U.S. government approves medical marijuana research

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration handed backers of medical marijuana a significant victory Friday, opening the way for a University of Arizona researcher to examine whether pot can help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress, a move that could lead to broader studies into potential benefits of the drug.

For years, scientists who have wanted to study how marijuana might be used to treat illness say they have been stymied by resistance from federal drug officials.

The Arizona study had long ago been sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration, but under federal rules, such experiments can use marijuana only from a single, government-run farm in Mississippi. Researchers say the agency that oversees the farm, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has long been hostile to proposals aimed at examining the drug's possible benefits.

"This is a great day," said Arizona researcher Suzanne A. Sisley, a doctor of internal medicine and addiction psychiatry, and a clinical assistant professor of psychology at the university's medical school, who has been trying to get the green light for her study for three years.

"The merits of a rigorous scientific trial have finally trumped politics," Dr. Sisley said. "We never relented, but most other scientists have chosen not to even apply; the process is so onerous. With the implementation of this study and the data generated, this could lead to other crucial research projects."

Backers of medical marijuana hailed the news as an indication that the government had started coming to terms with one of the more striking paradoxes of federal drug policy: Even as about 1 million Americans are using marijuana legally to treat ailments, scientists have had difficulty getting approval to study how the drug might be employed more effectively.

"The political dynamics are shifting," said Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, a group based in Santa Cruz that is raising money to help fund studies such as Dr. Sisley's. The group counts several prominent philanthropists among its backers, including two Pritzkers and a Rockefeller.

Government officials said the approval did not represent a change in underlying policy, just a recognition that Dr. Sisley's proposal meets official standards for research using illegal drugs. The research still requires approval of one more agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, but Dr. Sisley and Mr. Doblin expressed confidence that that would prove a lesser hurdle.

In its letter approving the application, a government review panel noted what it called "significant changes" in the study that justified its approval now. Mr. Doblin said the changes did not affect the study's "core design."

Federal restrictions on pot research have been a source of tension for years. Researchers, marijuana advocates and some members of Congress have accused the National Institute on Drug Abuse of hoarding the nation's only sanctioned research pot for studies aimed at highlighting the drug's ill effects. They had pointed to Dr. Sisley's experience as a prime example of what they called an irrational and disjointed federal policy.

"You have impossible burdens," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who has enlisted other lawmakers to lobby the administration to give researchers more access to the drug.

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