By Mauro Whiteman, On Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
A researcher and professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine’s downtown Phoenix campus criticized a government institute for obstructing a study on the medical value of marijuana at a presentation Tuesday at the Phoenix Theater.
A study on marijuana in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been repeatedly obstructed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), researcher and University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix professor Sue Sisley said.
Sisley, a psychiatrist by training who teaches internal medicine and psychiatry, spoke to an audience of more than 30 members ranging from doctors to medical marijuana patients about the difficulties her FDA-approved study has encountered in dealing with what she called the “NIDA monopoly.”
“(NIDA) is a government-enforced monopoly on the legal supply of marijuana,” she said, adding that the agency is one of the biggest obstacles to having “legitimate research on the medical properties of the plant.”
Following the FDA approval of their study’s protocol on April 28, NIDA had yet to respond to the study’s protocol submission. Sisley said the project may never be allowed to continue.
The study, which would occur over many weeks, could take place downtown if the protocol receives NIDA approval, Sisley said.
“It’s risky, but the (UA College of Medicine – Phoenix) dean (Stuart Flynn) is showing a lot of courage in this area,” she said of the possibility of bring the study to the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.
Sisley added that her opinions do not represent those of the university, but she said she believes UA has been “surprisingly really supportive.”
Al Bravo, associate director of the Office of Public Affairs for the College of Medicine – Phoenix, said Flynn “has at least recognized that this is legitimate research.”
The presentation, titled “Marijuana – Is it Medicine?,” took place as a part of the college’s Science Cafe discussion series.
The series takes place during both the fall and spring semesters, usually hosting multiple discussions on different topics pertaining to science each semester.
With the passage of Proposition 203—the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act—in the fall of last year, a number of questions have arisen regarding the drug, Sisley said, recalling that immediately following the vote she was “flooded with calls.”
However, Sisley said she has found a lack of research into the attributes of the drug that usually take place with other medicines. Her study would look to examine the drug’s use in treating PTSD, a disease that is not listed as a debilitating illness in the Medical Marijuana Act.
Roger Champigny, a 56-year-old veteran who has been diagnosed with medical PTSD and currently holds a medical marijuana card, said he was able to get off of four medications with harmful side effects because of his new treatment.
Champigny’s main diagnosis is hepatic encephalopathy, a disease that affects the brain, and he said his psychiatrist has supported his use of medical marijuana in place of prescription drugs that were causing him to have thoughts of suicide.
Near the end of the presentation, Sisley asked the audience for questions and suggestions regarding the study.
Eric Johnson, a 30-year-old medical marijuana patient, expressed concerns about the low THC levels in the study. The study, in order to comply with NIDA standards, used THC levels of 2, 6 and 12 percent, while Johnson said his medical marijuana never has levels below 15 percent.
“I personally think it’s a waste of time,” he said. “It’s not the medicine that the patients are getting. It would be a waste of a study.”
Johnson said he believes the most important step is to get the drug rescheduled. Currently, marijuana is labeled as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, which refers to drugs that have “no currently accepted medical use” or “high potential for abuse.”
Sisley said recent studies, especially those in countries other than the U.S., have shown marijuana to have “tremendous medical potential.”
Other audience members expressed concern over the gender and ethnicity of study participants and the fact that the study focused on inhalation of the drug rather than oral ingestion.
Sisley accepted all comments and questions with poise, often saying she would take the questions back to her research group to come up with solutions.
Valerie Miranda, a Phoenix-based doctor, said one of the opponents to research on the medicinal value of marijuana is “big pharmacy.”
“Their lobbyists are very powerful,” Miranda said, adding that marijuana does not lend well to synthesization.
Miranda cited Marinol and Sativex as two alternative treatments based on synthesizing cannabis. However, Champigny said his experience with Marinol showed the drug to be “absolutely useless.”
Sisley stressed the importance of research throughout her lecture, saying that she hopes to overcome the difficulties posed by government agencies in order to “help improve the body of knowledge” about medical marijuana’s usage.
“Only through an FDA-approved study can you get that analysis,” she said.
The problem of politics getting in the way of research is not unique to medical marijuana research, as Sisley pointed out. The political climate during the Bush administration made stem-cell research impossible in the U.S.
Despite more than six months of delays, Sisley said she is optimistic going into the future with her research. The auditorium erupted in applause after she gave her version of the famous polio researcher Albert Sabin’s quote:
“A scientist who is also a human being cannot rest while knowledge which might reduce suffering rests on the shelf.”
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