Medical Use of Cannabis Under Fire

Sativex? is a drug developed by English-based GW Pharmaceuticals, and is the first in a developing portfolio of cannabis-based medicines the company plans to produce. Dr. Richard Musty, a UVM psychopharmacologist, has been researching the effects of cannabis (the plant from which marijuana is derived) on the human brain for thirty years, and acted as a scientific consultant to GW Pharmaceuticals during the development of this drug. Sativex? has two active ingredients, both of which are cannabinoids (derived solely from the cannabis plant), and are found in marijuana: THC and cannabidiol. What makes the drug unique, according to Dr. Musty, is that its users do not experience a “high” when it is taken at its prescribed dosage. Sativex? was approved by Health Canada in 2005, for the treatment of neuropathic pain and decreased mobility in patients with Multiple Sclerosis (MS.) Although the drug is currently being prescribed in Canada, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are wary of importing the drug. Dr. Musty has had similar problems with the US government when dealing with cannabis-related drugs in the past – several years ago, when Musty and his colleagues were attempting to obtain approval for a drug containing cannabinoids, “[the FDA] said, ‘we have philosophical problems with this.'” The issues the government had with the drug were not scientific, but concerning public policy – “I think if people look at the data, it’s undeniable that it’s a good drug,” says Musty. In previous meetings with governmental agencies, the psychopharmacologist working for those agencies were not the ones objecting to legalizing the cannabis-based drug. “They didn’t raise any issues about the potential medical uses of cannabis products,” says Musty. The government’s reaction to drugs containing cannabinoids is drawing sharp criticism from one campus group, the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP.) Larry Clarfeld, the President of the SSDP, believes that, “there is no reason patients should be denied a drug that is proven effective in treating their symptoms for any reason,” and characterized the government’s response to drugs like Sativex? as being part of the “war on the sick.” One objection to the import and legalization of drugs such as Sativex? is that such an act would lead down a slippery slope to the legalization of marijuana itself. In fact, Dr. Musty does believe that marijuana should be legal in the United States – “I would support controlled legalization like they have in Holland.” Many legalization advocates draw comparisons between marijuana and legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco. Given the current data available, Dr. Musty believes that, “if you compare cannabis to alcohol, I would say alcohol is a much worse drug.” The SSDP plans to host a lecture in the coming weeks featuring Dr. Musty, spotlighting the effects of cannabinoids such as those found in Sativex? on the brain. For more information about the organization, you can visit http://www.uvm.edu/~ssdp.