Medical, Legal Perceptions Inhibiting Marijuana Studies

inhibiting_marijuana_research_by_ryan_olbrysh_WEBIllustration: Ryan Olbrysh

It’s been just over two years since Nevada began turning its medical marijuana program from a legislative abstraction to a concrete reality. Today, the Las Vegas area has two dozen dispensaries and more than 18,000 people in our state possess Nevada medical marijuana cards. And it’s not just Nevada: More than half of the states in the country have legalized medical marijuana, with the governors of Louisiana and Pennsylvania both signing legislation within the past two months.

There are even moves happening on the federal level: Last month, the Senate and the House passed the Veterans Equal Access Amendment, which permits veterans to use medical marijuana and openly discuss it with their doctors. The law is expected to become effective on October 1, advocates say.

“By Washington standards, this issue has progressed relatively rapidly, but for patients, it’s moving at a snail’s pace,” says Mike Liszewski, director of government affairs for Americans for Safe Access. “We know we have a strong and bipartisan majority of support on the House floor on medical cannabis issues, thanks to the success of the veterans amendment and the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment protecting state programs,” he says, but notes that while  “medical cannabis is no longer a ‘third rail’ issue in Congress,” some of the senior senators are still resistant.

“We have already thousands of controlled trials published in peer-reviewed journals confirming that cannabis has a variety of therapeutic benefits, but we don’t really know how to harness it.” – Dr. Sue Sisely

Cannabis’ potential to help veterans was also discussed at a recent UNLV panel on medical marijuana research. Dr. Sue Sisely has been working for seven years toward conducting a study on how cannabis can help vets with PTSD. She pointed out that the government makes it “next to impossible to study cannabis,” requiring the approval of five government agencies (researching heroin or crystal meth only involves three). The Public Health Service alone delayed her application for three years and, as Sisely says, “During that time, 24,000 vets committed suicide.”

“I’m not pro-cannabis, I’m pro-research,” she explained in an interview afterward. “We have already thousands of controlled trials published in peer-reviewed journals confirming that cannabis has a variety of therapeutic benefits, but we don’t really know how to harness it.” Sisely has been providing medical care to veterans for more than two decades, and they were the ones who brought the idea of medical marijuana to her—something she resisted at first. “I was very judgmental and dismissive. But luckily, the veteran community never gave up on me,” she recalled. Gradually, she changed her attitude: “Hearing from their loved ones who were saying ‘I got my husband back’ or ‘I got my dad back.’ You just couldn’t ignore it. Over time, it was like a mountain of anecdotal evidence suggesting at least this warranted more study.” The new legislation won’t help move her research along, but she is cautiously optimistic, saying that, “It may help reduce the stigma in the VA system, if we can allow for open dialogue between doctors and veterans.”

Another speaker at the panel seeking an open dialogue was Eugene Monroe, an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and a member of the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, an organization whose goal is to convince the NFL to allow the use of medical marijuana to treat pain. “Players are in pain every day, every play. And we have to stay on the field. It’s our job,” Monroe explained. “So NFL teams have to find a process that will allow us to continue to perform and push through this pain. And it’s done by pharmaceuticals, it’s done by prescribing different opioid drugs—hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxycontin.” Heavy hitting and the heavy medicating that follows can have long-lasting negative results. Monroe points out that “we’ve seen former players speak openly about their addiction issues with these pills,” and he hopes that the NFL will permit cannabis as an alternative.

The idea that medical marijuana can decrease the use of opioids is gaining support. A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University found that states where it is legal to use medical marijuana to treat pain have a 25 percent lower incidence of death from prescription drug overdoses. A study released by the University of Michigan earlier this year indicates that two-thirds of patients who use medical marijuana reduce their use of prescription pain medications. As opioid addiction and overdoses continue to be a national issue, the Centers for Disease Control has issued new guidelines urging pain management doctors to not test patients for marijuana or dismiss patients who use it.

With recreational marijuana on the ballot in Nevada and likely to appear on ballots in Arizona and California and a number of other states this November, public attitudes toward cannabis use are changing. But until the medical and legal communities alter their perceptions, it will continue to be a struggle for researchers and, more importantly, for patients.

Click here for more of Vegas Seven‘s cannabis coverage.