Medical marijuana attitudes shifting, but laws slow to implement

Sanjay Gupta, M.D., neurosurgeon and CNN's chief medical correspondent, has apologized publicly for denouncing the use of medical marijuana.

As a high-profile figure in the medical community and mainstream media, he stated in a recent column that, "I apologize because I didn't look hard enough, until now. I didn't look far enough. I didn't review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis."

Some of the reasons for Gupta's change of heart include the following:

  • Despite being listed as a schedule 1 substance, research shows that marijuana leads to dependence in 9 to 10 percent of its adult users. By comparison, cocaine, a schedule 2 substance hooks 20 percent of those who use it, while addiction occurs in 25 percent of heroin users and 30 percent of tobacco smokers.
  • As for existing research, just 6 percent of the current U.S. marijuana studies investigate the benefits of medical marijuana, while the rest are designed to investigate harm. "That imbalance paints a highly distorted picture," Gupta wrote.
  • Someone dies in the United States every 19 minutes, usually by accident, from an overdose of a an opioid medication commonly prescribed to treat many of the same symptoms and conditions for which medical marijuana has been shown to alleviate. "It is a horrifying statistic," Gupta wrote. "As much as I searched, I could not find a documented case of death from marijuana overdose."

So far, citizens in 20 states and the District of Columbia have voted to approve marijuana for medical applications, Gupta noted, adding that more states will be making that choice soon.

Illinois is among the states with new medical-marijuana laws on the books, and on the stricter end of the spectrum than most. According to the Chicago Tribune, the law sets up a four-year trial program, which takes effect Jan. 1 and requires state regulators to spend months coming up with rules that spell out who will grow the plants and how patients will get marijuana cards from doctors. "It could be fall 2014 before patients legally use marijuana in Illinois," the article stated.

In the meantime, the Chicago office of Brian Murray, M.D., a general practice physician who reportedly runs a medical marijuana clinic in Michigan, is inviting people with qualifying conditions to file medical histories and fill out a background form, which could later be used in helping these patients qualify for medical marijuana. Some patients have already paid a $99 fee for an individual care plan that Murray will formulate later.

As with most existing medical marijuana laws, Illinois' regulations specify that physicians have existing relationships with patients before certifying them to use the drug. According to the Tribune, Murray said that opening his clinic now will help satisfy that requirement for next year.

However, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, Susan Hofer, told the Tribune that because rules for the "prior relationship" haven't been established yet, "nobody can say whether what's going on at this clinic would qualify as a prior relationship when the law goes into effect."

To learn more:
- read the column from CNN
- see the article from the Chicago Tribune