Ahead of Amendment 2, A Look at Marijuana's Role in Medicine

Oct 30, 2014

In the coming days, Floridians vote on Amendment 2 which calls to legalize medical marijuana. But its role in medicine is a bit contradictory. The US classifies it as a schedule one drug, deeming it a substance with high abuse potential and no accepted medical use – the same class as heroin and LSD. Yet almost half the states in the country have legalized it for patients.

Buddy strums his guitar while resting on the couch in his Debary home. As a professional musician, it’s usually the only venue he finds himself playing these days.

“I lost my first leg when I was 29 years-old", said Buddy. "I was just on tour with the band and one day my leg hurt and about a year later off it came - I suffer from peripheral vascular disease of unknown etiology – meaning they don’t know what it is.”

The disease causes him to lose blood circulation to parts of his body. Years later, he lost his other leg below the knee. But he didn’t stop playing music professionally until 7 years ago. That’s when the disease hit his intestines making it painful to eat or drink. The surgeries helped save his organs, but they haven’t relieved his symptoms. Buddy – who requested his last name not be used – is 6 feet tall and weighs just 108 pounds. He smokes marijuana to control pain and increase his appetite.

“Most people take being hungry and eating and stuff for granted, because it’s a pretty natural process – not so much for me", Buddy said. "One of the things that really helps is the cannabis.”

Dr. Jason Pirozzolo is a sports medicine physician in Orlando. He’s helping develop a course for doctors on marijuana through the Florida Medical Association in light of the recent signing of the so-called “Charlotte’s Web law.” It legalizes the use of a non-euphoric strain of marijuana and doctors can recommend it to patients for seizures, cancer, and muscle spasms as a last resort.

“Some physicians believe strongly that medical marijuana could be used for back and joint pain, depression, anxiety, HIV neuropathy, Crohn’s disease, nausea, glaucoma, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis", listed Pirozzolo.

Marijuana has been used both as a medicine and intoxicant in different cultures for thousands of years. Until the 1930s, it was even part of the United States pharmacopeia, a medication reference .

But are there any indications widely agreed on today in medicine?

“The short answer to that is no", Pirozzolo said. "When you look at the physicians that are trained today, they’re taught to base their recommendations on evidence whenever possible. The research out there is extremely limited.”

More than 20,000 articles come up in a National Library of Medicine search for marijuana, but only a small fraction is randomized clinical trials testing its effects as a therapy. Pirozzolo sees it as a treatment for those who have exhausted all other options.

Just a little more is known about its adverse effects. Studies have shown almost 1 out of 10 people who smoke marijuana become addicted. It may also increase the risk for car accidents, respiratory issues, psychosis, lower IQs from teenage use, as well as short-term memory loss.

However, Orlando pediatric oncologist and medical marijuana supporter Dr. Clifford Selsky says it’s important not to discount the research that is out there.

“The fact is that no one has died from an overdose of marijuana", Selsky said. "From the medical statement of ‘do no harm’ –marijuana is a heck of a lot safer than medications that we currently use.”

Medical marijuana users also say its side effects can be more tolerable than the alternatives. Jeanette Bokland was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. Her constant nausea, fatigue, and low appetite from chemotherapy became unbearable even on prescribed meds, which reduced some of the symptoms—

“—But it made me so dopey. And then I was foggier", Bokland said. "It was just not a good healthy place for my mind to be, of course.”

Out of desperation, Bokland says she finally tried edible medical marijuana from Colorado given to her by a friend. She used it only during her treatment.

“The nausea stopped", said Bokland. "It wasn’t 100%, but it took such an edge off of it that I was functioning…. And I didn’t get high off of it or anything. It brought me back to a level of normalcy.”

However, not everyone can say the same. Bokland recalls a friend with breast cancer who also tried marijuana for relief.

“And she had her grandson get it, and she sat in her kitchen and smoked a joint. But she told me she became very paranoid, sitting on the floor...and she looked out the door and wouldn’t open the door because she was just sure it was the police disguised as a flower delivery man”, Bokland said.

Pediatric oncologist Dr. Clifford Selsky says the various strains of marijuana contain hundreds of different compounds interacting with each other. More research must be done, but he says its needs to be taken off the schedule one drug list to allow scientists to do so.

“That would open the way to developing the data that you need to either support or not support its use”, said Selsky.

Back in Debary, Buddy continues suffer from pain and low appetite, but says the marijuana provides some relief.

“It basically just improves my quality of life vastly”, he said.

He says the worse side effect for him is the fear of being arrested.