The Pot Issue
Research is stymied
Published: November 3, 2010
Some study participants experienced side effects, but researchers noted that these were not much different than what would be expected with other drugs.
J. Hampton Atkinson, a center co-director, says researchers realize the limits to their work. They didn't, for example, study long-term cannabis use, which he says other research has linked to bronchitis and upper respiratory tract ailments. Smoking marijuana, though, Atkinson says, doesn't have the same link to lung cancer.
"I'm not saying, 'There's something wonderful about cannabis, it won't give you lung cancer.' I can certainly believe that smoking any plant material, if you do it long enough, you're in for trouble," he says. "But there isn't that, for whatever reason, maybe the amount of exposure, maybe something else, there isn't that link with smoking marijuana as there is with tobacco."
Atkinson says the California studies, like others approved by the federal government, used marijuana cultivated at a federal research facility where joints' THC and other content is known and controlled.
That lack of regulation in most marijuana used medically worries some physicians. For one thing, homegrown weed can't necessarily guarantee its ingredients.
And unless patients observe their marijuana from seed to harvest, Michigan State Police Det. 1st Lt. Tim Gill says they should be worried about what's in it. Gill, who oversees drug enforcement units that have raided grow operations in eight central Michigan counties, has seen marijuana cultures that scare him: mold, chemical fertilizers, rodent and insect infestations and other substances he'd consider poisons.
And with dozens of strains of weed, varying strengths and no dosing schedule akin to "take one pill twice a day," marijuana is a medicine unlike other therapies.
Without parallel regulated studies into medicinal marijuana's use, the data about abuse potential and other side effects is inadequate, some researchers say.
"From a medical perspective, the effects of marijuana, the THC itself, are not as dangerous in terms of overdose risk as many other prescription drugs like painkillers. That doesn't mean it's absolutely safe. There is a risk of addiction that's a real risk and that's another area where more research needs to take place," says Commissaris, who teaches the "Recreational Drug Use and Drug Abuse" elective in Wayne State's pharmacy program.
Joint? Brownie? Vapor?
Another future issue might be how patients take marijuana. While prescription drugs such as the FDA-approved Marinol pill deliver THC, they don't provide it in the higher concentrations or produce the rapid effects that smoking marijuana does.
Research in California, Atkinson says, sought to determine if a safer delivery route — vaporized marijuana — would have the same benefits and reduce pain at the same efficiency as smoking. It just about did.
Another study seemed to show "medium to lowish doses are just as effective or more effective than higher potency cigarettes," Atkinson says.
The center is wrapping up this year as funding has run out. "We'll be a resource for investigators who wish to pursue these kinds of studies or we'll be a resource for policymakers," he says.
Assuming, of course, they have any interest in looking at research.
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