daily Audio Stash
    Host – The Russ Belville Show on XM Satellite Radio

    January 20, 2009 at 00:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. jcmac

    The kids and adults that use marijuana will continue to use it, so why not just legalize. The nurses, dentists, postmen, and accountants , not to mention all the social security recipients, will then be taxed, do you have any idea how much $$$ would be generated, but the govt. will continue to pander to big pharma, and the dealers will continue to make the big $$$$.

    January 21, 2009 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Erich

    "Should the government allow research on medical marijuana?"

    Since when should the government allow or disallow research on any potential pharmaceutical product?

    We have safeguards in place already.

    Clinical research includes assessments of risks as well as benefits. Labeling is one of the chief concerns when any new product is introduced. There are processes in place that protect human subjects in clinical research. That's as far as government regulation should go.

    If we treated all psychotropic substances the way we do marijuana, our pharmacy shelves would quickly be depleted.

    The government needs to get out of the way of industry innovation.

    January 21, 2009 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Johnny BigLeagues

    Our absurd Drug Policy in this country is rooted in PROFIT and dictated behind often pseudo-scientific fear mongering. Illicit drugs, whether it be a soft drug like marijuana or a "hard" drug like heroin, create law enforcement jobs, cottage industries (for everything from drug sniffing dogs to hi-tech detection equipment) and a for profit prison system that often looks the other way on basic humane treatment in favor of meeting the bottom line.

    This is because of a simple equation:

    Illegal Recreational Drugs = Highly Profitable, Hi-Growth Black Market Industry.

    Because of the enormous amounts of wealth in the illegal drug industry (that some believe is among the 5 largest industries in America – legit or not), Illegal Drug Trade Kingpins defend themselves through deadly force. This violence carries over to the streets where small time dealers seek the American dream in the highly profitable, high-reward Illicit Drug Trade.

    We are either the most ignorant country on the planet or our eyes are largely closed to the truth.

    Connect the dots and the inescapable conclusion is the War on Drugs has been an abysmal and COSTLY failure. It needs to end.

    Legalize, Regulate and TAX. Let a legal free market set prices and most of all END THE VIOLENCE as a result.

    January 26, 2009 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Gary Christensen

    Dr Gupta I would like to comment on the use of "pot". I am a 67 year old X employer of many young men . In my years I have found that beer and hard booze was much more detramental to my employees than the use of "pot" I found that employees who drank booze on a regular basis had more family violence than my employees who smoked pot .The people who smoked "pot" had a much more happy and loving interaction with there wife and family , And the most important thing is they were allways at work on time. Sometimes I wonder why this mellowing drug is banned and the other, booze that brings violence to many families is okay.

    February 1, 2009 at 23:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. sean brizendine

    we can blame racism and william randolph hearst for our draconian marijuana laws, but this country will fold before we admit that it has any medicinal value.

    "sean in santa rosa"

    February 3, 2009 at 13:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Christopher Glenn Fichtner, M.D.

    I am a psychiatrist who has spent most of his career in public mental health administration. I have served as a senior faculty member at several medical schools, and have always been active in some form of research. There is no question but that medical and basic science research with cannabis should proceed, and with government support. But the point of further research with cannabis should not be simply to justify re-scheduling or de-scheduling the substance; we have more than enough data for that already. Research of at least two general types needs to be done.

    One type of research should attempt to correlate medical benefits with specific composition and/or strain; several writers here have mentioned this issue. Two examples of work along these lines include: (1) GW Pharmaceutical, a British company, with its high-end medicinal cannabis extracts currently standardized to THC:CBD ratio (they have developed a number of them, and are trying to get the first, Sativex, approved by the FDA currently), and (2) the cruder, down-and-dirty work of the Corrals at WAMM in northern California, who kept records of the reports of their medicinal cannabis consumer members in order to determine patient needs and plan their cultivation efforts. The Corrals’ work was important, and the federal government rewarded them for it by raiding their community and destroying their medicinal plants. These two types of research, while different in sophistication and precision, are similar in that they both attempt to answer questions about what types of cannabis—in terms of strain or composition—are best for which clinical problems. When Sativex is eventually approved by the FDA, it will have succeeded only at the expense of criminalizing Americans for attempting something similar in a more “homegrown” fashion.

    A second type of research that needs to be done is naturalistic, population-based, and public-health-oriented. Actually, the WAMM work fits this model because the Corrals attempted to answer questions using naturalistic, real-world methods; that is, their members used the medicine and they gathered data in the context of that medicinal usage. The research did not use laboratory-based scientific controls or exclusion criteria for subjects. But that is not necessarily a limitation; real-world research can often be more useful and informative than clinical trials conducted using short-term, tightly controlled regulatory models (as required by the FDA). But beyond strictly clinical questions, there is much research to be done to find out what happens to population-based health indices when cannabis is legitimately accessible in the society. Mr. Christenson’s entry here is a case in point, and I believe his observations are on the money. Despite all the hype about cannabis and schizophrenia, as best I can tell alcohol has done vastly more mental, as well as physical, health damage to individuals among the many psychiatric patients that I have seen and continue to see day in and day out. With cannabis legitimately accessible, for medical or for general personal use, I would expect to see the incidence of alcohol-related problems decrease, as I have met many individuals who use alcohol rather than marijuana only because of the legal issue—not out of preference.

    The late California psychiatrist Tod Mikuriya, M.D. (with whom Mr. Gieringer, who made an entry on this site, collaborated) was a pioneer in extending medical recommendations for cannabis use beyond the most common indications of nausea, appetite stimulation, pain, and inflammatory medical conditions, to more controversial indications such as the anxiety symptoms of PTSD, the mood instability of bipolar disorder, insomnia in a variety of conditions, and importantly as a harm-reduction substitution intervention for individuals with alcohol dependence (and a much smaller number with opiate dependence). Dr. Mikuriya was able to do this because the California medical cannabis law allows for broad physician discretion, in contrast to most if not all of the other state medical cannabis laws; in my view that makes California’s law by far the best. I mention Dr. Tod’s work because his recommendation of cannabis as a medically-reasonable (and in many cases preferable) alternative to alcohol is in fact the point at which medical application intersects public health. Making cannabis legitimately accessible in the population as a whole would very likely be a constructive public health intervention due to the likely reduction in alcohol-related problems alone, not to mention the public health benefits of decriminalization (i.e., fewer criminal records, disruption of families, etc.). This realization has in fact been the basis of the SAFER movement in Colorado, that led to the passage of a decriminalization initiative in Denver in November 2005 and got 40% of the vote with a similar statewide initiative in 2006.

    It should be obvious that the implication of the above is that cannabis usage should be recognized as legitimate and taxed as an age-restricted, over-the-counter herbal remedy. How can anyone argue otherwise, given our current economic environment? At minimum, cannabis taxation would bring $15 billion annually into the economy, and with any legitimate development of the industry at all, probably at least double that amount.

    By the way, my view of the Michael Phelps discussion: It is moralizing hysteria. I do not know Phelps, but on the face of it, going from getting a DUI at the age of 19 to being photographed using marijuana is a step up, not a step down! It involves breaking fewer laws, less medical risk, and less risk to others. The “Oh-for-shame-let’s-criminalize-him crowd” reveal to the rest of us that they have not yet crossed over into the 21st century.

    Christopher Glenn Fichtner, M.D.

    February 8, 2009 at 23:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Glenn Dorsey

    I think the most important element to consider here is that many people (especially young people) are not equipped to make sound, rational judgments concerning their own drug use – even if that drug is marijuana. Marijuana IS a gateway drug – not for everyone, but for enough people to where we should consider it dangerous and support those drug treatment programs that provide care for the condition.

    Glenn

    http://www.rehabinfo.net/

    August 4, 2009 at 14:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Johnny BigLeagues

    Glen,

    The term 'gateway drug' is absurd. As science is discovering, addiction is something that people are likely born with genetic predisposition to. I was a binge drinker in my youth. It was the first 'drug' I eve tried, and it got me into more trouble than pot could ever do. I haven't drank in over two years and use pot recreationally and have used it medicinally to treat nerve pain that I have. Of course teeners ren't equipped to make the est decision regarding the use of any substance, but we may want to look to the dangers of alcohol before we continue this inane policy on pot.

    Of course, the aspect that substance abuse councilors ALWAYS prefer to look past is that illicit drug trade and use has chiefly caused the rise in gang violence and organized crime. How do we reverse that? We end drug prohibition, an put the gangs ad kingpins out of business.

    August 4, 2009 at 14:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Parent4life

    Wouldn't it be even better Glenn, to prevent kids from being able access marijuana in the first place? I mean that's what the prohibition's supposed to be for and I know you support it!

    The problem with the prohibition is that it doesn't stop people from buying marijuana and nor does it stop other people from selling it. If it did then we wouldn't have a problem. But here we are, seventy years after the start of the prohibition and today we have 15 million regular marijuana smokers, and every single DAY 6,000 people use marijuana for the first time – that's over two million new users every year!!

    As a parent, results like these just aren't good enough! I'm not going to support any policy that's allowed over 100 million people to obtain and consume marijuana during its lifetime. What madness is that!!

    We need to underprice the drug dealers with marijuana that's legally grown and sold to adults. That one change will strip all the drug dealer's customers from them and permanently drive them from our streets.

    If we want to keep marijuana away from kids then we need to support its lawful sale to adults!

    August 4, 2009 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Cliff Schaffer

    Note to Glenn Dorsey,

    Just FYI, one of the original reasons that marijuana was outlawed was the fear that heroin addiction would lead to the use of marijuana - exactly backwards from the current nonsense you picked up.

    During the hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was asked specifically if there was any connection between marijuana and heroin. He replied that there was no connection at all – they were used by two different classes of people who didn't associate with each other.
    You can find the full text of his testimony at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/taxact/taxact.htm

    In 1951, the story changed, Anslinger was up before Congress asking for more money to enforce the marijuana laws. Unfortunately for him, just before he testified, the head of the Federal addiction research program testified that they knew for certain that all of the reasons given to outlaw marijuana in 1937 were completely wrong. Marijuana didn't do any of the things that had been alleged in 1937.

    Anslinger was left with no excuse for his call for more money to enforce the marijuana laws so he made up the idea that marijuana is the certain stepping stone to heroin. In doing so, he contradicted all the research, as well as his own testimony from 1937. Regardless, it has been the basis of US marijuana policy ever since.

    You can read the full history of the gateway myth at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/gateway_myth.htm

    More importantly, more recent research shows that marijuana actually helps people get off of harder drugs. It provides the anxiety relief they are seeking without screwing them up so bad they can't function.

    August 5, 2009 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Johnny BigLeagues

    Cliff,

    I would echo your salient points and add that most despicable about that 1937 campaign to make pot illegal was a campaign to misinform and scare the public. The government funded propaganda, which would be unthinkable today was conducted with outright lies rooted in unabashed bigotry, racism and xenophobia.

    If pot had never been made illegal (as no drug should be), then of alcohol, nicotine and marijuana, the last one we'd be talking about cracking down on would be marijuana. In fact, if modern America didn't have such a distorted image of the truth about pot, and was able to compare and contrast the effects of the Big Three vices – I truly believe marijuana would be the dominant industry. Which brings me to an oft-forgotten but crucial point – the alcohol lobby can not be left out of the discussion of decriminalization and legalization of pot. Why? Because if they aren't ultimately included in the business plan they know that future profits are in jeopardy to the a far superior and safer social intoxicant than alcohol who's effects are more than well-documented and nearly the polar opposite of THC.

    August 5, 2009 at 17:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Sandy Moon

    This mess that started a very long time ago is all a cover up they picked what they wanted legalized and the goverment riged those studies. And now with all the ingredients they started putting in tobacco is killing people. OUTLAW tobacco and Alcohol kills everyday drunk drivers and alcohol and tobacco pretty soon kills the person doing it OUTLAW them both and legalize marijuana.

    April 16, 2010 at 14:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bielizna

    Have you ever thought about publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog based on the same information you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

    December 19, 2011 at 20:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.