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Medical Marijuana is a Drug, Let’s Treat it Like One

medical-marijuanaBy Heidi Keating

Medical marijuana is working its way into state legislative discussions around the country. Wisconsin is no exception. Senate bill 363 was introduced in October of last year. While the public hears stories of how medical marijuana can help children with a rare seizure disorder (Dravet syndrome), adults with chronic pain, or people suffering from nausea as a result of cancer therapy, legislators should proceed with caution on how medical marijuana might be legalized here.

Senate bill 363 suggests the State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) establish a registry for persons who use marijuana for medical use, where individuals would be required to submit a signed application, a written certification, and pay a registration fee. The bill would also require DHS to license and regulate nonprofit corporations known as “compassion centers” to distribute marijuana and drug paraphernalia. This model is used in other states and includes a list of treatable conditions approved by the DHS.

This model creates a confusing gray area in drug prescription and regulation procedures. Currently, unless a drug is “over the counter,” it must be prescribed by a doctor or other healthcare professional with prescription privileges and distributed by a pharmacy licensed by the Department of Safety and Professional Services. If we want to treat marijuana as a medicine (aka “prescription drug”), then why are we creating a separate system? Enforcing established guidelines already in place for controlled substances with information about active ingredients, dosage, uses, and warnings should suffice.

Additionally, when a person is prescribed a drug for a condition or disease, the prescription is limited and monitored. There are limits on the number of refills, and follow up with the doctor to make sure the medication is treating the symptoms. If a person is prescribed pain medication for surgery recovery or healing after an accident, the patient is carefully supervised because pain medications are often addictive. There should be no exception for marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is addictive for approximately 10 percent of recreational users. If marijuana use begins during the teen years, addiction rates rise to 17 percent.

For those suffering from pain or rare diseases, medical marijuana may indeed be a wonder drug. But it is critically important to regulate marijuana as a drug, especially if the patient or recipient is a child. There is already a process in place to ensure the safety of a drug when made available to the public. Shouldn’t medical marijuana be treated the same way? The gold standard for a drug becoming legal is to withstand double blind, randomized trials.

There are now some clinical trials underway for a strain of medical marijuana used to treat children with Dravet Syndrome. The marijuana strain is being called “Charlotte’s Web” after a girl with the rare disease. If the public is to trust that medical marijuana is truly being used to treat diseases and reduce pain and suffering, and is NOT a backdoor into recreational drug use, then why are we using street drugs as a model for naming conventions? Naming the strain after a children’s book delegitimizes its medical purpose and may appeal to youth.

Proponents of medical marijuana do not favor physician or pharmacy involvement mostly because they have not endorsed medical marijuana in the past. However, just as public opinion is changing, so are attitudes towards medical marijuana within the medical community. Medical marijuana may hold promise and should be studied and regulated like any other prescription drug. 

Heidi Keating is a health educator and re:TH!NK coordinator with the Winnebago County Health Dept. Her focus area is substance abuse prevention. She is currently working on a master’s degree in public health through the Medical College of Wisconsin.

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