Experts split on controversial issue

Physicians taking part in a Pennsylvania Medical Society teleconference Tuesday are split on the question of whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Opponents call for additional research before patients suffering from certain illnesses be legally treated with cannabis.

“It should be made available for patients it can help,” countered Dr. Lee Harris, a neurologist who oversees a Multiple Sclerosis Center in Abington.

Harris said studies have shown that marijuana can relieve pain and muscle spasms.

Its benefits for patients, he noted, certainly outweigh its risks.

“No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana,” he said.

Dr. Bruce MacLeod, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and a Pittsburgh emergency medicine physician, agreed that while marijuana certainly has medicinal benefits, more studies about the drug are needed.

“The overwhelming theme is there is inadequate evidence,” he said.

Pennsylvania Medical Society CEO Mike Fraser noted that his organization has taken the position that additional research is needed on marijuana.

“We are calling on the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to reconsider it as a Schedule One substance so we can do the studies we need,” he said.

Under the Schedule One substance classification, marijuana is considered as not having any medicinal use.

Senate Bill 1182, calling for legalization of marijuana for such purposes, is being considered by the state Legislature.

In a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Law and Justice Committee Fraser outlined some of his concerns.

“We acknowledge that there is some evidence, primarily anecdotal, that marijuana may provide relief from nausea to cancer patients, and it is asserted that it may aid in the treatment of glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he told the Committee. “We are also aware of recent news stories that oil derived from cannabidiol has aided some sufferers of Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. We in no way discount the very important experience of those whose lives have been reportedly improved by the use of medical marijuana or its derivatives. Instead, we want to focus the discussion on building a better body of evidence that allows physicians and other providers to make science-based decisions about the use of marijuana in the treatment of their patients.”

Twenty states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Dr. Tony Stile, a psychiatrist and past president of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, said it seems the health risks of marijuana outweigh its benefits.

He noted marijuana has the potential for addiction for some of its users. In addition, it’s a drug with some links to anxiety, even psychosis.

“Marijuana is not a safe medication,” he said.

But Dr. Erik Rupard, a Reading oncologist, said any substance that may have therapeutic value must be fully investigated.

“For mostly political reasons and fear, research has not been able to be done. There’s a lot of hype on both sides of the issue,” he said.

Rupard said while the addiction argument is a valid one, it should not prevent people from being helped from marijuana’s medicinal benefits.

“For those patients truly in need of relief, so be it,” he said.

Many cancer patients seeking relief from the effects of the disease already become addicted on stronger medications such as opiates.

Harris said he believes it’s the responsibility of physicians to make marijuana available to patients who can be helped by it.

“Medical marijuana is not a cure,” he added.