(02-12) 12:59 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- Doctors at San Francisco General Hospital reported today that HIV-infected patients suffering from a painful nerve condition in their hands or feet obtained substantial relief by smoking small amounts of marijuana in a carefully constructed study funded by the State of California.
Although the study itself was small, it is the first of its kind to measure the therapeutic effects of marijuana smoking while meeting the most rigorous requirements for scientific proof -- a so-called randomized, double-blinded placebo-controlled trial.
As such, the results of the trial are being hailed by medical marijuana advocates as the most solid proof to date that smoking the herb can be beneficial to patients who might otherwise require opiates or other powerful painkillers to cope with a condition known as peripheral neuropathy.
Federal agencies oppose the use of marijuana for medical purposes on the grounds that it is harmful and that there is no scientific evidence to support medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States.
"It's time to wake up and smell the data,'' said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group advocating legalization of medicinal use of the drug. "The claim that the government keeps making that marijuana is not a safe or effective medicine doesn't have a leg to stand on.''
The study found that most volunteers who were given three marijuana cigarettes a day experienced a significant drop in the searing pain of peripheral neuropathy, which patients liken to a stabbing or burning sensation, usually on the bottoms of their feet.
On average, the participants in the experiment reported at the start that their pain was roughly at midpoint on a 100 point scale, where zero was no pain at all and 100 was "the worst pain imaginable.''
At least half the volunteers who smoked the active marijuana experienced a 72 percent reduction in pain after smoking their first cigarette on the first day of the trial. Over the course of five days, the median reduction in pain reported by the marijuana smokers was 34 percent, compared to 17 percent reported by those who smoked placebo cigarettes that had the active ingredient THC removed in a process akin to decaffeinating coffee.
"This is evidence, using the gold standard for clinical research, that cannabis has some medicinal benefits for a condition that can be severely debilitating,'' said Dr. Donald Abrams, lead author of the study released today by the journal Neurology.
The trial was conducted over a two-year period during which 50 volunteers each spent a week at a secured laboratory at San Francisco General. After a two-day orientation period, during which they stopped smoking marijuana they may have been using, they were given one cigarette three times a day. Half of the volunteers received marijuana containing about 3.5 percent of THC, the active ingredient of the drug; the other half received the placebo.
Abrams said that the placebo cigarettes looked and smelled identical to the ones containing active ingredients
Because of the unusual nature of the experiment, Abrams first had to receive clearance from eight different government agencies, including the University of California, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The cigarettes were made from marijuana grown on a federal marijuana farm in Mississippi, and stored in a locked freezer at San Francisco General.
E-mail Sabin Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org.