Burning question: Can science confirm marijuana’s medical benefits?

By Sharon Kirkey, Postmedia News


After all the usual and proper medical approaches did nothing for her pain, Cheryl Campbell, a nurse and mother, says she finally built up the courage to ask her doctor, “How do you feel about prescribing me marijuana?”
The 30-year-old Ottawa woman suffers from fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Her pain is body-wide – a constant, sometimes stabbing ache in her back, hips, knees, shoulders and virtually every joint. Doctors once put her on morphine. It cut the pain, but she couldn’t function. She says her mind felt so heavy with fog she couldn’t carry on a conversation.
She’s been using marijuana for pain for two years; she has a federal licence to possess it. She says it helps her sleep at night. In the morning, it helps ease the stiffness in her hips and back enough that she can make it into the shower.
Campbell says she owes her ability to get through each day to a drug that critics condemn, especially when it’s smoked – which is how most of the thousands of Canadians who self-medicate with pot prefer to take it. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was unequivocal earlier this year: Smoked marijuana is not medicine, and it’s not safe.
“No matter what medical condition has been studied,” the agency ruled, “other drugs already approved by the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) have been proven to be safer than smoked marijuana.”
But research into medicinal marijuana is undergoing a surge of interest, with more evidence emerging not only of its ability to ease human suffering, but also of its apparent safety.
Some say cannabis may be less toxic to humans than over-the-counter pain relievers.
Four small but scientifically controlled experiments in recent years have concluded that smoked cannabis can provide moderate relief from chronic, severe non-cancer pain – including HIV-related nerve pain and post-traumatic neuropathy, a dreaded condition that can follow an injury or medical procedure. Both are notoriously resistant to conventional treatments.
Scientists are only beginning to tease out the possible anti-cancer properties of pot. Early experiments in animals suggest that purified forms of THC and cannabidiol – two major constituents of marijuana – can induce certain cancer cells, including breast cancer cells, to essentially kill themselves off – a process known as apoptosis. The cells self-destruct; they stop dividing and spreading. Cannabinoids also seems to shut down a tumour’s life-giving blood supply.
Meanwhile, researchers across Canada are testing cannabinoids against arthritis, glaucoma and gastrointestinal inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn’s.
“Science is just scratching the surface,” says Dr. Mark Ware, head of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids and director of clinical research at the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit at Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre.
In Canada, synthetic versions of THC and other pure cannabinoids are already available by prescription – pills and sprays approved for cancer pain, for nausea associated with chemotherapy, to stimulate appetite and for the relief of the pain and spasticity of multiple sclerosis.

Medical marijuana, Ware argues, is essentially just a different delivery system for cannabinoids.
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