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Medicinal “Weed” Helps the Ill: Doctor

By Hempology | December 14, 2006

One day, when he was in a Jamaican hospital doing graduate research on chronic pain, Dr. Mark Ware noticed that some of his patients were coping with their pain much more easily than others.

Intrigued, he asked an old Rastafarian his secret.

“It’s the herb, Doc,” replied the man.

That’s when the doctor found his vocation.

Ware is now a leading authority on the medical uses of cannabis and works at the McGill University Health Centre Pain Clinic.

But in order for his medical research to continue, he says the public and the media need to stop confusing the therapeutic use of cannabis with recreational use.

During a public lecture at the Montreal General Hospital last Wednesday, Ware pointed to a photograph that recently accompanied an articleA in the press about medicinal cannabis. The picture showed an elderly man wearing sunglasses emblazoned with bright green marihuana leaves.

“The patients who come to my office don’t look like this,” said Ware. “They’re ill people who are trying to live happier lives.”

“Marijuana engenders powerful emotions in people, but I urge them to take a step back and consider what the possibilities are for pain treatment”

Cannabis shows promise as a medication for a range of symptoms associated with chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and chronic nerve injury pain, he said.

“Every month, new research is published from around the world suggesting that cannabinoids [chemical compounds, such as THC, found in marijuana] play a role in physiological processes like pain, appetite, inflammation and movement,” Ware said.

“We now know there is a system of cannabinoids in our bodies working all the time to control these processes, and this system may be an appropriate target for new therapies,” he continued.

While cannabis is by no means a full-proof cure for pain, Ware says it can make small improvements on a patients’ condition.

A “Pain is hard to live with and hard to treat, and studies show cannabinoids have some effect,” he said. “It’s just another option we have, it’s just another piece of equipment in our toolbox.”

As with most drugs, however, cannabis will not work in the same way for everyone and the careful monitoring by a physician is required.

Cannabis is also not without danger. While it does not cause madness, as popular lore once claimed, it is linked to higher incidence of psychosis and schizophrenia in early users and individuals with a prior history of psychotic disorders. More research is still needed to determine whether there is truly a cause and effect relationship.

A recent study on patients who had never smoked cigarettes has also proved that there is no link between cannabis and cancer, said Ware. In fact, a study on animals has showed that there might even be anti-cancer agents in THC.

After the talk, a long line of people who either live with severe pain, or have relatives who do, shared their stories with Ware and showed visible interest in his research, giving evidence that pain treatment is a daily concern for many Quebecers.

As of September 2006, 1,492 Canadians were authorized to possess dried marihuana, including 154 Quebecers, while as of last year, 4,500 Quebecers were listed for treatment at pain centres.

On July 30, 2001, Health Canada granted access to marijuana for medical use to those who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses, although unlawful possession is still a criminal offence. Holders of an authorization to possess can obtain marihuana from three possible sources: they can apply for access to purchase dried marijuana from Health Canada; they can grow their own supply; or they can designate someone else to grow it for them.

Ware’s research program on cannabis is supported by Canadian and Quebec funding agencies, such as the CIHR and FRSQ. He has advised the Canadian Government on medical marijuana access regulations, and has consulted for pharmaceutical companies on clinical development of new cannabinoid therapies.

A Ware’s lecture was the third and final segment of a series that took place at the Montreal General. Entitled “From microscope to stethoscope,” the free public lecture series invited MUHC scientists to share their research with the public and debunk some of the myths that surround it.

In the first two lectures, Dr. David Colman explored the role of serendipity in medical research while Dr. Brian Ward looked at how new immunologic ideas can help fight pandemics diseases like HIV or the avian bird flu.

To apply for the authorization to possess marijuana, an application must be submitted in writing to Health Canada along with a declaration of support from a medical practitioner. Application forms and guidelines are available online or by calling Health Canada at 1-866-337-7705.

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