Epilepsy, MS patients trying marijuana for symptoms

June 07, 2004

Anne McIlroy , Globe and Mail - Canada

Canadians with epilepsy and multiple sclerosis are turning to marijuana to help with their symptoms, two new studies have found, and some say they find it effective. But clinical trials will be required to determine if marijuana really helps.

About 14 per cent of patients at a Halifax multiple sclerosis clinic reported that they used cannabis to treat their symptoms, including about a dozen who reported smoking pot at least once a day.

Some of the 34 medicinal pot smokers used an entire joint, and some took only a few puffs. They said it helped with pain, muscle spasms and stiffness, but also in dealing with stress, and sleep and mood problems. Those who smoked marijuana as medicine were more likely to be male smokers who had used it recreationally in the past.

At an epilepsy clinic in Edmonton, 21 per cent of patients reported that they had used marijuana in the past year, but fewer than half said they were smoking up for medical reasons. None of the 28 pot smokers had received official approval under federal regulations that give sick patients legal access to cannabis.

Both studies, published in the journal Neurology yesterday, provide a picture of medical marijuana use, but don't draw any conclusions about whether smoking pot actually reduces symptoms.

The epilepsy study, in fact, raises the question that marijuana may be a factor in severe epilepsy. Patients with frequent seizures were eight times more likely to use marijuana frequently. Those who had had epilepsy for at least five years were 10 times more likely to smoke pot.

There is a chance, says University of Alberta researcher Donald Gross, that marijuana use can lead to an increased number of seizures. But it may also be that sicker patients are more likely to turn to alternative medicine.

'Not surprisingly, patients tend to look to alternative therapies in situations where conventional medicine has been unsuccessful,' he said.

In the multiple sclerosis study, half of the 34 pot users said cannabis was very effective. Eight reported moderate side effects and only one reported severe side effects. The most common problems were feeling high, drowsy, suffering from a dry mouth, paranoia, anxiety and heart palpitations.

The studies found that nearly one in four epilepsy patients and one in six MS patients believe that marijuana is an effective form of treatment. It also found that patients find it too risky or difficult to get marijuana.

People suffering from either MS or epilepsy can apply to Health Canada to legally use marijuana to reduce their symptoms, but the government has been criticized for making the process too difficult.

So far, 734 Canadians can legally possess marijuana for medical use. The government sells it to them, depending on how much their doctor says they need. A 30-gram bag of dried buds costs $150. Delivery is by courier, either to the patient or their doctor.

There are, however, no hard data that prove that smoking or ingesting herbal marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for multiple sclerosis or epilepsy. The theory with epilepsy is that one of the active ingredients in marijuana acts as an anticonvulsant. With MS, it is that it relieves muscle spasms.

Mark Ware, a McGill University researcher who helped conduct the MS experiment said controlled clinical trials are necessary.

Those studies will have to take into account that some patients take a single puff of a joint, while others can smoke a gram at a time. In the case of MS, he says researchers should measure not only relief of pain and muscle spasms, but also the effects on mood, sleep and stress.

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