Mon Feb 12, 2007
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Smoking marijuana eases a type of chronic foot pain in people with the AIDS virus, according to a study published on Monday that the researchers touted as demonstrating marijuana's medicinal benefits.
But the White House drug policy office said the research was flawed and offered only "false hope."
The study, appearing in the journal Neurology, focussed on sensory neuropathy -- a kind of severe nerve pain usually felt as aching, painful numbness and burning in the feet -- associated with human immunodeficiency virus infection.
HIV-infected people who smoked marijuana reported a 34-percent reduction in daily pain from this condition, compared to a 17-percent decline among those who smoked placebos.
Fifty HIV-infected adults, mostly men, who had this pain but otherwise were in stable health took part from 2003 to 2005. All were previous marijuana smokers but not considered drug abusers. They were told to stop using it prior to the study.
Half of them smoked marijuana cigarettes three times a day for five days. The other half smoked placebo cigarettes that were identical other than having had the cannabinoids -- the primary active components of the plant -- extracted.
Half the marijuana smokers said their pain level had declined by more than 30 percent, while a quarter of the placebo group reported similar pain reduction. The volunteers had no serious side effects.
Sensory neuropathy affects about a third of HIV-infected people, making walking or standing hard.
Lead researcher Dr. Donald Abrams, one of the first doctors to study AIDS at the start of the epidemic, said the research demonstrated in a carefully conducted clinical trial that smoking marijuana provides some benefit to these patients.
"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," Abrams, of San Francisco General Hospital and University of California San Francisco, said in an interview.
Abrams said he hoped his findings would provide evidence "to help answer this question in an intelligent fashion."
There is a fierce debate over whether marijuana, an illegal drug under U.S. federal law, should be legal for medical uses like treating pain or nausea in AIDS or cancer patients.
David Murray, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's chief scientist, said the suffering of AIDS patients is an issue of great concern.
"Unfortunately, this particular study is not terribly convincing," Murray said, citing what he saw as methodological problems.
"Unfortunately, it will lead many people into a false hope that street marijuana is somehow going to be the thing I can use that will make me feel better and won't jeopardise my health. Now that is a fraud and a dangerous one," he told Reuters.
The study found the relief from smoking marijuana was comparable to that provided by pills now used to treat this nerve pain. But some patients are not helped by these anti-seizure medications, and others cannot tolerate them, drawing interest in marijuana as an alternative.
Californian Diana Dodson, a 50-year-old grandmother who got AIDS via a contaminated blood product, said some pain medications leave her in a stupor.
"I just want people to understand that this is about sick people who deserve a quality of life. If it's something that can help us, we should have safe access to it," Dodson, one of the patients in the study, said of marijuana.