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  1. Florida Politics

How many use medical pot as weapon in cancer, AIDS fight?

Published May 31, 2014

One of the biggest question marks over Florida's proposed medical marijuana amendment is over who will use it. According to an opposition group, it's not who you may think.

Don't Let Florida Go to Pot, a campaign run by a coalition of more than 40 organizations opposing Amendment 2, says on its website that most patients don't suffer from the life-threatening diseases often associated with medical marijuana use.

"Less than 5 percent of registered users in states allowing medical marijuana have cancer or AIDS," it says. The site ramped up this month and is run by St. Petersburg lobbyist group Save Our Society From Drugs. It uses information from the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Cancer and AIDS are often cited by proponents of medical marijuana as the diseases that marijuana can help. We were curious to know if it's true that only 5 percent of patients who use the drug have those two diseases. Let's check the registries and find out.

Florida's Amendment 2 specifically names cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, hepatitis C, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis as eligible for treatment. It also allows for "other conditions for which a physician believes that medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient." That provides doctors plenty of latitude to make recommendations for things not on the list, like chronic pain or muscle spasms.

Marijuana is typically recommended to cancer patients to treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy treatments. AIDS patients often use it to treat nausea, pain and loss of appetite.

The big problem with tracking why medical marijuana patients use the drug is that the rules and record-keeping vary widely among the 21 states that allow it.

Eric Pounders, spokesman for the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the 5 percent figure comes from an average Save Our Society From Drugs calculated from data from 15 states, which all report things in different ways.

For example, statistics from Rhode Island say 4 percent of users there have cancer, and 1 percent have HIV/AIDS. New Jersey says 2.3 percent use marijuana for a terminal illness. Vermont allows conditions to remain confidential. Washington has no database of users or their conditions. California has no mandatory patient registration.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that tracks state regulations and favors the Florida amendment, says only six states routinely update comprehensive user data, so Don't Let Florida Go to Pot's list of 15 states is suspect. Karen O'Keefe, the project's director of state policies, says a state like Alaska (which Pounders cited) doesn't keep very accurate records on patients.

At any rate, the numbers reflect a trend among the states that report conditions: A very small number of medical marijuana patients have cancer or AIDS. Opponents think that's a big problem.

"We want to show Floridians that the disease groups they are constantly hearing about, are not the ones that marijuana is primarily treating," Pounders said. He said pro-marijuana groups often use those two diseases to appeal to people's sympathies.

Dr. Gary Reisfield, from the University of Florida's psychiatry department, agreed. While he said the 5 percent was comparable to research he'd seen, the outsized use of the two diseases as an example was a smokescreen by advocates.

"Cancer and HIV are the camel's nose under the tent," he told PolitiFact Florida. "Physicians, most of whom favor medical cannabis legislation, will acquiesce to their patients' demands for cannabis for other 'debilitating conditions,' like pain, muscle spasm, headaches, insomnia and anxiety."

Those are the kinds of conditions for which most patients are treated, said Dr. Barth Wilsey of the University of California at Davis Medical Center. He pointed to a University of Michigan study last year that found 87 percent of sample patients from a Michigan clinic sought medical marijuana for pain relief, either on its own or in conjunction with other conditions. Cancer was cited as 3.4 percent of the sample and people with AIDS were combined with hepatitis C under "chronic infection," and totaled 2.3 percent.

Wilsey added that doesn't mean there's something wrong with patients wanting to relieve pain, especially because most medical marijuana patients turn to the drug only after exhausting other options. He said he thought Don't Let Florida Go to Pot was "trivializing" patients suffering from very real medical issues.

"The significance of this statement is tempered by the fact that millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain. One type, neuropathic pain, is particularly difficult to treat," Wilsey said.

So the statistic Don't Let Florida Go to Pot cites isn't perfect. But the available evidence does suggest fairly strongly that the people who use medical marijuana for cancer or AIDS is a small percentage of all users. We rate the statement Mostly True.

Read more at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

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