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Medical Marijuana Might Reduce Nerve Pain Among People Living With HIV/AIDS, Study Says

February 13, 2007

Medical marijuana might reduce the pain of peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage, among people living with HIV/AIDS, according to a study published in the Feb. 13 issue of the journal Neurology, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 2/13). Donald Abrams of the University of California-San Francisco and colleagues examined the effects of smoking medicinal marijuana among people living with HIV/AIDS during a two-year period beginning in May 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). Researchers enrolled 50 HIV-positive participants who reported severe foot pain caused either by HIV/AIDS or their medications, according to the Post (Washington Post, 2/13). The participants each spent a week at a secure laboratory at San Francisco General Hospital and were required to stop marijuana use before the start of the study (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). The researchers measured baseline pain among the participants by asking them to rank their pain on a scale of one to 100 and by administering two standardized tests involving a small hot iron applied to the skin and hot chili pepper cream (Washington Post, 2/13). Twenty-five participants were randomly chosen to receive active marijuana cigarettes with 3.5% THC, the drug's active ingredient, and 25 received a placebo (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). The participants smoked three times daily -- at 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. -- for five days (Washington Post, 2/13). The study found that after the first cigarette on the first day, at least 50% of participants who received active marijuana reported a 72% reduction in pain (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). The researchers recorded a 15% reduction in pain among those who received the placebo cigarette (Vesely, Oakland Tribune, 2/12). Over five days, the median reduction in pain reported by the active marijuana smokers was 34%, compared with 17% in the placebo group, the study found (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). The researchers took steps to ensure that the marijuana in the study -- which was grown on the government's official marijuana farm in Mississippi and stored in a locked freezer -- was not used for recreational purposes, according to the Post (Washington Post, 2/13).

Comments, Reaction
The results are "evidence, using the gold standard for clinical research, that cannabis has some medical benefits for a condition that can be severely debilitating," Abrams said (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). He added, "I think that there are people out there who say there is no evidence that marijuana is medicine, that this is all just a smoke screen." David Murray, chief scientist for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the physical pain of people living with HIV/AIDS is an issue of great concern. However, "this particular study is not terribly convincing" because of methodological problems, Murray said (Dunham, Reuters, 2/12). He added, "People who smoke marijuana are subject to bacterial infections in the lungs. Is this really what a physician who is treating someone with a compromised immune system wants to prescribe?" (Elias, AP/Casper Star-Tribune, 2/13). Barbara Roberts -- former interim associate deputy director in the Office of National Drug Control Policy and now with Americans for Safe Access -- said, "This should be a wake-up call for Congress to hold hearings to investigate the therapeutic use of cannabis and to encourage more research" (Washington Post, 2/13). Igor Grant -- director of the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, which funded the study -- said that although the study's finding are "very promising," they are not definitive (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13).

Online The study is available online.

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