Marijuana Treatment for Parkinson's Highlighted in Robin Williams's Death

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — As the world mourns the death of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams, it has emerged this week that the actor's suspected suicide may have been triggered by the fact that he was also suffering from undisclosed Parkinson's.

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Parkinson's disease (PD), the second most common physical, neurological movement disorder after Alzheimer's, is usually diagnosed after age 50. Symptoms of the condition include dyskinesia (slowness or jerkiness of movement), extreme muscle rigidity, slurred speech, depression and extreme and chronic pain.

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Medical marijuana is often used to treat all of these symptoms in many conditions.

However, in the March/April edition of the scientific journal Clinical Neuropharmacology this year, investigators at Tel Aviv University, one of the leading research centers in the world on medical cannabis, also announced that Parkinson's can be dramatically improved by smoking pot.

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Researchers reported that smoked administration of the drug created "significant" improvement in the symptoms suffered by research subjects including dramatically decreased rigidity, tremor and pain and increased ability to properly rest. Patients also reported that the effects lasted for as long as three hours. No adverse effects were reported.

The study, like much of the research conducted in Israel on the topic, was groundbreaking although in Israel Parkinson's is a condition already approved for medical use of marijuana. The nation's medical program has grown dramatically in the last several years and now numbers approximately 20,000 patients nationwide who suffer a multitude of chronic conditions. The Israeli Ministry of Health began authorizing the medical use of cannabis almost 20 years ago and formalized national regulations regarding the same in 2012.

As researchers concluded "[T]his observational study is the first to report an amelioration of both motor and non–motor symptoms in patients with Parkinson's disease treated with cannabis. The study opens new venues for treatment strategies in PD especially in patients refractory to current medications. It may promote legalization of cannabis in other countries."

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In the U.S. where such research has long been banned because of the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance, this kind of research is starting to be conducted by states that have legalized medical marijuana (particularly Colorado, Washington State and California).

That said, cannabinoids are already used in the treatment of Parkinson's although this is not widely known to suffering patients or even treating physicians. Along with Levadopa, one of the most commonly used medications now used to combat symptoms of the disease in the U.S., is a drug called Cesamet which contains enough THC to make patients test positive for marijuana. Cesamet is also used to treat patients with severe nausea from chemotherapy. It is currently scheduled as a Schedule II drug.

And while the world mourns a man who might have benefitted from this knowledge, like many others who currently suffer both PD and other chronic conditions potentially (and sometimes dramatically) improved by the medical use of marijuana, it is also impossible to forget that Robin Williams and many others like him, would certainly have suffered less if pushback against medical pot at least had not dragged on for so many years.

It is also dark irony that Williams, of all people, would die the year that medical marijuana, finally, is making major strides forward in the U.S. as a treatment for many chronic conditions including the one he developed.

"It is clear that medical marijuana can benefit people suffering from a wide variety of conditions," said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. "If it can improve the quality of life for an individual living with Parkinson's Disease, they should be able to access it legally and safely."

As Williams himself once joked famously, "Do you think God gets stoned? I think so... look at the platypus."

--Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet

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