And why are our tax dollars paying for it?
As the time-tested advice goes, don’t fight fire with fire. (Unless, of course, you’re Metallica). Judging by the results of a recently released scientific study, however, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), never got the memo. Beginning in 2005, in collaboration with the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Dr. Frances Levin, the seasoned psychiatry professor at Columbia University, NIDA attempted to determine whether the synthetic drug Dronabinol, which is sold as Marinol, could be used to curb the symptoms of marijuana addiction and withdrawal. There was just one catch: Marinol is made of pure THC. In short, the folks at NIDA were trying to combat the withdrawal symptoms of a substance with…itself.
If you’re skeptical of this logic, you’re not alone. “What a crock!” exclaimed Dr. Dale Gieringer, the state coordinator of California NORML, and a co-founder of the California Drug Policy Reform Coalition. “This is like using morphine to cure opium addiction; something that was actually tried in the 19th century,” he told me. “It’s just obvious that if you take…people with the problem of addiction to a particular substance, then to try to cure them of that addiction, it does not make sense to give them that substance.” While Dr. Levin, the principal investigator of the study, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story, a fellow medical source made a noble effort to offer an explanation: “the thought may have been to see if Marinol could be used in a fashion similar to how methadone is used to treat heroin addicts.” The results of the study, however, made public this April – more than a decade after it began – lean heavily in Gieringer’s favor. Furthermore, they shine light on the persisting disconnect between the pharmaceutical and cannabis industries.
In 2005, NIDA and their collaborators began recruiting about 180 men and women, all of whom were “seeking outpatient treatment for problems related to marijuana use,” to participate in the twelve-week study, held at Columbia University. To qualify, participants needed to be using cannabis at least five times a week; many were likely seeking relief from “anxiety, irritability, bodily discomfort, and insomnia.” Roughly half of the participants, randomly selected, were given daily doses of Dronabinol, which is typically used to treat nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, while the other half were given a placebo. The process behind the experiment was simple: administer the pills, check in with the participants twice a week, see whether Marinol had any effect on their withdrawal symptoms. The data, however, was anything but straightforward
Even in sterile scientific jargon, the sparse results read like the opening scene of a dystopian blockbuster, in which the doctors discover just how nasty the titular virus is. A third of the participants left the experiment prematurely; four participants experienced “serious adverse” reactions, including worsening diabetes conditions, worsening asthma, a stomach virus and even an altercation with police resulting in hospitalization; the study was terminated prematurely. Gieringer didn’t seem surprised by this series of events, citing in part the unpredictable nature of “bioavailability” – the proportion of a drug or other substance that has an active effect on the body; a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine puts the bioavailability of Marinol at 10-20%.
Studies like this illuminate the enormous gulf between pharmaceutical interests and the viability of cannabis as a practical and effective alternative; it’s hard to imagine the justification for dropping cash on such a study. “[NIDA] have this prejudice there that it is better for people to be using FDA approved synthetic drugs than unapproved herbal medications,” Gieringer pointed out. While the looming promise of Proposition 64 has inspired optimism in many, at least in California, studies like these remind us that even as the nation moves towards the legalization and further legitimization of cannabis, the medical community remains close-minded, dragging its feet in the dirt.