Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Clearing the Smoke

Marijuana remains tightly controlled, even though its  compounds show promise .-

     Preliminary clinical trials show marijuana might  be useful for pain, nausea and weight loss in cancer and  HIV/AIDS and for muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis. Medical  marijuana studies in the U.S. are dwindling fast, however, as funding for  research in California—the only state to support research on the whole cannabis plant—comes to an end this year and federal regulations on obtaining marijuana for study remain tight.
      In July the Drug Enforcement Administration denied a petition, first  filed in 2002 and supported by the American Medical Association, to  change marijuana’s current classification. So marijuana remains in the
administration’s most tightly controlled category, Schedule I, defined as  drugs that “have a high potential for abuse” and “have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S.” Many medical cannabis proponents see a catch-22 in the U.S.’s marijuana control. One of the DEA’s  reasons for keeping marijuana in Schedule I is that the drug does not  have enough clinical trials showing its benefits. Yet the classification may  imit research by making marijuana difficult for investigators to obtain.
       Even as prospects for whole-plant marijuana research dim, those who  study isolated compounds from marijuana—  which incorporates more than 400 different  types of molecules—have an easier time. The drug’s main active chemical, delta 9-tetrahydro-cannabinol (THC), is already FDA-approved for  nausea and weight loss in cancer and HIV/AIDS   patients. The Mayo Clinic is investigating the compound, trade-named Marinol, as a treatment for irritable  bowel syndrome. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston are studying Marinol for chronic pain.
     Compared with smoked or vaporized marijuana, isolated cannabis  compounds are more likely to reach federal approval, experts say. Pharmaceutical companies are more likely to develop individual compoundsbecause they are easier to standardize and patent. The results should be  similar to inhaled marijuana, says Mahmoud ElSohly, a marijuana chemistry researcher at the University of Mississippi, whose lab grows the nation’s only research-grade marijuana.
      Other investigators say a turn away from whole-plant research would  shortchange patients because the many compounds in marijuana work together to produce a better effect than any one compound alone. Inhaling plant material may also provide a faster-acting therapy than taking  Marinol by mouth. While ElSohly agrees that other marijuana compounds  can enhance THC, he thinks just a few chemicals should recreate most of  marijuana’s benefits.  



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