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Feds: Green light on marijuana’s research

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The Obama administration gave a go ahead signal to University of Arizona researcher whether pot can help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress, a move that can broaden the benefits of marijuana as potential drug.

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For years, scientists who want to push through the study on marijuana that might be useful to treat illness appear to be reluctant due to resistance from federal drug officials.

The study made by Arizona had been sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration. However, under the federal rules, such experiments can use marijuana only from a single, government-run farm in Mississippi. Researchers say the agency that oversees the farm, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has long been hostile to proposals aimed at examining possible benefits of the drug.

“This is a great day,” said the Arizona researcher, Suzanne A. Sisley, clinical assistant professor of psychology at the university’s medical school, who has been trying to get the green light for her study for three years. “The merits of rigorous scientific trial have finally trumped politics.”

“We never relented,” Sisley said. “But most other scientists have chosen not to even apply. The process is so onerous. With the implementation of this study and the data generated, this could lead to other crucial research projects.”

Supporters of medical marijuana praised the news as an indication that the government moving forward into terms with one of the more striking paradoxes of federal drug policy: Whereas about 1 million Americans are using marijuana legally to treat ailments. Scientists having hard time getting approval to study the drug that can be used effectively.

“The political dynamics are shifting,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, a group based in Santa Cruz that is raising money to help fund studies such as Sisley’s. Among the supporters were several prominent philanthropists including two Pritzkers and a Rockefeller.

Government officials said the approval did not represent a change in underlying policy – just a recognition that Sisley’s proposal meets official standards for research using illegal drugs. The research still requires approval of one more agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, but Sisley and Doblin expressed confidence that would prevent road-block.

Soaring tensions with respect to pot research is still restricted under federal. Researchers, marijuana supporters and some members of Congress have accused the National Institute on Drug Abuse of hoarding the nation’s only sanctioned research pot for studies aimed at highlighting the drug’s ill effects. Based on Sisley’s experience this is an irrational and disjointed federal policy.

“You have impossible burdens,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has enlisted other members of Congress to lobby the administration give researchers more access to the drug.

“These are not people who are going to be involved with some clandestine production of the drug or do something nefarious. They are trying to do scientific research that will add to the body of knowledge and safety,” he said.

Blumenauer shares the story of a doctor who works with children who have violent epileptic seizures. The children’s parents “have found that the use of marijuana has reduced the frequency and intensity of these horrific episodes. But because of our stupid research policies, it is easier for the parent to get medical marijuana that for a researcher,” he said.

The scientists now can pin point the correct medication can bring with this drug based on their research. This can be regulated by the FDA as a prescription drug. So patients can have the knowledge what they are buying.

At the core of the debate is an issue that has implications for both research and the movement to legalize marijuana for recreational use, as Colorado and Washington have done. Currently, federal law classifies pot as more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine. As a “Schedule 1”drug, marijuana is designated as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” as well as being a drug that puts users at risk of “severe psychological or physical dependence.”

Researchers say that classification needs to change for science to proceed uninhibited. Making the change, though, would be a retreat in the war on drugs. The Obama administration could reschedule the drug without congressional action, but has shown no inclination to wade into that fight.

In the last 10 years, the government had approved just one U.S. research center to conduct clinical trials involving marijuana use for medical purposes – a UC San Diego facility created by the California Legislature.

Igor Grant runs the research center, said his success is getting Washington’s sign-off was due in large part to something other scientists do not have: the full force of the state. Blocking his work would have been a direct affront to lawmakers in Sacramento, he noted.

Grant’s studies looked at such questions as whether pot could help ease the nausea and vomiting associated with cancer treatment or the severe appetite suppression experienced by those with HIV, which causes AIDS.

“Every one of those studies showed, in the short term, a beneficial effect,” Grant said. “There is very good evidence cannabis is helpful.”

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