Medical Use of Marijuana Divides Italy

December 07, 2006

Francesca Colombo, IPS News

MILAN, Dec 8 (Tierramérica) - In Italy just 10 ill people have authorisation to use marijuana as therapy against pain. But that number could grow in the coming months if parliament approves a law for using this usually illegal plant for medical purposes. Federico Fantoni, 58, is a doctor -- and a quadriplegic. For the past eight years he has used a wheelchair and suffers pain in his arms due to muscle contraction caused by his illness. To fight the pain he tried all possible medications, including opium patches, but he couldn't stand the side effects.

After learning more about the therapeutic use of marijuana (Cannabis sativa), he decided to try it. "In five hours I didn't feel any discomfort," he said in testimony for the Italian Association for Therapeutic Cannabis.

That group is part of the International Association for Cannabis as Medicine, whose objective is to improve the legal framework around the world for utilising marijuana and its pharmacological components in therapeutic applications.

The bill in Italy to legalise medical use of marijuana, presented in October by the Council of Ministers, prompted reactions in favour and against among politicians, experts and citizens.

Those opposed to medical marijuana doubt its therapeutic effects, warn about a potential increase in general use of the drug, and are calling for lawmakers to vote against the bill.

According to official figures, there are three million marijuana users in Italy, who are allowed to possess one gram for personal use. Because of the drug's psychotropic properties, and because some see its use as a gateway to more dangerous drugs, consumption of marijuana is banned in most countries.

But alternative medical clinics and patients with incurable diseases defend its use, pointing to its properties for alleviating pain.

"Doctors don't know much about the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It has never been included in pharmacology. Italy is one of the countries lagging farthest behind in Europe when it comes to alternative cures, but we already have cases of ill people who discovered it and assure that they live better," Pietro Moretti, a consultant for the Association for the Rights of Users and Consumers, told Tierramérica.

Marijuana's defenders argue that it is less destructive than alcohol or tobacco. In Italy, cigarette smoking leads to 90,000 deaths per year, and alcohol abuse to 20,000 deaths.

"Marijuana can be used for therapeutic purposes. If science provides clear answers, we're behind it. But politics in Italy functions with ideological and propagandistic stimuli, not based on scientific data. For example, morphine is a stronger drug than marijuana and is used by terminal patients," Alessandro Litta, representative in the region of Lombardia for the socialist party Rosa nel Pugno, told Tierramérica.

Numerous studies indicate that marijuana is effective for treating some pathologies. In 1985, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of synthetic cannabinoids -- laboratory produced substances with the chemical components of marijuana -- to fight nausea in cancer patients caused by chemotherapy.

A report in the British Medical Journal, the journal of the British Medical Association, demonstrated the effectiveness of the controversial plant in alleviating neuropathic pain caused by muscle spasms in people with multiple sclerosis.

Marijuana can also be used to alleviate pain related to treatments for AIDS, to lower blood pressure and to dilate the lungs.

Giampiero Tiano, 27, is a mathematician. When he was 19 he was run over by a car, spent two months in coma, and one year later suffered an epileptic seizure. He took medication for a year, until he read that marijuana could be used to prevent epileptic crises. He decided to try it, and smoked up to eight marijuana cigarettes a day. He hasn't had an episode in four years.

But in 1996, the police seized the 11 cannabis plants Tiano had in his house, and arrested him. Two years later he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The sentence was annulled in 1999 by the appeals court. The defence demonstrated that marijuana has therapeutic effects in cases of epilepsy.

According to doctors who have experimented with the plant, like Antonio Mussa, director of surgical oncology at Le Molinette Hospital in Turin, and former member of the European Parliament, marijuana reduces pain, boosts the appetite and produces a sense of euphoria in patients. "If I can't extend their lives, at least I can improve the quality of life. How can a patient with six months to live become an addict?" he told Il Manifesto newspaper in a Jun. 13 interview.

But consumption of marijuana for medical purposes also has other effects and, according to detractors, the dosage cannot be controlled and it is no better than morphine as an analgaesic.

"If the active ingredients of marijuana serve to reduce the suffering of terminal patients, its use is a good thing, but should be controlled," Maurizio Crestani, pharmacologist at the University of Milan, said in a Tierramérica interview.

"I don't agree with indiscriminate liberalisation, because that could lead to drug trafficking or a black market. It should only be used under a doctor's prescription and in specific cases," he said.

(*Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published Dec. 2 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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