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November 11th, 2009
02:06 PM ET

The changing debate over medical marijuana

By Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer

The national conversation about medical marijuana - in particular smoked marijuana - is complex and often polarizing.

I liken it to having a conversation with my father-in-law about politics/race/religion/poverty/health care – you name it. We start off meaning to have dignified conversation, but we inevitably spiral into growling matches peppered with words like, “those liberals…” and “c’mon, you’re smarter than that…” or “that’s crazy! That’s insane.” In reality, we are not so far apart on the issues, but somehow we can muddy the conversation so that it seems like we are.

The medical marijuana debate has been historically cast in equally polarizing terms: Groups are either for or against legalizing it.

That is what makes a subtle, nuanced move by the American Medical Association at a board meeting on Tuesday such a remarkable twist in the dialogue. The AMA shifted a 72-year-old policy about smoked marijuana, acknowledging that there could be some medical benefits, and urging reconsideration of the drug’s Schedule I status (Schedule I is a drug of abuse with “no accepted medical use.” Heroin and ecstasy are also Schedule I).

The AMA’s new policy language suggests that “marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines.”

What that means is that marijuana should be reconsidered as a Schedule I drug so that wider studies can be conducted that may establish that it is worthy of prescription drug status.

The organization is quick to add that it is by no means endorsing state-based cannabis programs or legalization. It also does not go as far as to say there is evidence that cannabis meets the rigorous standards met by prescription drugs on the market now – yet.

But that “yet” is key. What the new policy - and a forthcoming study - concede is that several short-term trials have shown that smoked cannabis is effective to treat neuropathy (nerve pain) in patients with HIV and hepatitic C. It is also effective, again, in a small number of trials, for stimulating appetite for people on chemotherapy; it may also be useful for patients with multiple sclerosis, to ameliorate pain and spasms.

The idea behind this policy shift is to widen the berth of studies about smoked marijuana, and to conduct them in a controlled manner, just as is done with prescription drugs, so that the debate can quiet down and give way to scientific evidence.

Now if only I could quiet down those debates with my father-in-law.

What do you think about the AMA’s new position on medical marijuana? Do you agree that it should be taken off of Schedule I status to make way for more studies in this area?

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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.

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