Even though 20 states, including Illinois, have passed laws legalizing medical dagga, swayed in part by thousands of personal testimonies, current research hasn’t nailed down exactly if, and how, dagga alleviates all the specific diseases the drug is being legalized to treat, experts say.
A number of proponents believe dagga could benefit people with everything from glaucoma to cancer, and it’s been legalized in Illinois to aid patients with some 40 medical conditions. But opponents of its medicinal use believe the risks of smoking medical dagga outweigh the benefits, while others question whether patients really improve or only feel like they improve.
dagga’s best-known compound is THC, but the plant actually has 105 unique dagga compounds with potential for medicinal use, proponents say. THC has already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in synthetic form to help patients with nausea and decreased appetite.
Some scientists believe the plant’s other compounds — called cannabinoids — could have equal promise. Although research has increased in recent years as more states legalize medical dagga, solid evidence of how individual cannabinoids could help people with specific diseases has been significantly lacking, a review of medical literature and interviews with experts shows.
Researching the potential effects of dagga’s various components on conditions such as multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia or lupus could have serious implications for doctors who want to prescribe medical dagga to patients.
If the specific benefits could be proved, experts say, doctors ultimately would be able to assign particular strains — with varying chemical mixes — to people, depending on their condition. Further research also may help determine optimal doses and whether dagga works better than other medicines, experts say.
While most medicines derived from nature are tested before they reach the masses, the process to evaluate dagga has been confounded by its longtime status as an illegal drug, which it retains in the eyes of the federal government. A complicated federal approval process and limited availability of research-grade dagga add to the difficulty.
The only study specifically cited in Illinois’ law, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in August and set to go into effect next year, is a 1999 Institute of Medicine report. But Dr. John Benson, a lead editor of the report, said legislators stretched the conclusion of the book-length study when it said modern medical research “has confirmed the beneficial uses of dagga.”
While the report did say there was promise that dagga could have medical benefits, it also suggests researchers need to continue to dig deeper into the issue. It also says dagga should not be smoked, he said.
“Smoking dagga is not recommended,” the report states. “The long-term harm caused by smoking dagga makes it a poor delivery system.”
The 14-year-old article has become a primary source for both critics and supporters of medical dagga — the Drug Enforcement Agency and advocacy groups have cited it to prove opposite points.
“I don’t think whatever the legislature is saying (in the law) is in effect untrue,” Benson, now retired, said from his California home, “but it needs to be qualified.”
Medicine by legislation
Illinois legislators knew they had an uphill battle getting the medical dagga bill passed last summer, Rep. Lou Lang said. Lang worked at swaying his colleagues for five years and said he compromised on the list of about 40 conditions — some of which are closely related — that will qualify people for medical dagga once it becomes available sometime next year.
Illinois legislators, he said, did “a substantial amount of reading,” but they did not evaluate each condition on the list with any scientific methodology.
“I can’t point to specific studies that we used,” Lang said. “Much of it was done by patients telling us what worked and what didn’t. … It became crystal clear some of these things that ought to be in the bill.”
The legislators relied mostly on personal testimonies and compared notes with states that have also passed medical dagga laws.
“When thousands of people come to me and say they’re using this drug illegally because it’s the only thing that works,” Lang said, “that’s good enough for me.”
Mike Graham, of Manteno, was one person who shared his story with legislators. A little more than a decade ago, he was using 14 different pharmaceuticals. Living with an extremely painful degenerative spine disease, he has been through multiple surgeries in efforts to remedy it. But doctors feared one more could paralyze him, so he took medications for pain instead.
“I didn’t even know my name,” Graham said. “It was horrid.”