Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia now have laws legalizing marijuana for some users.
Four states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while the rest reserve the drug for medical use.
In 2016, at least five more states are expected to vote on legalization.
Recent research has shown that marijuana does have some legitimate medical uses, including treating chronic pain, seizures, and nausea caused by chemotherapy.
But opponents of legalization say there’s also evidence the drug can harm adolescent brains, lead to impaired driving, and cause addiction.
Physicians, parents, and policy makers are deeply divided on the issue of legal marijuana — and whether or not doctors should prescribe it. We asked leading experts for their take on this divisive issue.
Dr. Larry I. Good, gastroenterologist
Dr. Larry I. Good, a gastroenterologist and founder of Good Pharmaceutical Development Co., said medical cannabis has been used for more than 3,000 years and has known analgesic, appetite-stimulating, anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, and psychogenic properties.
In his role as chief executive officer of the Compassionate Care Center of New York, Good provides medical marijuana safely and affordably to residents as a pharmaceutical-grade treatment option for specific diagnoses.
He said that the status of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance on the federal level has made it difficult to research the drug.
“Until recently, medical research with this product and its naturally occurring molecules has been highly stigmatized,” he said. “There is, currently, great interest in medical cannabis in the treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, dementia, cancer cachexia, chronic pain, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and other medical conditions.”
Good noted that current research is aimed at exploring the compounds CBD and THC, naturally found in marijuana, to treat different disease states.
“These efforts will pave the way for randomized, prospective clinical studies that will result in stronger and more specific recommendations for treatment of multiple disease states with a more sophisticated, highly pharmaceutical grade of medical cannabis,” Good said.
Mike Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group
As the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group in Colorado, Elliott said medical marijuana may not be for everyone. That said, it has helped many patients when nothing else would.
“We have witnessed hundreds of medical marijuana refugees coming to Colorado from across the United States. And we’ve seen it work for veterans with PTSD, people dealing with cancer, AIDS, epilepsy, and more,” he said.
The state’s medical marijuana program, however, still needs some work.
“While the vast majority of doctors believe that marijuana has medical value, very few doctors are willing to write recommendations,” Elliott said. “It’s important to remember that doctors who write medical marijuana recommendations can lose their insurance or be fired for doing so. That means your doctor may not be willing or able to give you helpful medical advice even though they think medical marijuana can help. This needs to change.”
Anthony Franciosi, founder of Ant’s Organic
“Medical marijuana works wonders for cancer patients. Some of the possible negative side effects of chemotherapy are great discomfort, nausea, and the inability to eat. Marijuana has been proven to help with these patients’ appetites. THC also has been proven to shrink tumors in brain cancer patients,” said Anthony Franciosi, a Colorado-based “pot-repreneur” and founder of Ant’s Organic, which sells organic marijuana.
Franciosi said medical marijuana is also great for treating epilepsy. Cannabidiol (CBD), which is a compound in cannabis that does not produce a “stoned” feeling, can help with seizures, especially in children.
“Many of these strains have now been bred specifically for high CBD characteristics. CBD is also non-psychoactive, so it does not have mind-altering characteristics,” he added.
“There are many cases throughout the medical field where marijuana proves to be a helpful addition to healthcare plans that people already have in place,” said Franciosi. “Marijuana is not a cure-all to replace all other medicines, but for many people with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, THC and other cannabinoids have helped with their reliance on narcotics and chemotherapy drugs. This greatly improves their quality of life.”
Scott Chipman, co-chairman of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana
As cochairman of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, Scott Chipman believes that all healthcare, public safety, and public policy experts should be in favor of using the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) process, along with the latest science, to determine what constitutes medicine and how medicines should be used responsibly and effectively.
“Anything less is professional malpractice and public endangerment,” Chipman said.
Chipman noted that there are several FDA-approved cannabis-based drugs including Marinol, Sativex, and Epidiolex.
“We are not opposed to any of these. Because these are being legitimately prescribed with physical examinations, controlled dosages, warnings, durations, and follow-up visits, they are much less susceptible to abuse,” he said.
Chipman said that people in favor of pot legalization continue to advocate for “unfettered and unsafe” access to all types of marijuana.
“They are hiding behind the false idea that marijuana is a medicine to promote their use of the drug to get high, addict young people, and make millions of dollars selling an addictive, physically and mentally harmful substance,” he added.
“Because anecdotally or incidentally a droplet of CBD oil may reduce seizures in a small child is a completely different conversation from the question, ‘Should marijuana be available as a medicine?’” Chipman said. “The science, the studies, and the FDA process should be utilized fully to know and understand the side effects and potential hazards before identifying or taking any drug. Certainly ‘bud tenders’ are not qualified to recommend any substance to treat any medical condition.”
Rebecca Holley, owner, TherapyinaBottle.org
As a long-time sufferer of chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, migraines, and arthritis, Rebecca Holley was at one time taking 15 medications.
“To be honest, cannabis is what sparked my natural pain relief journey, but I have since added so many natural remedies and holistic practices to my daily regimen, and am so happy to say that I am pharma-free,” said Holley, who runs a body care company that carries a product infused with cannabis.
“We even have parents who have children with severe conditions like epilepsy that are now using a topical regimen to help them with quality of sleep resulting in less seizure activity,” she said.
Holley uses cannabis in many forms. Among them are smoking and vaping the flowers, topicals, tinctures, and edibles.
“Cannabis literally saved me from that horrible cycle of pharmaceuticals, and I will continue to use it daily as long as I am in pain,” she said. “I am forever grateful for this plant.”
Ryan Vandrey, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
As an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., is interested in studying cannabis to determine the risks and benefits of use in defined circumstances.
He hopes research will provide answers to guide cannabis-related policy and regulations.
“Like anything else, the effect of cannabis use, for medical or nonmedical reasons, will vary across individuals,” he said.
He added the efficacy will depend on other factors such as dose, route of administration, setting, expectation, concurrent use of other medication, and the health of the individual.
“Anyone considering prescribing cannabis for medical use, or using cannabis to treat a health condition, should look to any source of information that can provide knowledge about potential risks and benefits of cannabis use for that individual at that time,” he said. “My hope is that the available scientific data for making such decisions will expand and will be sufficient in the near future.”
Dr. Matthew M. Davis, professor, University of Michigan Medical School
According to the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, about two-thirds of people say states should let adults use marijuana for medical purposes.
Just over a third, though, agree that children should be allowed to use it.
“We found that while most people support state laws that permit medical marijuana use among adults, the story is dramatically different for children. Medical marijuana is a controversial subject when we’re talking about kids,” Dr. Matthew M. Davis, a professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a statement.
“Our findings suggest that not only is the public concerned about the use of medical marijuana among children, but that the majority of Americans worry that even exposure to it may be harmful to kids’ health. As is typical with anything involving health, the public’s standards are much higher when it comes to protecting children’s health.”
AJ Gentile, chief executive officer of SpeedWeed
The CEO of SpeedWeed, California’s largest marijuana delivery service, AJ Gentile, said cannabis has been used medicinally for thousands of years.
“Naysayers will argue that cannabis has no proven health benefits. That simply isn’t true,” he said.
Gentile said that research published between 1840 and 1930 documented positive benefits of the plant. Until 1943, cannabis was regularly prescribed.
“This knowledge has faded into history, not because of science but because of anti-cannabis propaganda fueled by politics and money,” he said.
He noted the truth is starting to come out as people experience relief from a variety of life-impacting symptoms.
“I believe these stories because I have seen them with my own eyes, and I am proud of the good work that my company — and my industry — is doing to help millions of Americans,” he said. “Increased cannabis use is not a problem, it’s a solution — and it’s here to stay.”
Katie Marsh, author of “Juicing Cannabis for Healing: How I Achieved Almost Complete Remission of Chronic Pain by Juicing Fresh Raw Marijuana Leaf”
“I am for legalizing cannabis in all 50 U.S. states because it has saved my life and I know it could help millions of other people, too,” said Katie Marsh, who wrote a book on juicing cannabis.
Slightly more than a year ago, she was suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis and considering getting a medical marijuana card to alleviate the pain and decrease the number of drugs she was taking. A friend introduced her to juicing cannabis.
“I gave it a try. After just a few days of drinking the juice in a smoothie, I was able to eliminate all of my pharmaceuticals. Today, I’m still pharmaceutical-free. I drink cannabis juice smoothies daily, and because the plant hasn’t been heated up or dried out, it does not get me high,” she said.
She thinks the CARERS Act that is now pending in Congress, which would recognize medical marijuana on the federal level, has the best chance of passing because it has bipartisan support.
“It will be a good start because it will allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana and it will allow citizens who live in the states that do have medical marijuana laws to have safe legal access to the medicine without the fear of federal intervention,” Marsh said.
She added the act would reclassify cannabis from a Schedule I drug — one that has no medicinal value — to a Schedule II drug, which will allow researchers to study the medicinal qualities of cannabis.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM)
Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said marijuana is a plant with medicinal uses, but it doesn’t have to be smoked to gain medical effects.
“We need to develop non-smoked medications for specific illnesses,” he said. “The outcome I’d like to see is the same outcome everyone should expect with every medication: a scientifically approved medicine available at a pharmacy.”
Sabet said that it should have to pass rigorous safety standards before it is allowed by law.
“Medical marijuana as we know it now doesn’t get us there. But it should,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”