Drugs

Kerry: Get an Herbal Position

If John Kerry makes good on his promise to review research on medical marijuana when he takes office, he'll be amazed at what has been learned about cannabis in the last several years.
John Kerry's acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination ended with a series of "what if's": "What if we find a breakthrough to cure Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's and AIDS?" he wondered aloud, to the cheers of the crowd.

Innovative treatments for these diseases, and many others, may be closer than Kerry thinks, and it won't take fetal tissue to find them. If Kerry makes good on his promise to review research on medical marijuana when he takes office, he'll be amazed at what has been learned in the last several years.

After the voters of California and Arizona legalized medical marijuana in 1996, then-drug "czar" Barry McCaffrey commissioned a $1 million scientific review of existing studies on marijuana by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. Since the 1999 IOM report was published, hundreds of studies on cannabinoids, the active compounds in marijuana, and their newly developed cognates, have uncovered astonishing results.

"Every one of our body's organized systems makes and responds to marijuana-like compounds: cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, excretory, immunological, nervous, reproductive and respiratory," says Dr. Robert Melamede, head of the biology department at the University of Colorado. Endogenous (natural in the body) cannabinoids and their receptors are popping up everywhere, and showing beneficial effects in animal and clinical studies.

Beyond the traditional symptomatic relief for nausea in cancer and AIDS patients, or pain and spasticity in multiple sclerosis sufferers, cannabinoids may actually retard the progression of diseases like MS, Alzheimer's, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In addition, compounds in marijuana are showing anti-tumor effects and protective properties in the brain and heart tissue of stroke and heart attack victims, and those exposed to nerve gas.

"When they say marijuana destroys your brain, they have it exactly wrong," says Melamede. "Marijuana protects your brain, from the lack of oxygen and neurotoxins." The U.S. army is investigating the matter, and one research team in Spain is shrinking human brain tumors by injecting them with cannabinoids.

Just a quick literature search on the list of diseases Kerry mentioned brings up scores of studies. Take Parkinson's, a progressive neurological disease impacting brain cells that normally produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that coordinates movement. The IOM report stated, "Theoretically, cannabinoids could be useful for treating Parkinson's disease patients because cannabinoids have been shown to be closely associated with dopaminergic pathways in the body." The following year, a Czech research team wrote, "It seems that cannabinoids could delay or even stop progressive degeneration of brain dopaminergic systems, a process for which there is presently no prevention."

As well as their neurological activities, cannabinoids have various immunosuppressive effects, and studies on autoimmune diseases like diabetes have been promising. In one animal study using an experimental disease model, cannabinoids reduced the severity of diabetes symptoms and extended the time before their onset. In addition, cannabinoids have been shown to promote peripheral circulation, the lack of which can lead to loss of limbs in diabetes patients. And THC (tetrohydrocannabinol) receptors are replete in the retina, where they may protect cells against the loss of sight.

Scientists at the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists' 34th annual meeting held November 2003 in San Antonio, Texas presented Phase II studies showing that THC reduces agitation in patients with Alzheimer's disease. A side effect was reducing the stress experienced by caregivers. Cannabinoids have also been shown to ameliorate food refusal, a common problem in patients who suffer from Alzheimer's-type dementia. As in AIDS wasting syndrome, marijuana's appetite-enhancing properties can mean the difference between life and death.

If elected, Kerry will take the helm of a federal government that denies the medical value of marijuana, in defiance of DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young's 1988 ruling that, "Marijuana ... is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. ... It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance."

With the new research, 34 states endorsing medical marijuana, and a federal bill working its way up, the genie will be hard to put back into the bottle. The Supreme Court has just agreed to hear a case challenging federal authority over medical marijuana, and unless the Court wants to overrule its own conservative majority's series of states' rights rulings, it will have to acknowledge the federal government's limitations. "Direct control of medical practice in the states is beyond the power of the Federal Government," the Court ruled in 1925.

Both Kerry and John Edwards have admitted to smoking marijuana in the past, but that is no indication of liberal action on this issue. President Clinton waited until his last week in office to tell Rolling Stone magazine he thought marijuana should be legalized. Al Gore supported medical marijuana while running against fellow former pot smoker Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination in 1999; he recanted when running against Bush. Talk show host and former Naval intelligence officer Montel Williams, who uses marijuana for MS, thinks George W. Bush might be receptive to the message.

Pharmaceutical giant BAYER AG announced in May it will market a cannabis-based multiple sclerosis and pain drug in the United Kingdom and Canada; a plant extract sprayed under the tongue from British company GW Pharmaceuticals. Bayer will pay $41 million in regulatory fees in the deal and holds an option to market the drug, called Sativex, to the EU. A 2002 survey of MS patients living in England found that 45 percent use cannabis. If the US doesn't act, we may get foreign-grown marijuana (and industrial hemp) as yet another outsourced industry.

Melamede stresses that what cannabinoids seem to do is put the body into balance, and though some may not benefit from additional doses, most of us probably would. Cannabinoids seem to have anti-aging properties, in part because they modulate free radical production, and since we're all aging, we might be able to steal a little more youth from a plant rather than an embryo.

"What if we have a president who believes in science?" Kerry asked. What if?
Ellen Komp manages the Web site www.veryimportantpotheads.com.