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Release: March 8, 2000

UI to host first national conference on marijuana therapeutics

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A national conference to be held at the University of Iowa April 6-8 will be the first to educate health care professionals and researchers on the medical use of marijuana.

The conference, titled "Medical Marijuana: Science Based Clinical Applications," is sponsored by the UI College of Nursing and the UI College of Medicine and organized by Patients Out of Time, a nonprofit organization that works to end the legal prohibition of marijuana for medical use.

Among the conference speakers will be Melanie Dreher, Ph.D., professor and dean of nursing at the UI, and Robert Block, Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesia in the UI College of Medicine. Dreher, a nurse and anthropologist, has studied drug use and health extensively in Jamaica. She will deliver remarks on marijuana use during pregnancy and serve on a panel discussing the potential health risks of therapeutic marijuana.

Block, who has investigated the effects of chronic marijuana use on cognition and brain function, also will serve on the panel on potential health risks and talk about his research.

Conference literature states the event "marks the beginning of the re-education for clinicians about the efficacy of cannabis (marijuana) in medical practice." Speakers and panels will provide information on the state of clinical and basic science research on marijuana, the history of its medical use, case presentations of patients legally receiving marijuana and other topics. The conference is designed for physicians, nurses and other health care professionals, as well as lawyers, health policy advocates and patients.

"This is a historic conference," said Al Byrne, co-founder of Patients Out of Time. "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."

In addition to Dreher and Block, Byrne said conference speakers include the world's foremost authorities on the therapeutic benefits of marijuana, as well as its effects, toxicity and side effects. The opening address will be given by Janet E. Joy, Ph.D., director of a study on medical marijuana released last year by the Institute of Medicine.

Dreher said the conference is a response to the IOM study, which found that marijuana may have therapeutic effects on chronic pain, muscle spasms, loss of appetite and other health problems; is no more a "gateway" to harder drugs than nicotine or alcohol; and is less physically addictive than many commonly prescribed drugs.

The conference is not intended to promote legalization, Dreher said, but to help "clarify health professionals' concepts of marijuana as not just a recreational drug. Other cultures have been using it therapeutically for decades, if not centuries." She cited the example of Jamaican women who use marijuana to break their addiction to crack cocaine and noted that for many, marijuana is "the cheapest and most available antidepressant around."

Block plans to discuss findings from his research that raise some concern about the effects of long-term marijuana use on the brain. He said chronic use seems to alter cognition and blood flow in certain parts of the brain, but emphasized that it is uncertain how long these effects persist once a person stops using marijuana.

Approval of medical use of marijuana is "a very political, very emotional debate," Block said. "Hopefully this conference will turn out to be less political and emotional, and focus instead on the scientific evidence."

Federal law prohibits doctors from prescribing marijuana to patients. Seven states and the District of Columbia, however, have passed medical marijuana laws, most of them through ballot initiatives. The laws allow physicians to "recommend" marijuana to patients for relief of cancer pain, muscle spasms from muscular dystrophy, intraocular pressure from glaucoma and other medical conditions.

Byrne said the federal prohibition on medical marijuana hurts patients who might otherwise find relief from their symptoms. He said his organization, Patients Out of Time, chose its name for a reason: "The patients we represent are dying -- they can't wait for the politicians to posture for another 15 years."

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?"

A conference brochure containing a full list of speakers and panels, as well as a registration form, can be obtained at the Web site http://www.drugsense.org/ncct, or by calling the UI Center for Conferences and Institutes toll-free at (800) 551-9029 or (319)335-4141.