Experts discuss Colorado’s tango with marijuana legalization

By Heidi Li

DENVER — In Colorado, where recreational pot was legalized this January, debates about medical ramifications of legalized marijuana continue.

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Four speakers gave their perspectives on medical ramifications of legalized marijuana on March 25, at Health Journalism 2014. Photo by Heidi Li

Four speakers from various backgrounds gave their views on March 25, at Health Journalism 2014, an annual conference of Association of Health Care Journalists.

Medical marijuana refugees have fled into the state since the discovery of Charlotte’s Web, a brand of marijuana that Colorado dispensary owners grew to address seizure in a young girl, Charlotte Figi. Parents whose kids suffer from seizures came to Colorado in a desperate search for help.

Though the number of medical marijuana “refugees” has increased by 400 percent, it is still a tiny bit of the whole medical marijuana population, which is 130,000 users totally, said Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Wolk explained the legalized marijuana programs in Colorado, which are three-tiered. The most recent part is the legalized recreational marijuana program, and Colorado state government has set its own standard of food safety to make sure kids cannot access marijuana. Studies have shown that marijuana doesn’t mix well with a developing adolescent brain, said J. Michael Bostwick, professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic.

As for the medical marijuana program, caregivers in Colorado are allowed to grow 36 marijuana plants, and yet they can grow more if they get a waiver from the government, Wolk said. In some counties, where dispensaries are not allowed, some caregivers grow plants for 70 to 90 patients, which enables them to access to nearly a thousand plants, he said. Colorado is now cracking down on caregivers’ medical marijuana use, because it may facilitate crimes and access for kids, Wolk said.

In its 5000 years of history, marijuana has drawn many researchers who wondered about potential harm to people. Marijuana users are usually either recreational or medical, which will determine how they use and how much they use cannabis, Bostwick said.

Sometimes “one’s high is the other one’s side effect,” he also said.

Bostwick also pointed out that cannabis in some cases works as catalyst for an early emergence of schizophrenia, and it is “clearly addictive.”

Kari L. Franson, an associate dean for professional education at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, didn’t agree with Bostwick on that.

Franson worked in an institute in Netherlands, and part of its research was to study THC, a psychoactive compound in marijuana, and its effect on our neurological and psychiatric systems.

The researchers found people get addicted more easily if they take THC orally, while she suggested effects can vary from taking THC among different people or at different times of the day. Hence, addiction is not as guaranteed.

Despite those negative effects, researchers have found certain health benefits from taking marijuana with certain compounds in it. Cannabidiol (CBD), one of compounds found in marijuana, is used in treatments for diseases such as cancer and AIDS, Bostwick said.

Cannabis. Photo courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Cannabis is used to produce marijuana. Photo courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Bostwick suggested the FDA should support a wider range of medical marijuana research in order to better regulate marijuana use.His theory has now a real test field in Colorado, where the third-tier research marijuana program is designed to facilitate public health studies.

However, every month, the state government receives 3000 requests for access to marijuana for research purposes, most of which didn’t provide any substantial justification for their request, Wolk said.

Some physicians asked for 36 to 40 ounces of marijuana, but their reasons “make no medical sense, and there is no research to support it, no clinical notes, no vital signs taken,” Wolk said.

A similar thing happened with Charlotte Figi’s case.

As the news about “Charlotte’s Web” broke, many thought it proved the success of Colorado’s legalizing marijuana. Nevertheless, Wolk warned people about the lack of scientific evidence to generalize the case to the whole population.

He found in one of the videos that Charlotte’s mother said, “My daughter still has seizures.” Also, when Wolk asked Charlotte’s doctors to give him some objective information, such as EEG or brain scan, “(I got) zero, nobody gives anything.” he said.

“Be wary of the miracle cure label,” Wolk said.

The last speaker was Michael Elliott, executive director of Marijuana Industry Group in Colorado. Elliott stressed the importance of creating an accountable and transparent model of marijuana programs, and to him, state regulation and taxation is a prerequisite. He cited the failed regulatory case in California, where people cannot determine who is legit and who is the black market.

One of the regulatory measures adopted in Colorado now is to put mandatory radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on every single plant to track the sale of marijuana. This seed to sale tracking system allows the state of Colorado to know exactly how many plants are out there in the legal framework, Elliot said.

In the end, Elliot likened the marijuana regulation conundrum to a Chinese finger trap – no matter how hard you try to get yourself out of the trap you are still stuck in it. It’s a choice between an out-of-control black market and a controlled market with accountability and transparency, he said.

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