Chief's Message: Some Thoughts About Medical Marijuana

Chief's Message: Some Thoughts About Medical Marijuana
Posted on 12/02/2015

In the 2015 General Session of the Utah Legislature, Senator Mark Madsen (R-Saratoga Springs) authored the bill that would make medical cannabis available to those with severe or chronic disorders, such as cancer, intractable epilepsy, and HIV/AIDS. The bill made it to the Utah Senate last year and died by a narrow margin. Although 30 years ago I would have told you this would never happen in Utah, I fully expect a similar bill to be presented next year.

Scientists and researchers contend that the marijuana plant contains several chemicals that may prove useful for treating a range of illnesses or symptoms, leading many people to argue that it should be made legally available for medical purposes. Marijuana is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act with no accepted medical use in the United States. This classification does not interfere with allowing research, or for those drugs formulated with the plant or its crude extracts from being reviewed and approved by the FDA. The fact is, much research is being done. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the DEA have fostered research on marijuana for many years. 

Scientific study of the active chemicals in marijuana, called cannabinoids, has led to the development of two FDA-approved medications already, and is leading to the development of new pharmaceuticals that harness the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids while minimizing or eliminating the harmful side effects (including the “high”) produced by eating or smoking the leaves.

We currently use opioids in a pharmaceutical form to treat pain with these useful medicines but like many drugs, it’s addictive and often abused.  I’m supportive of helpful medicines but quickly become disillusioned when I see the abuse in other states.

Currently two main cannabinoids of interest therapeutically are THC and cannabidiol (CBD), found in varying ratios within the marijuana plant. THC stimulates appetite and reduces nausea (there are already approved THC-based medications for these purposes), and it may also decrease pain, inflammation, and spasticity. CBD is a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid that may also be useful in reducing pain and inflammation, controlling epileptic seizures, and possibly even treating psychosis and addictions. 

I would support legislation that limited and strongly regulated the use.  The previous bill could open the door to some doctors who may be less strict in their own diagnosis. Without consistency or oversight, there could be an environment where we have recreational marijuana use in Utah. 

We should remember:

Marijuana is a dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern; 

It should not be legalized or de-criminalized in Utah.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believes that “[a]ny change in the legal status of marijuana, even if limited to adults, could affect the prevalence of use among adolescents.” While it supports scientific research on the possible medical use of cannabinoids as opposed to smoked marijuana, it opposes the legalization of marijuana.

Finally, there is a significant risk to the public as it relates to DUI and impaired driving. It's easy to measure alcohol levels on drivers, and we have established benchmarks to determine impairment.  The science and standards have not been set for marijuana use.

 Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area “HIDTA” Analyst Kevin Wong and Analyst Chelsey Clarke have conducted a study in neighboring Colorado.  Granted, they have recreational use but I found the numbers interesting. 

In 2014, when retail marijuana businesses began operating, there was a 32 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths in just one year from 2013.  In 2014, when retail marijuana businesses began operating, toxicology reports with positive marijuana results of active THC for primary driving under the influence have increased 45 percent in just one year. 

So while it’s important to have these discussions as policy makers decide the level (if any) of medical marijuana, additional medical research should be encouraged.