For thousands of years, healers have used a single herb to treat a wide variety of symptoms. It has been tried against colds, hemorrhoids and dandruff as well as more serious conditions such as asthma, inflammation and loss of appetite.
Until the early 20th century, American physicians often prescribed it as a pain reliever, muscle relaxant and treatment for migraine. But in 1937 the Marihuana Tax Act was passed to keep people from abusing this herb. The consequence was to make it nearly impossible to use it for legitimate medical purposes.
Now many physicians, researchers and lawyers are calling for a re-evaluation of the current policy. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently carried a compelling commentary by Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon and attorney James Bakalar.
They point out that marijuana is a remarkably safe compound, with "no known case of a lethal overdose." They maintain that marijuana is also "far less addictive and far less subject to abuse than many drugs now used as muscle relaxants, hypnotics and analgesics."
This drug is being used illegally by many cancer patients to control nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and by AIDS patients to combat weight loss. People with glaucoma and multiple sclerosis are also experimenting with marijuana. One reader relates his experience:
"I have an inherited neurological disorder which has led gradually from general clumsiness to the need for a wheelchair. Although I am adapting to the disability, managing the chronic pain is much more difficult. I've tried massage, acupuncture, physical therapy and meditation. I have also tried every drug the neurologists and pain experts have prescribed.
"Most of the pain relievers either do me no good or give me only unwanted side effects. The exception is Marinol, synthesized THC. This compound consistently eases pain, relaxes uncontrollably tense muscles, reduces swelling in the ankles and improves bladder control, all with a minimum of side effects.
"THC is also the active ingredient in marihuana. This may explain the lengths doctors go to and the strange drugs they try in an effort to avoid prescribing THC. There is a strong social stigma in using this drug, and it is exorbitantly expensive -- over $600 for a month's supply (50 pills). If it were derived from almost any other plant, I could grow it myself for free.
"When will the regulators realize that the use of this drug is not a recreational matter at all, but simply one of avoiding extreme pain?"
Federal bureaucrats need a healthy dose of compassion. Making marijuana more available for research and treatment will not lead to moral decay.
Dr. Grinspoon and Mr. Bakalar exhort their colleagues: "It is time for physicians to acknowledge more openly that the present classification is scientifically, legally, and morally wrong." We agree.
Q: I have been treated for glaucoma for nearly three years. My son heard about a glaucoma drug, Canasol, developed from marijuana in Jamaica.
My ophthalmologist said he had heard of experiments with marijuana for glaucoma but he could not consider its use due to FDA regulations. Is there any way to find out if this drug would help me?
A: As far as we can tell, Canasol is unavailable in the United States. More research is needed before marijuana compounds can be endorsed for glaucoma.
Q: Please tell me what alpha hydroxy acids are and why they are supposed to be good for your skin?
A: Fruit acids have been tested for a variety of skin conditions including acne and dry skin. These compounds are organic acids extracted from fruit and have been used in moisturizers for years. Research is ongoing to determine if these alpha hydroxy acids can help reduce wrinkling and rejuvenate sun-damaged skin. Until the results are published, don't spend a pile of money on fancy creams.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.