With the recent reports of Michael Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner, smoking marijuana, the illegal substance continues to spark debates on both its recreational and medicinal uses.
Washington, D.C. and 13 states have allowed the use of medical marijuana to treat conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Evidence suggests properties in marijuana may also be capable of treating Alzheimer's, according to a study by Gary Wenk, researcher and professor of psychology and neuroscience and molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at The Ohio State University and Medical Center.
Wenk studied older rats by giving one group a dose of cannabinoid, a component in marijuana, while a second group acted as the control. The rats given the cannabinoid performed better on memory tests and showed slower depletion of brain cells, according to his study.
"Alzheimer's is a neurological disorder that affects the elderly," said William Messer, chair of the pharmacology department and pharmacology professor at UT.
"The disease currently has no cure, impairs thinking, contributes to memory loss and is a progressive disease, which eventually leads to the inability to function," Messer said.
Wenk's research is a valid approach to treating the disease and deserves to be taken seriously, Messer said. Cannabinoids may reduce inflammation in areas of the brain and could be a possible treatment for Alzheimer's in conjunction with other methods, he said.
Lynne Chapman, a clinical assistant professor in UT's Department of Rehabilitation Services, disagreed on the medicinal marijuana concept.
"You can't compare the effects of marijuana across the board," she said. "It affects different people very differently, so it's very dangerous to treat [medicinal marijuana] like it's good for all or same for all."
She said a thorough history of family addiction, as well a psychological, environmental and genetic history, should be completed prior to the prescription of any addictive substance.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, marijuana was placed as a Schedule 1 substance in 1970 under the Controlled Substance Act on the basis that the drug offers no accepted medical benefit and has a high potential for abuse.
"Marijuana is a safe, non-toxic substance," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "From a pharmacology perspective, marijuana is very attractive because it is relatively easy to grow, non-lethal and cheap when compared to synthetic drugs."
NORML encourages the responsible use of marijuana and argues that marijuana should not be placed as a Schedule 1 substance alongside drugs such as heroin and LSD.
"The idea that marijuana is dangerous and has no medical benefit needs to be knocked down," St. Pierre said. "The commercial pharmaceutical companies and government have fought to keep medicinal marijuana off the market and have spread the 'reefer madness' lie."
Peter Stebli, a junior majoring in health and information, said medicinal marijuana is appropriate considering the large amount of research and clinical studies suggesting the potential benefits.
"Marijuana can improve the quality of life for certain individuals suffering from diseases, like cancer and AIDS, by relieving pain and nausea," Stebli said. "However, regulation of the access, dosage and potency of the drug must be an important part of a medicinal marijuana system."
Claire Whitlatch, a sophomore majoring in pharmacy, said she believes medicinal marijuana is, in some cases, a good alternative to pain relievers like OxyContin or Vicodin. Pain relievers can cause the user to become dependent and addicted to the opiate, Whitlatch said.
"The cost is another big factor; pharmaceutical drugs can be very expensive," she said.
Around 80 million Americans admit to having used marijuana, and the numbers are not going down despite federal efforts, St. Pierre said.
Chapman, who is also a licensed Drug and Alcohol counselor, said she has worked with people addicted to marijuana. She added, however, that marijuana's addictiveness for all is still debatable. She concluded marijuana is a highly individualized drug.
"For some, [marijuana] could have medicinal effects, but I think for other people it could have very negative effects," Chapman said.
Professor in the Department of Counselor Education and School of Psychology Nick Piazza said he felt the research being done on Alzheimer's and medical marijuana is exciting and has revealed some ways that the brain works, but he said he had some reservations.
"They're using a synthetic version of the active ingredients that are in marijuana, so the comparability to what someone might smoke versus what is being used in a research study is kind of questionable," he said.
"But the most important thing about this study into Alzheimer's is that when you take a look at the brain, there are a couple of different types of receptors in the brain that interact with the active ingredient in marijuana," he said.
Piazza explained that the receptor that needs to be affected to aid Alzheimer's patients is not the same one that causes someone to experience a "high."
"So the cannabinoids and THC [Tetrahydrocannabinol] interact with one set of receptors to produce their psychogenic effects, and on the other hand, they interact with a different receptor to produce the anti-inflammatory effects you're looking for in Alzheimer's," Piazza said.
If marijuana can help people with certain diseases, then those patients deserve access to its benefits, St. Pierre said.
Chapman stressed that doctors who give out prescriptions for marijuana walk a fine line because the substance targets the limbic system, which controls emotions and motivation She added that there are more effective ways to help people cope than altering their perceptions.
"You need to be careful how you're tampering with [patients'] emotional state, because for many people, their emotions already are being challenged by their condition," she said. "Really what marijuana does is it makes a person apathetic and distorts their perception."
by Nick Bruno
Published: Monday, February 9, 2009
The Independent Collegian