California study of marijuana’s medical use finds pot relieves pain

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A man smokes a cigarette of marijuana.

Fourteen states have passed laws that allow people access to marijuana for medical treatment. But only one state — California — has invested money and resources to study whether marijuana offers any medical benefit.

It took 10 years to complete — and today at a news conference in Sacramento, researchers released the results. KPCC’s Julie Small has the story.

A decade ago, California gave almost $9 million dollars to the Medicinal Cannabis Research Center at UC San Diego. That money paid for seven clinical trials. Five are done; two are still in the works. The Center’s Igor Grant says researchers found marijuana helps relieve pain that’s caused by nerve damage or disease — or by taking anti-viral drugs for HIV-AIDS.

"Burning, tingling, painful, unpleasant to sometimes insufferable feelings largely in the feet and legs and also in the arms," Grant said.

The condition’s called “painful peripheral neuropathy.” UC San Diego’s Igor Grant says about 10 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from it.

University researchers focused on this nerve condition because opiates, anti-depressants or other common treatments don’t work all the time for any patient — and don’t work at all for some.

Researchers added marijuana to the treatment regimen for patients with “painful peripheral neuropathy” — and it helped. They also tested marijuana’s effect on muscle spasms that cripple patients with multiple sclerosis and prevent them from sleeping. Marijuana helped reduce the spasms.

"What was interesting to us about the findings is that they were very consistent. That short-term treatment did reduce pain," Grant said.

Very short term treatment. Researchers administered marijuana to patients for as little as a week. California’s marijuana studies were also limited in size; just 200 people participated.

UC San Diego’s Igor Grant said the clinical trials on marijuana took a long time to complete because of all the federal regulation involved. He says the federal government approved only one source of marijuana for medical research. Once UC San Diego had some of the stuff, federal agents came to the Medicinal Cannabis Research Center in San Diego to verify the stash was kept in a vault — bolted to the floor. It was.

State Senator Mark Leno (D-SF) says he hopes the UC San Diego study on medical marijuana starts a debate that changes the federal government’s policy on marijuana.

"We have up until very recently federal agents raiding dispensaries and interfering with patients who are by state law legally attempting to access their physician recommended medicine," Leno said.

The results of the double-blind study comprise the first major state-funded research into marijuana in 20 years. The big question now is how the findings will apply in a country that still labels marijuana as a Class 1 drug: medically useless and potentially addictive.

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