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Scientist Hopeful About Pot Patch

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Feb. 3, 00
San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Winnie Hu, New York Times
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It would offer benefits of marijuana without making drug available Albany, N.Y. --
Dr. Audra Stinchcomb says she has never smoked marijuana, but that does not prevent colleagues at the Albany College of Pharmacy from inquiring about her ``pot patch'' or ``doobie derm'' whenever they can. Her two-year effort to research and develop a medical-marijuana patch that would release the drug's active ingredients through the skin has inspired more one-liners than she can recall.
The patch is intended to be used by cancer patients for relief from nausea, vomiting and other side effects of chemotherapy.``Everybody always comes in and has a new joke for me,'' said Stinchcomb, 34, an assistant professor at the pharmacy college and a leading researcher on the ways that chemicals are absorbed through the skin. ``I can't help it. It's amusing.'' But Stinchcomb's research is being taken seriously by doctors and scientific researchers as evidence increasingly suggests that chemicals in marijuana have health benefits.
A report last year by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the chemicals, called cannabinoids, relieve pain and nausea, though the report warned that marijuana smoke is even more toxic than tobacco smoke.
Last month, Stinchcomb's proposal for a marijuana patch was awarded a $361,000 grant from the American Cancer Society.``I think this is a bold step for us,'' said Don Distasio, the cancer society's chief operating officer in New York and New Jersey, who acknowledged that the proposal was controversial but said it has been screened by three panels of doctors, scientists and staff members as part of the application process. The project also has been approved by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which regulates experiments with illegal drugs.
The patch would use synthetic cannabinoids created in a laboratory and is years away from being tested on people. But it has piqued interest because it offers a compromise of sorts in the long-running battle over whether to legalize marijuana. Voters in seven states and the District of Columbia have endorsed the medical benefits of marijuana through referendums, but many government officials balk at making the drug more accessible, which they say would be the first step in making it available for general use.
Dr. Eric Voth, chairman of the International Drug Strategy Institute, an organization in Omaha, Neb., which reviews drug policies, said the patch could pass along the therapeutic effects of marijuana without making the drug available.``It's no more a marijuana patch than a nicotine patch is a tobacco patch,'' Voth said.``I'm all for trying to find pure, reliable medicine, but I do not support the idea of smoking weed for medicinal purposes.
'' Those who want to legalize marijuana also see the benefit of developing a patch.``It is yet another acknowledgment, even if it is somewhat muted, by the government that marijuana is a valuable medicine,'' said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Stinchcomb prefers to stay clear of the political debate. She describes her research on cannabinoids in clinical terms, often referring to charts and models to make her point.``There's an extremely serious side to this because it's treating cancer patients,'' she said.``I want the project to be perceived that way.'' Stinchcomb said she became interested in testing cannabinoids after reading medical literature suggesting their potential health benefits. She already had received a $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to research a patch for another drug, naltrexone, which blocks the effects of opiates and alcohol. Although Stinchcomb continues to work on both patches, only the marijuana patch has generated widespread interest.