Mainstream Media Miss the Boat, Again, on the Medical Utility of Marijuana

Clinical data published last week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal once again affirmed the safety and efficacy of cannabis as a therapeutic agent – a conclusion that directly conflicts with present US policy. Nonetheless, the mainstream media coverage of this event was predictably underwhelming. Let’s take a look.

On Monday, May 14, Reuters Health News Wire reported on this latest study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, under this headline, “Marijuana may ease multiple sclerosis symptoms.” By contrast, the findings of the study, as stated in its abstract were anything but equivocal, concluding, “Smoked cannabis was superior to placebo in symptom and pain reduction.”

Similarly, the body of the Reuters story continued to play down the study’s results. A case in point: According to Reuters Health: “The study, published Monday, found that for 30 MS patients with muscle ‘spasticity,’ a few days of marijuana smoking brought some relief. But the big caveat, researchers say, is that it’s not clear that the downsides of pot smoking are worth it.” Reuters’ description of the study, as summarized above, is problematic for several reasons. One, Reuters Health correspondent Amy Norton characterizes the subjects in the study as MS patients. This, of course, is true. But the author notably fails to provide an additional, highly important detail: that all of the study’s participants suffered from “treatment resistant” MS. This fact, once acknowledged, makes the study’s results far more significant than they might otherwise be.

Two, a review of the actual text of the study itself reveals that inhaled cannabis provided significant, objective relief of subjects’ spasticity, not “some relief,” as described by Reuters. How significant? According to the study’s authors, inhaled cannabis reduced average spasticity at rates that were equal to or in some cases more effective than those reported in separate trials of conventional anti-spasticity medications. Moreover, as noted above, these results occurred in a patient population that had previously received “insufficient relief from traditional treatments.” Yet, at no point did the Reuters story point out any of these facts.

Instead, much of Reuters’ coverage focused largely on the purported “downsides” of cannabis therapy.

“I think this study shows that yes, (marijuana) may help with spasticity, but at a cost,” said lead researcher Corey-Bloom, to Reuters. The article elaborated, “The cost, her team found, is that smoking caused fatigue and dizziness in some users and generally slowed down people’s mental skills soon after they used marijuana.” The article also quoted a spokesperson from the National MS Society, who added, “[S]moking marijuana does not appear to be a long-term solution because of the cognitive effects.”

What does the actual study have to say about these supposed adverse effects on cognition? Not much. “The clinical significance of this result is uncertain; despite the transient decrease in (cognitive test) scores, patients were still within normal ranges for their ages and levels of education,” authors wrote. They also acknowledged that many conventional MS medications are similarly associated with changes in cognitive performance, stating, “It is worth noting that conventional treatments such as baclofen and tizanidine hydrochloride may also affect cognition.”

Overall, the study’s authors described the safety profile of cannabis treatment to be “generally well-tolerated” – hardly the impression one would be left with after reading Reuters’ coverage.

Finally, notably absent from Reuters reporting was that the study’s investigators also tracked patients’ response to MS-associated pain following cannabis inhalation. (Many MS patients report suffering from neuropathic pain – a type of nerve pain that is generally poorly managed by conventional analgesics.) And the results? “We saw significant reduction in the pain felt by our participants,” authors concluded. “Treatment reduced pain scores on a visual analogue scale … more than placebo.” Oddly, Reuters did not find this secondary outcome worth reporting.

For decades, opponents of the medical use of cannabis have demanded that proponents demonstrate the safety and efficacy of cannabis in Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical trials. Clinical investigators have now done so, repeatedly. Yet, the mainstream media continues to respond to the publication of these findings with a collective yawn. As long as they continue to do so, there is little chance that federal officials will seriously consider amending cannabis’ present Schedule I status under federal law – a classification that continues to define marijuana as a substance equally dangerous as heroin and possessing no accepted medical utility. It is a classification that was most recently challenged by investigators writing in The Open Neurology Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access publication.

“The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug as well as the continuing controversy as to whether or not cannabis is of medical value are obstacles to medical progress in this area,” authors wrote in an essay entitled, “Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke.” “Based on evidence currently available, the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking. It is true cannabis has some abuse potential, but its profile more closely resembles drugs in Schedule III (where codeine and dronabinol are listed).”

Predictably, the mainstream media has yet to report on this finding either.