State-funded studies conducted over the past decade have found marijuana effective by itself or in combination with other drugs for conditions such as nerve pain associated with HIV and muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis.
Although California was the first of 14 states to legalize marijuana's medical use, it remains the only state to have spent public money on researching the drug's efficacy. It has been 20 years since the last results of U.S. clinical trials of smoked marijuana.
"This study confirms all of the anecdotal evidence" of suffering eased by marijuana, said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
Leno was joined at a Capitol news conference by researchers and by former state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, who authored the 1999 legislation commissioning this $8.7 million worth of research following the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
The center's director, Dr. Igor Grant, said two more studies are still in progress, to be finished by sometime next year with the $400,000 left from the Legislature's original appropriation. After that, he said, the center will remain as an "administrative entity" to interact with federal agencies about its research results and to consult with other researchers. Drug companies haven't been interested in funding the center's research, he said.
Leno said there won't be any more state money coming.
"I think there was a window of opportunity when Senator Vasconcellos was here," he said, but now, even appropriating a few million dollars from the cash-strapped state budget for further research "would mean something else gets cut even further."
But Leno said results from research already conducted should help Congress reopen the debate over "why the federal government is coming between a doctor and his or her patients" regarding a drug for which there's now more scientific evidence of efficacy.
Grant said the research took a long time mostly because of all the federal bureaucracy involved in obtaining marijuana for studies.
"It's just a very cumbersome system and it takes a while to get anything done," he said.
California law permits use of marijuana for "anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief. Grant acknowledged Wednesday that the center's studies touched on only a few of these areas. "There may well be other uses, but those should be subject to scientific investigation, too," he said, adding that he doesn't believe the research will have any bearing on this year's coming battles over a ballot measure and legislation that would legalize marijuana for recreational use.
"Our focus really has been on medical applications," he said. "The issue of social and recreational use? That's for somebody else."
Later Wednesday, Drug Policy Alliance California State Director Stephen Gutwillig called the research "significant and worthwhile."
"But it doesn't fill the enormous vacuum created by the federal government's monopoly on the supply of marijuana that can be used in clinical research," Gutwillig said.
The only legal source of marijuana for these and other studies is the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which oversees a farm at the University of Mississippi.
More than 80 million Americans live in the 14 states with medical-marijuana laws, Gutwillig noted.
"That alone cries out for a vast acceleration in research," he said.
Short on volunteers
Researchers didn't find enough participants for a proposed study on combining marijuana with narcotic painkillers for cancer pain relief because it would have required either nine days of hospitalization or 16 weeks without driving. Another proposed study, on using marijuana to quell nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, couldn't begin because researchers "could not identify a sufficient number of patients with sufficiently severe nausea," the report says. "It appeared that current anti-nausea treatments are often highly effective."
And another study, of marijuana use for advanced cancer pain that's unresponsive to all other painkillers, had to be scrapped because most patients referred through local hospices "were often already smoking cannabis for pain control" without the clinical controls necessary for proper research.
Read more about the CMCR's research at http://www.cmcr.ucsd.edu/.