Nevada’s medical marijuana study stalled

Photo By dennis myers Ray Rawson, center, photographed when he was a state senator and pushed for creation of a state marijuana research program. He now sits on the Nevada Board of Regents, which governs the medical school that would do the study.

In 2001, after Nevadans twice voted to support medical uses
for marijuana, the Nevada Legislature codified their decision in the
state’s statutes.

“Every legislator had to grapple with this,” Senate
Human Resources Chairman Ray Rawson said at the time. “The people
put this in the constitution and asked us to do it.”

But the lawmakers did not stop there. At the time, simple marijuana
possession in Nevada was a felony offense, though it was often plea
bargained. The legislators reduced the penalties to misdemeanor levels.
And they set up a state program to research the medical uses of
marijuana, housed in the Nevada School of Medicine.

The research language was inserted in the legislation by Rawson,
then a highly regarded moderate GOP senator and forensic dentist, and
was enacted into law. But it has never resulted in actual research
because, well, George W. Bush was president.

The Nevada statute reads, “The University of Nevada School of
Medicine shall establish a program for the evaluation and research of
the medical use of marijuana in the care and treatment of persons who
have been diagnosed with a chronic or debilitating medical condition.
… A research program established pursuant to this section must
include residents of this state who volunteer to act as participants
and subjects, as determined by the School of Medicine.”

But there is also another provision in the law requiring the school
to get federal approval for the program.

Legislators decided they would not wait on research to approve
health care uses of marijuana or to reduce the punitiveness of the law,
but they did retain the provision for a Nevada research program.

Some suspected Rawson of adding the research provision to the bill
in order to kill it, and he does say he’s not really an advocate
of medical marijuana use.

“I thought we should research it first,” he said this
week, “that if there is a therapeutic use for it, it ought to be
used for it. … I’m not trying to lead the fight on this at
all. I was just trying to give it a reasoned approach. If they’re
going to open it up, it ought to be studied.”

In fact, it was the Nevada Medical Marijuana Initiative Work
Group—formed after final approval of medical marijuana by the
voters in 1998—that recommended the research program. The
group’s report said marijuana should be “subjected to
rigorous and exacting medical and scientific research. Only through
such rigor could folk remedies and traditional cures be proven or
disproven and outright charlatanry be weeded out.”

But that kind of research raised issues of purity of supply and the
safety of research subjects. Buying on the street wouldn’t
work.

“[A supply of] marijuana would be purchased by the research
study through federally approved providers,” the group’s
report recommended. “Marijuana would not be grown, processed or
manufactured in Nevada. The federally approved provider would provide
uniform, predictable and uncontaminated marijuana, thus protecting
patients from the vagaries of illegal or homegrown
marijuana.”

That made federal approval even more essential. And that’s
where things came to a halt, because the Bush administration was
unremittingly opposed to marijuana use, medical or otherwise. Not only
was there vigorous enforcement of federal anti-marijuana laws, but
there were no federal research dollars available.

Last year, a School of Medicine associate dean, Dave Lupan, said the
program had never been launched and would not be launched unless there
was a different president.

Now, there is a different president.

Democrat Chris Giunchigliani, in 2001 a state legislator and now a
Clark County commissioner, sponsored the marijuana bill that Rawson
amended. She said she expects the new administration to make a
difference.

“I think both not only with the new president but with the new
attorney general’s stance of looking realistically at how our
drug policy is failed and whether they should spend time and taxpayer
money on it, yes, it would make sense” for them to take a new
attitude toward research, she said.

“This president has been setting a different tone on this
issue, and I would think there would be more chance of getting approval
now,” Rawson said this week. “That was always the concern,
that if a program was begun, the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms] would come in and bust it.”

In July, Dean Lupan submitted a periodic update report to the
legislature’s Interim Finance Committee.

“I anticipate there will be a change in philosophy or interest
in the development of new treatment regimes for medicinal marijuana at
the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during the coming years,”
Lupan wrote. “However, the new presidential administration has
yet to make investment in new commitments to this area of medical
research. The NIH continues to face considerable challenge in funding
established biomedical research and training programs. The prospect for
a near term turnaround seems unlikely. In addition, the Supreme Court
ruling of June 6, 2005, allowing the prosecution of individuals who
smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes, though prescribed by personal
physicians, poses a major impediment to prospective
development.”

This last point has been ameliorated at least for the time being by
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on Oct. 19 that
federal agents will not try to arrest medical marijuana users and
suppliers as long as they are acting under state laws. Thirteen states
permit medical marijuana use.

But other obstacles remain. The legislature has allocated no money
for the study, leaving the Medical School dependent on grants. The
statute says the School “may apply for or accept any gifts,
grants, donations or contributions from any source” to carry out
the study. But the federal government has offered no research grants in
this field, and the feds set the research agenda except in
states—California is the only example—willing to pony up
for their own research.

Lupan said, “I’ve had a few physicians of our faculty
say that if there’s money available that we’d be interested
in looking at it or interested in applying for it.”

In general, the situation seems to be yeastier for serious research
than it was a year ago, but it is likely to take some time yet for the
Nevada program to get a launch.

But advocates of medical marijuana quickly point out that more
research, while welcome, is not necessary to make the case. During the
ballot campaigns on the issue in Nevada, a three-inch-thick volume of
previous studies of marijuana’s use in treating everything from
cancer to cholera was distributed around the state. The year after
voters approved the Nevada law, a federal study was commissioned from
the Institute of Medicine in D.C. and part of its executive summary is
frequently quoted by advocates of marijuana use:

“The accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value
for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief,
control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation. The
therapeutic effects of cannabinoids are best established for THC, which
is generally one of the two most abundant of the cannabinoids in
marijuana. (Cannabidiol is generally the other most abundant
cannabinoid.)”

The subsequent sentences, however, are less often quoted by
advocates. They touch on the problem of pills versus smoking to
physically deliver marijuana’s active ingredients:

“The effects of cannabinoids on the symptoms studied are
generally modest, and in most cases there are more effective
medications. However, people vary in their responses to medications,
and there will likely always be a subpopulation of patients who do not
respond well to other medications. The combination of cannabinoid drug
effects (anxiety reduction, appetite stimulation, nausea reduction, and
pain relief) suggests that cannabinoids would be moderately well suited
for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and
vomiting and AIDS wasting.”

What this means is that some patients have difficulty taking pills.
In addition, medical users have said that smoking delivers the effect
gradually while pills deliver with a bang.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.