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Unconventional medicine?

According to federal law, the possession and use of marijuana is illegal. However, with a recent Supreme Court ruling and new medical research, the battle for the use of medical marijuana is as pertinent as ever.

For years, victims of chronic illnesses have claimed that smoking marijuana helps ease their ailments. According to Herman Friedman, graduate research professor of microbiology and immunology at USF, marijuana is especially helpful to AIDS patients.

“Doctors prescribe marijuana to increase the appetites of AIDS patients,” he said. “It also helps ease the nausea from other medications.”

Aside from use by AIDS patients, marijuana has been used to relieve nausea of cancer patients going through chemotherapy. It has also been cited as helping sufferers of glaucoma, a disease that causes blindness, by releasing tension in the eye.

Recently, Marinol, the pill form of marijuana’s most active ingredient THC, was found to help those with multiple sclerosis.

“The British, who have been pushing that marijuana helps with physical discomfort, did a study on 600 MS patients, giving one group a placebo and the other group Marinol,” Friedman said. “Although there was little scientific evidence that the pill helped, the patients with the Marinol felt the effects and claimed to feel better.”

The study, which was conducted in London, was the first of its kind. Patients reported more mobility and less pain.

As medical marijuana faces much opposition in the United States, many countries have legalized the drug for medicinal uses. For example, Canada announced in 2000 that marijuana provided by the government would be made available to AIDS patients. In 2003, people with a doctor’s prescription could get pot from the pharmacy at a cost of $105 per ounce, much cheaper than what they had been paying on the streets.

While making progress, the United States is poking along when it comes to action on this issue. Thirty-five states have legislation that recognizes the medicinal value of marijuana, and nine states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) have laws allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana. Of the nine states allowed to prescribe the drug, Friedman said only four or five actually do. Recently, the Bush administration appealed to the Supreme Court to punish doctors who recommended that patients try marijuana, citing that the public health is more important than free speech.The Supreme Court disagreed, giving doctors the freedom to talk about the benefits of marijuana usage with sick patients.

Opponents of the use of medical marijuana often cite that Marinol is legalized and has the same effect as smoking marijuana. However, patients say smoking works much faster, in five to 10 minutes, whereas the pill must dissolve in the blood stream, which can take anywhere from one to four hours. Marinol, which is THC, only one of 400 chemical components of marijuana, has severe side effects, including extreme dizziness and lethargy.

A major fear, possibly the most prominent reason people oppose legalization for medical purposes, is that recreational drug use will increase among America’s youth. Many think by using it as medication, kids will think it’s safe to use.

“Everyone has to keep in mind that even though it’s legal for people suffering to use it, that’s not an excuse for healthy people to use it,” Friedman said. “We have to be careful its legalization does not become a crutch.”