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Blessing or toxic drug?

Professor offers pros and cons about medical marijuana

April 6, 2010

It has become one of the most burning issues in the country, as far as legalization.

And Iowa is among the states debating benefits and drawbacks of medicinal marijuana.

Ronald Herman, associate professor and director of the Iowa Drug Information Network, was on hand Monday at the Marshalltown Noon Lions Club to give a presentation entitled "Medical Marijuana: Evaluation of the Evidence."

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Because of his years of experience, he was asked by the The Iowa Board of Pharmacy to look into medical evidence associated with the use of marijuana.

Last fall, public hearings were held throughout the state in order to receive input from various individuals on its safety and effectiveness.

According to Herman, cannabis has its benefits, yet risks - hence its classification as a schedule 1 drug, meaning a category not considered legitimate for medicinal purpose with a strong potential for abuse.

However, its actual toxicity from overdose is very rare.

As one of the oldest mood-altering drugs known, cannabis contains more than 460 varied chemicals. THC is the main substance which causes some of its psycho-active effects.

"We've all known someone who has been on prednisone, and there are similar steroids in the plant," Herman said. "That's something we need to remember - when people are ingesting or inhaling the plant, you're not getting one chemical substance, but a whole wide array."

Medical marijuana is currently used as an analgesic, pain reliever or for appetite stimulation - especially for AIDS or cancer patients who are emaciated or experiencing extreme nausea from effects of chemotherapy.

"We probably need to be doing more research and find individual ingredients that will do what we want it to do without some of the contradictory effects," he said.

During several studies, Herman said some patients were given marijuana and others were given placebos - a cigarette without cannabis - to check whether they legitimately received benefits from the drug. However, of those using the placebo, 30 percent said they were given pain relief - while 50 percent who smoked actual cannabis did so as well.

Aside from toxicity, studies found there are a number of harmful effects on the heart, lungs, brain, endocrine system and eyes. It can also increase heart rate and blood pressure.

Herman said it was important to carefully sift through scientific studies already performed to determine the superiority or inferiority of marijuana - not just in comparison to a placebo, but also to active treatments that entail current standards of care.

Though individuals such as cancer patients or people suffering from glaucoma swear by it, Herman cautions against the drug being a cure-all.

"We need to know if it's better or as good as aspirin, codeine or morphine," he said. "Until a law would be passed, I don't think it's going to be the blessing that some people are hoping it's going to be," he said.

Patients who attended the hearings offered pros and cons on using the drug, however he said testimonials on both sides aren't enough to make sound, medical decisions.

"If this does come into law, I'm not sure that all of the proponents of medical marijuana understand the implications of it becoming a schedule 2 substance, which would require a prescription from a physician," he said. "And it won't give people the freedom to grow their own and treat themselves."

Herman said if patients are interested in smoking marijuana, four studies were conducted that said it may provide pain relief in some, but further testing needs to be conducted, and "people should be warned of the neurological, psycho-active effects because they are very real."

After examining over 80 studies, Herman advised a close look at information currently out there before medical marijuana could be actively promoted.

The Pharmacy Board did make a recommendation that it be moved from schedule 1 into schedule 2 categorization, he said. And if the Iowa Legislature implements what the board has suggested, he feels comfortable there will be good controls in place, depending on what gets added to its legislation.

"Some of this research should have been conducted long ago, but there's no funding for it because it's not approved," he said. "If it moves into schedule 2 status, maybe more can be done and we'll get better answers on some of these things."


Contact Tammy R. Lawson at 641-753-6611 or



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