Four years after California legalized the use of marijuana for medical conditions in 1996, the state legislature established and funded the Center for Marijuana Research housed at the University of California-San Diego.
Over the next decade, the state provided nearly $8 million, and the center distributed it to researchers throughout the state who conducted scientific studies to determine the safety and efficacy of cannabis as medicine. They recruited patients to smoke cannabis cigarettes, provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and to inhale vaporized marijuana. Effects were recorded, measured and the findings published in academic journals. Some studies included lab work and animal studies and looked at synthetic cannabis and its effect on learning and memory. A few studies were discontinued for a lack of participants — in one case not enough cancer patients could be found to test cannabis' effectiveness in reducing nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy because the current anti-nausea drugs were working.
In general, the center's studies found that cannabis "is a promising treatment in selected pain syndromes caused by injury or disease of the nervous system, and possibly for painful muscle spasticity due to multiple sclerosis," according to a report sent to the California legislature earlier this year.
Funding now has run out, and the legislature hasn't re-authorized any monies for the center, says J. Hampton Atkinson, a co-director. Two projects will finish by early 2011, and the center will remain as an informational clearinghouse.
Whether the center will act as a model for other states that are considering the medical marijuana issue remains to be seen. "California is the only state to put up a nickel for research," Atkinson says. "As far as I know, these have been the only and most complete studies conducted on the therapeutic aspects of cannabis in this country ever."
Atkinson talked with Metro Times about some of the research, the findings and the dynamics of medical marijuana and science.
Metro Times: How did the U.S. government — which doesn't officially recognize medical or therapeutic uses for marijuana — respond to your requests for approval for research?
Atkinson: They were always very accommodating. They worked very hard and were very helpful. They did a good and efficient job.
MT: The Center's work not only dealt with if marijuana is effective for some medical conditions but what type of delivery — smoking or vaporizing — the patients used. Tell us about the vaporization studies, as they're not as well-known.
Atkinson: They're vaporized delivery systems. The actual plant product is heated to below the point of combustion so the THC is vaporized. It's collected in a rubber bag and the person inhales the contents, the vaporized material, without the problem of combustion. Smoking combusted materials is bad for you and releases all kinds of ... harmful chemicals. This vaporization was an attempt to bypass that problem and it turns out that in the one study that we have already completed, the vaporization delivers comparable levels of THC to the bloodstream as does smoking. It's not perfect — there's a bit of carbon monoxide generated by this process — but it's much less than what's generated by lighting up a joint and smoking the material.
MT: Your studies involving the treatment of nausea for chemotherapy patients was aborted because of a lack of participants. What happened?
Atkinson: Some very talented investigators wanted to study smoked cannabis for relief of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in cancer patients. That was actually one of the target conditions specified by the Institute of Medicine and the National Institute of Health in the late 1990s. It turns out that, as of roughly 2005, 2006, a range of very new, very effective compounds to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting had come along. These were brought to market, they do a very, very good job, and most people got relief — and so, on the one hand, it was difficult to find people who didn't respond to the first-line therapy. On the second instance is the cancer patients ... had to be in a clinical research center during their participation in the study — that is, a hospital setting. Cancer patients aren't interested in spending more time in the hospitals. So that protocol simply didn't accrue as rapidly as anticipated.
MT: Did the center set new protocols and standards for medical marijuana research?
Atkinson: That's a No. 1 aim. We're at a major research university, so discovery is the name of the game. There are only three important things in life: publish, publish and publish. So we've brought all of the studies that have been completed to presentation or publication. (They are on the website at cmcr.ucsd.edu) The language we developed as a mission statement was to be a model resource for collaboration between federal, state and academic entities. To the extent that that's reflected in standardization, that was an aim of the center from the start.
MT: Has the center changed medical marijuana law in California?
Atkinson: We've just taken the position that we've published our findings. We've distributed them to the state Legislature and we'll see what the policymakers do about the science, if anything. I don't know what the impact is.
MT: How much application does the center's work have to the "average" medical marijuana user, assuming there is one?
Atkinson: We couldn't take these studies and say, "All right, medical marijuana is wonderful. Go down to your outlet." We had very highly regulated, standardized product and we knew what we were getting in each cigarette and that's probably not true on the street.
MT: The center's research is wrapping up because the funding is running out. What happens now with all your work?
Atkinson: The next step is what the policymakers want to make of the results, the scientific results. It's a shame that of all the states that have approved medicinal marijuana haven't been interested in supporting research into the cannabinoid system. There's a lot to be learned, and it would be nice if they were to pitch in, but these are hard times.