14 March 2000

The dope on medicine

by Kate Melville

In the 'land of the free' more people are incarcerated for drug 'crimes' than in any other nation. Yet in a brave move the University of Iowa is actually daring to hold a conference aimed at educating health care professionals and researchers on the medical use of marijuana.

The conference, is titled "Medical Marijuana: Science Based Clinical Applications," and it is being organised by Patients Out of Time, a non-profit that works to end the legal prohibition of marijuana for medical use. In the promotional material the event is described as, "the beginning of the re-education for clinicians about the efficacy of cannabis (marijuana) in medical practice". The target audience are physicians, nurses and health care professionals, as well as health policy advocates, patients and lawyers.

Speakers at the conference will include:

Melanie Dreher, Ph.D., Professor, and Dean of nursing at the University of Idaho

Robert Block, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anesthesia at the University of Idaho College of Medicine

Janet E. Joy, Ph.D., Director of a study on medical marijuana released last year by the Institute of Medicine

Other speakers and sessions will provide information on the state of clinical and basic scientific research on marijuana, its medical use history and patient case studies.

Al Byrne, co-founder of Patients Out of Time, describes the conference as, "…historic". It is a statement to the public and the health care professional community. People who use marijuana as medicine illegally number in the tens of thousands; the people who use it legally in the states that have passed medical marijuana laws number in the millions and we have a health care community that knows zero."

Dreher said the marijuana may have therapeutic effects on chronic pain, muscle spasms, loss of appetite and other health problems and is no more a "gateway" to harder drugs than alcohol or nicotine.

While the event is sure to bring out anti-drug protestors, Drehler says that the event is not about promoting legalisation, but to help "clarify health professionals' concepts of marijuana as more than a recreational drug. Block backs this by saying that the approval of marijuana for medical use is, "a very political, very emotional debate. Hopefully this conference will turn out to be less political and emotional, and focus instead on the scientific evidence."

US Federal law stops doctors from prescribing marijuana although seven states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws. These laws 'allow' physicians to "recommend" marijuana to patients for the relief of pain, muscle spasm, intraocular pressure from glaucoma and various other medical conditions.

According to Dreher, "the best place for this discussion is on a university campus. If we can't have a free and open dialogue about controversial subjects here, where can we?" Details about the conference and list of speakers and panels are available at http://www.drugsense.org/ncct.

This conference seems like a sensible idea, but given Americas weird attitude to drugs (the anti-drug campaign slogan of the Regan era was 'Just say No', the only problem was not many people seemed to take much notice). So unfortunately the next publicity we will probably see for this event will be some form of mass media scare story about doctors wanting to prescribe 'evil, illegal drugs' to their patients!