History of medical cannabis

April 22, 2007

David Rubien, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine

The medical benefits of cannabis have been described as far back as the beginning of the A.D. calendar, when a Chinese pharmacopoeia called the Shen-Nung Pen-Tshao Ching listed more than 100 ailments for which marijuana was a treatment, including rheumatism, digestive disorders and malaria. In 19th century Britain and the United States, marijuana was in common use for a variety of ailments, and recognized as an effective anesthesia for surgeries.

The tide began to turn around the beginning of the 20th century when new drugs like aspirin and morphine came into use. Temperance promoters, citing the psychoactive effects of pot, led to the banning of the drug with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

That was further hardened in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act, which classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which, according to the DEA, means it has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has no accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

Other countries followed the U.S. lead in banning the drug, although some permitted medical uses and research. As a result much current science is based on foreign research.

Despite U.S. drug laws, the federal government has maintained a small farm at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., to grow low-potency marijuana for research and to treat a handful of patients. However, researchers claim that the Federal Drug Administration erects too many hurdles to pass to acquire marijuana for studies.

"It hasn't been easy to do research on marijuana," says UCSF oncologist Donald Abrams, who has managed to procure federal cannabis for a few major studies.

Last year he completed a study that determined that marijuana significantly relieves nerve pain in the feet of AIDS patients who were not helped by any established pain-relieving drugs. The study was a randomized clinical trial, and the results were published in a respected journal, Neurology.

In a previous AIDS study, Abrams showed that cannabis has no negative impact on patients taking protease inhibitors.

Most other research has not reached the standard of clinical trials, or has been done on animals.

Here are examples:

Researchers in Madrid and at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla found that THC inhibited growth of Alzheimer's disease cells.

Studies in Madrid and Milan showed that cannabis inhibited growth of cancer cells in the brain.

Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of cannabis in relieving nausea in radiation and chemotherapy patients.

A British controlled trial with rheumatoid arthritis patients found that cannabis significantly relieved pain and inflammation and improved quality of sleep.

Several studies have demonstrated relief in multiple sclerosis patients.

A UCLA study found that smoking marijuana leads to no increased risk of lung cancer, and may actually reduce the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers.

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