Marijuana is about to come under close scientific scrutiny in California. The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research is being set up by the University of California to study the drug's efficacy and safety.
Announced last week, the centre will study the effects of cannabis on a number of diseases, including AIDS, muscle spasticity and nausea caused by cancer treatment. Some biochemistry might also be funded.
California's state assembly has provided US$3 million for the first year of research, and plans to fund two more years at $3 million each. Any research institution in California can apply for funds from the centre, which will be a venture between the university's San Diego and San Francisco campuses. Research proposals will be reviewed by a national panel of experts and approved by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which will also supply the cannabis.
The plan is to start enrolling patients and conducting studies in January, according to Igor Grant, a physician at the University of California at San Diego and co-director of the centre. He says that clinical trials and studies should provide reliable evidence on whether any medicinal benefits can be derived from smoking marijuana or ingesting marinol, a synthetic version of marijuana's most active ingredient, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol).
Although there are surveys and retrospective studies on the purported positive medicinal effects of cannabis, there are few prospective, blinded studies on the drug. US federal authorities have balked at funding such studies, concerned that they might encourage abuse of marijuana.
But in recent years, several prestigious scientific groups have called for a comprehensive cannabis study. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council issued a report recommending research on cannabis.
California has voted to make cannabis legal for medicinal use, and ‘cannabis clubs’ provide marijuana for various purported health needs. This has prompted legal battles between state authorities and federal prosecutors, who fear that medicinal use will be used as a cover for criminal activity.
As these disputes went on, California state Senator John Vasconcellos, a Democrat from Santa Clara, successfully pushed the bill to fund the cannabis research centre through the state assembly.