A controversial U.S. government report issued Wednesday recommends that marijuana be tested in scientific trials. The panel cited the drug's ability to fight pain and nausea, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.
The Institute of Medicine also said there was no conclusive evidence that marijuana use leads to harder drugs. That conclusion is certain to ignite further debate over whether the plant should be regarded as medicinal or as a dangerous substance.
Billy Martin, a pharmacologist at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the advisory panel, told CBS News This Morning Co-Anchor Mark McEwen that the study makes "a strong recommendation that efforts continue to develop synthetic drugs that mimic marijuana and take advantage of this scientific information that we know."
He said the study also urges that "efforts should be made to try to develop an inhalation form for THC [the active ingredient in marijuana] to avoid having to smoke marijuana."
The study's most controversial conclusion, Martin said, is that some effort be made "to make medical marijuana available for very ill patients on a limited basis."
Ervin Rosenfeld, one of only eight patients who legally receives medical marijuana from the federal government, also spoke with McEwen. He has been using marijuana for 27 years to treat a disease that causes painful bone tumors in his body.
Rosenfeld, who smokes 12 marijuana cigarettes a day with no euphoric effect, says it has "helped me tremendously... I'm able to move around and have a much less chance of tumors going malignant."
"We have sick people that need medicine," says Rosenfeld. "People in jails that shouldn't be because they are prosecuted for using marijuana for their disease. Let's put the medicine in the hands of physicians and let doctors make the decision."
In the past few years, voters in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have approved measures in support of medical marijuana, even though critics say such measures send the wrong message to children.
But Congress has taken a hard line on the issue. Last fall, the House of Representatives adopted by a 310-93 vote a resolution that said marijuana was an addictive drug and should not be legalized for medical use.
Two years ago, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy asked the institute to review scientific evidence on the medical benefits of marijuana. The institute, an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences, provides the federal government with independent scientific advice and receives no federal money.
The institute reported Wednesday that because the chemicals in marijuana ease anxiety, stimulate appetite, ease pain and reduce nausea and vomiting, they can be helpful for people undergoing chemotherapy and those with AIDS.
But the panel warned that smoking marijuana could cause respiratory disase. It called for the development of standardized forms of the drugs, called cannabinoids, which could be taken by inhaler.
"Marijuana has potential as medicine, but it is undermined by the fact that patients must inhale harmful smoke," said Stanley Watson of the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan, one of the study's principal investigators.
Even so, the panel said there might be cases where patients who could, in the meantime, get relief from smoked marijuana, especially since developing an inhaler might take years.
The panel urged clinical trials to determine the usefulness of marijuana in treating muscle spasms. While it also has been promoted as a treatment for glaucoma, the panel said smoked marijuana offers only temporary reduction of some of the eye pressure associated with that disease.
In a statement released by his office, White House drug chief Barry McCaffrey said his he would carefully study the recommendations. "We note in the report's conclusion that the future of cannabinoid drugs lies not in smoked marijuana, but in chemically defined drugs" delivered by other means.