Thursday, May 24, 2018
Opinion

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.

Comments
Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Legislation that waters down the 2010 Dodd-Frank law and was sent to President Donald Trump this week is a mixed bag at best. Some provisions recognize that Congress may have gone too far in some areas in the wake of the Great Recession to place new ...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Another voice: The chutzpah of these men

A new phase of the #MeToo movement may be upon us. Call it the "not so fast" era: Powerful men who plotted career comebacks mere months after being taken down by accusations of sexual misconduct now face even more alarming claims.Mario Batali, the ce...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18
Editorial: Candor key step to restoring trust at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute

Editorial: Candor key step to restoring trust at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has begun the important work of rebuilding trust with its patients and the community following revelations of medical errors and other problems at its Heart Institute. CEO Dr. Jonathan Ellen candidly acknowledges...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18
Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Big Sugar remains king in Florida. Just three of the state’s 27 House members voted for an amendment to the farm bill late Thursday that would have started unwinding the needless government supports for sugar that gouge taxpayers. Predictably, the am...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

This is music to the ears. Members of the Florida Orchestra will introduce at-risk students to the violin this summer at some Hillsborough recreation centers. For free.An $80,000 grant to the University Area Community Development Corp. will pay for s...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

In barely six weeks, President Donald Trump has gone from threatening to impose $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods to extending a lifeline to ZTE, a Chinese cell phone company that violated U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran and North K...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Lots of teenagers are walking together this week in Hillsborough County, a practice they’ve grown accustomed to during this remarkable school year.We can only hope they keep walking for the rest of their lives.Tens of thousands of them this week are ...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

A state investigation raises even more concern about medical errors at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the venerable St. Petersburg institution’s lack of candor to the community. Regulators have determined the hospital broke Florida law by ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/17/18