"THE HEART OF THE MATTER"
a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA)


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Week: 589.6 part 1 

Guests: Dr. William Beaver, Georgetown...Dr. Paul Palmberg, U. of Miami...  

Topic: Medical marijuana 

Host/Producer: Steve Girard 

NEMA: The government’s come a long way since the days of "Reefer Madness", the film warning about the dangers of smoking marijuana. The National Institutes of Health says in a new report that it’s open to studying the medical benefits of smoking the weed....Aaron Cohen has Health on the Hill...  

COHEN: The latest twist in the nation’s endless debate about marijuana seemed inevitable when the polls closed last November...California and Arizona voters had approved the medical use of marijuana, cannabis club members rejoiced, and pretty soon you began hearing about people lighting up the illegal weed for dubious reasons...to stop an earache or menstrual cramps - while seriously ill patients were being threatened with prosecution for smoking pot to feel better. So the National Institutes of Health convened an expert panel to make recommendations, and after a 2 day workshop and 6 months of back and forth, the nine medical experts found little harm seeing what the buzz is about pot. Georgetown University pharmacologist William Beaver chaired the panel....  

BEAVER: The conclusions were, of the expert panel, that it was worth doing some additional study

COHEN: Dr. Beaver said the therapeutic effects of smoked marijuana should be studied in five areas ranging from pain relief and neurological disorders, to treating the ill effects of AIDS and chemotherapy. Opthamologist Paul Palmberg with he University of Miami’s Bascom-Palmer Eye Institute, says the positives of studying pot’s effect on glaucoma far outweigh the negatives...  

PALMBERG: The initial feeling out of the eye doctor community that marijuana wasn’t going to be useful was based on the idea that in short term studies people became high using the marijuana, obviously, but what’s been discovered at this station and several others is...that with chronic use - every two or three hours while they’re awake - that the high goes away, and the adverse effects on blood pressure and pulse go away. So, while we’re still worried what it might do to the lungs and might do to the immune system, it is a practical treatment for some people. It’s the end of the line...it may be one patient in a thousand, but it should be available for them.  

COHEN: High blood pressure and simply getting high aren’t the only understood side effects from smoking marijuana...the mere mention of government studies raises the hackles of the anti drug crowd on Capitol Hill. Dr. Palmberg’s fellow eye doctor, Paul Kaufman at the University of Wisconsin, says it’s too broad a stroke to condemn marijuana as a potential treatment for chronic illnesses. He says while alternatives to smoked marijuana may have to be developed, it should be treated like any compound...  

KAUFMAN: Look, if people walked around taking digitalis in the street, we’d have a lot of sick people. So, I think that’s not a good argument. They’re right in the sense that you don’t want to make it over the counter so any patient with glaucoma can just go into a drug store and buy a pack of marijuana cigarettes. But you wouldn’t do that with any drug  

COHEN: The NIH panel was unanimous in its views, but those in the AIDS community and others who thought convening the panel was stall tactic by the Clinton administration, advocated a more active approach...among them is Mark Kleiman with the Federation of American Scientists...  

KLEIMAN: The government should put together a program of clinical trials. For several of the conditions for which whole cannabis has been claimed to be useful. And find out whether it’s true. Doing more library research isn’t going to get us anywhere...  

COHEN: Clinical trials, though, may be a long way off. NIH director Harold Varmus says the agency is open only to receiving grant applications...and, as yet, nothing more. Part of the reason might be the political climate. Despite its possible therapeutic benefits, marijuana is still classified as an illegal drug and is more dangerous to embrace politically than tobacco, which has no reported medical use. According to panel chair William Beaver of Georgetown, that’s NIH’s cross to bear... 

BEAVER: The ball is in their court right now.  

COHEN: One panel member who wished to remain anonymous believes the expert panel gives NIH the political cover it might need to fund research...and another source at NIH agrees, saying in the fullness of time, there will be a government study of the medical uses of marijuana. For Health on the Hill, I’m Aaron Cohen.