Editorial: Playing medical cannabis catch-up

York Dispatch
  • Twenty-four states and Washington D.C. have legalized medical marijuana
  • Pennsylvania legalized it on April 17 of this year
  • Due to the federal drug classification of marijuana, barriers exist to research and access
  • The federal government should reconsider the outmoded classification

Although Pennsylvania has legalized medical cannabis – the bill was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf on April 17 – some health practitioners and patients are wondering how the industry will evolve here.

Cara Salemme, of Spring Grove, whose nine-year-old son Jackson was diagnosed with both encephalitis and epilepsy, speaks in this file photo as supporters gather at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building to promote the legalization of medical cannabis in Harrisburg, Pa. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015.   Dawn J. Sagert photo

The business community and other stakeholders gathered in Philadelphia last weekend to talk about the strides that have been made and the work that is yet to be done.

At “Innovation in the Cannabis Industry,” the cannabis conference held in Philadelphia, doctors discussed their reticence to prescribe the drug.

According to conference panelist David Goldstein, chief operating officer and founder of PotBotics, there is some catching up to be done in terms of education and access.

PotBotics is part of the burgeoning medical technology cannabis market and advocacy businesses that has evolved from increased legalization across the country.

Twenty-four states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana. Although legislation is being passed, markets and the health industry aren’t keeping up with the potential demand for medical marijuana, Goldstein said.

Cautious optimism preached at Philly cannabis conference

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still considers cannabis a Schedule I drug, which it describes as having "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," thus preventing high-level medical studies on the substance.

The designation has its origins in the “war on drugs” of the 1970s and the “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s and early '90s.

Those campaigns were largely unsuccessful – look at opiod statistics if you have any doubt – and we would argue that the outmoded classification was made out of fear of marijuana as opposed to fact.

Goldstein said that reclassifying cannabis as a Schedule II drug would open up barriers currently preventing research and potentially make it possible for patients to bill their insurance. It will also make it more likely for medical schools to make medical cannabis part of their curricula.

While some doctors see the potential in treating patients with medical cannabis, others may be cautious – unlikely even – to treat patients with the drugs.

“It’s a challenge to convince us to recommend something without much research,” said Dr. David Casarett, of Penn Medicine.

Doctors still wary of risks of medical marijuana

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the marijuana plant as medicine. However, research into the chemicals in marijuana called cannabinoids has led to the FDA approval of the drugs dronabinol and nabilone, which contain delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Additionally, there is growing interest in the marijuana chemical cannabidiol (CBD) to treat childhood epilepsy, which causes violent seizures in children. Scientists breed plants and make CBD in an oil form that is not intoxicating.

THC and CBD have uses of particular interest to practitioners and patients.

THC can help increase appetite and reduce nausea and also, in some cases, decrease pain and inflammation as well as muscle-control problems. CBD is used to reduce pain, control seizures and potentially treat mental illness and addictions, according to NIDA.

And there is some evidence that marijuana extracts can also kill or reduce cancer cells and tumors.

Medical marijuana gains come too late for one Pa. family

The research is valuable and worth further funding and pursuit. However, the reluctance from some practitioners to prescribe the drugs when they become available statewide has to do with the amount of research yet to be done.

We would encourage the federal government, specifically the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, to play catchup in order to accommodate those 24 states – and future states – that wish to make medical cannabis available to patients.

By making marijuana a Schedule II drug, the federal government could replace an outdated designation, paving the way for more much-needed research and wider acceptance.