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Column: Science is indisputable: Marijuana is medicine

There appears to be growing support in the Legislature to legalize a type of marijuana that won't get you high but offers medical benefits for a range of maladies, including uncontrollable seizures in children.

House Bill 843, like similar bills being considered in other states, represents a new twist in our national history of redefining marijuana to achieve political goals. It moved quickly through its first committee, with near unanimous support.

The bill would legalize strains of cannabis with extremely low levels of THC and high levels of a sister compound called cannabidiol, or CBD. Cannabidiol is a molecule that is close to THC in molecular structure but without the psychoactive effects for which marijuana is best known. Studies have shown that when both are present, as in most recreational marijuana, CBD even works to counteract or balance the THC-induced high.

It's not entirely clear why. Science has dedicated far more attention to understanding THC and its infamous psychoactivity. For decades, government funds — and the only legal supplies of cannabis for researchers — have been reserved for scientists who test presumptions that marijuana is dangerous. Studying cannabidiol doesn't fit that paradigm.

Regardless, supporting the legalization of non-euphoric medical marijuana allows lawmakers to care for suffering kids without having to acknowledge that the more traditional strains, rich in euphoria-inducing THC, are also a source of legitimate medicine with greater scientific backing.

It's a strange blend of true compassion and political expediency. This is not criticism of the motivations behind the bill. It would truly help many people who are genuinely suffering, albeit only a subset of those who could benefit from a wider range of physician-recommended cannabis-based medicines.

Public opinion about medical marijuana has shifted dramatically in recent years. Polls indicate broad support among Florida voters for another measure, a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would legalize all kinds of marijuana for medical purposes.

As for lawmakers, they could take some ownership of what citizens want — a thorough consideration of the pros and cons of medical marijuana — by debating a separate bill: the Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act. Tallahassee still treats broader reform of cannabis laws like a live hand grenade.

The public appears to accept what its elected officials do not: Marijuana is medicine, even the kind that gets you high. The science is indisputable.

It also is very old. Cannabis-based medicines were widely used in this country before marijuana prohibition, and the FDA did not object. Every major pharmaceutical company formulated medicine with marijuana in it.

So recent rhetoric used by some lawmakers — that medical marijuana would be a return to "snake oil" pre-FDA medicine — is a fallacy. Like the pejorative labeling of "pot docs," the snake-oil jab implies a charlatan and degrades intelligent social discourse.

Even the U.S. government's own pilot medical marijuana program was successful for the few patients allowed in. It was shut down anyway.

Moreover, gold-standard clinical studies found THC-rich marijuana to be useful for certain chronic pain conditions while also being safe and well tolerated. More such trials should be supported to test therapeutic claims. Nonetheless, it is universally recognized that as medicines go, overall safety of marijuana is not a big concern. By contrast, thousands die annually from widely used opiate painkillers. Even aspirin kills hundreds of Americans each year.

And marijuana? By any credible interpretation, the number is somewhere between zero and a whole lot less than aspirin.

Nationwide, strains of CBD-rich marijuana are showing promising therapeutic potential including neuroprotective and anti-seizure properties, even anti-cancer activity. These observations remain anecdotal, begging for scientific investigation. While a lot of questions remain about just how it works and how reliably, it is likely that if the CBD molecule were newly invented by Big Pharma, they would be pushing for fast-track approval by the FDA.

In the face of a remarkable yet believable shift in public opinion, the pressing policy questions really come down to whether or not herbal cannabis can be standardized and regulated. Policies and punishments that classify cannabis as the least useful, most dangerous kind of drug are flagrantly out of step with this reality, and increasingly large majorities of Floridians know it.

Propaganda-based marijuana laws need to be held to the measure of 21st-century evidence-based cannabis science.

Gregory L. Gerdeman is an assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College who has studied the effects of cannabis on the brain for more than 15 years. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Science is indisputable: Marijuana is medicine 04/08/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 2:31pm]

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