IOM Gives Marijuana Study High Priority

WASHINGTON--At President Clinton's request, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has agreed to undertake a thorough review of claims that smoking marijuana can have medical benefits. Plans for the new study, expected to cost roughly $1 million and take 18 months to complete, were approved earlier this week by a governing board of the National Academy of Sciences, the IOM's parent body.

Studies in the 1970s and 1980s found that an active ingredient in marijuana smoke--tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)--has some value in reducing nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. Based on these findings, the Food and Drug Administration since 1985 has permitted doctors to prescribe THC pills. But claims that smoking marijuana works better than taking pills have not been validated by clinical research.

The long-standing controversy over the medical use of marijuana erupted again this winter, triggered by a campaign in California to relax restrictions on its use as a therapeutic drug. The IOM study will examine all the published research on this topic and evaluate the benefits claimed for marijuana compared to those offered by other medicines. The IOM has not named the members of its panel.