Nov 29, 2016 12:15 PM

Answers to Six Commonly Asked Questions About Medical Marijuana

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers marijuana as a substance with no medical value. NIDA believes that long-term marijuana use is linked to mental illnesses, such as hallucinations and paranoia. Independent researchers claim that marijuana could help treat substance abuse and certain conditions, including cancer and Alzheimer's.

Despite the opinions of various medical establishments on the benefits of marijuana, the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug—a substance not considered legitimate for medical use. Other Schedule I drugs include LSD, heroin, and PCP.

So, there is nothing surprising in the fact that people cannot fully understand whether medical marijuana is good for their health in particular and for society in general. Here are the six most commonly asked question about medical marijuana you should know the answers to.

1. What Is the Federal Response to State Marijuana Initiatives?

Nine more states voted on marijuana-related ballot initiatives earlier this month—four considered legal medical marijuana, and five chose whether to allow cannabis for recreational purposes. Eight of those initiatives passed. However, marijuana remains illegal under the federal law in the United States.

For four years, Congress has, for the most part, ignored the spread of marijuana legalization. But as the legalization continues to engulf the country, this position is going to become less and less defensible.

The contradiction in the state and federal laws creates numerous problems. Banks are generally afraid of doing business with cannabis growers and shops—because of federal prohibition, it could put them in the awkward position of essentially taking part in the illegal marijuana industry. This forces many cannabis businesses to operate like lemonade stands—as cash-only businesses. Due to a tax rule known as 280E, marijuana businesses cannot file for a bunch of deductions that companies are normally entitled to, pushing their effective income tax rates as high as ninety percent.

Is Congress really going to do nothing except throwing sand in the wheels of a giant new industry that takes root in America despite everything instead of creating some regulatory floor for it? The question is quite complicated. Many believe that it simply does not make sense for Congress to ignore these issues and leave it to federal law. It was already pretty silly to play ignorant when Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, but with the most populous states in the U.S. now approving the medicinal use and sales of cannabis, it looks completely ridiculous.

The presidency of Donald Trump causes mixed feelings when it comes to the marijuana issue. He has previously said that legalization should be left to the state, but his administration could try to clamp down on state legalization. In an alternative scenario, the Trump administration could continue the hands-off approach of the Obama office.

2. Is Marijuana Generally Harmless?

In 2012, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart, told Congress that there was no difference between the health effects of cannabis and those of any other illegal drug. Then, however, she refused to say whether heroin, methamphetamines or prescription painkillers were more addictive or harmful than marijuana.

This neatly illustrates the gap between the antiquated federal law enforcement policies and the scientific facts on marijuana. The last ones show that cannabis is far less harmful to the human health than the highly addictive but legal substances known as tobacco and alcohol.

Marijuana does not lead to fatal overdose. Its addictive properties are insignificant. There is little evidence that marijuana causes cancer.

Of course, it does not mean that marijuana is absolutely harmless. In fact, the potency of some strains may shock even the most experienced users. Marijuana needs to be kept out of the hands of minors, but, on the other hand, it helps the same minors treat epilepsy, autism, and other serious conditions. Its use may increase the risk of schizophrenia in vulnerable individuals, but, at the same time, it helps combat bipolar disorders and depression.

As it is with other drugs, marijuana's health effects depend on the potency, frequency of use, age of consumer, and the amount consumed. Independent British researchers decided to compare 20 different drugs for the harm they caused to individual users and to society as a whole, and here is what they found. Adding up all the damage, they estimated that alcohol was the most harmful drug, followed by crack cocaine and heroin. In its turn, cannabis ranked eight, having slightly more than one-fourth the harm of alcohol.

A 1995 study by the World Health Organization showed that most of the risks of marijuana are small to moderate and are unlikely to cause public health problems. Experts at the NIDA, in their review of the adverse health effects of cannabis, pointed to a few illness risks. They claimed that although they believe that marijuana legalization would expose more people to health hazards, the link to lung cancer was lower than the same risk of smoking tobacco.

3. Will the Multi-Billion-Dollar Market Encourage Corporate Abuse?

With legal cannabis soon expected to outstrip the growth of the smartphone industry and hit $10 billion dollars in sales in 2018, nobody should be surprised to know that “Big Tobacco” corporations are already lining up to capitalize on the green rush.

Some people think the new laws approved by voters on Nov. 8 could be a boon to the tobacco industry at a time when cigarette smoking is decreased and tobacco companies are trying to find new ways to expand their market. However, if it could make sense when it comes to recreational marijuana (although very controversially), it does not apply to medical marijuana.

It the case of medical pot, it is rather a story about the confrontation of marijuana and pharmaceutical companies. Pharma and alcohol companies have been quietly bankrolling the opposition to legal marijuana, raising a question about threats to market share. In August, Insus Therapeutics cited concerns for child safety when, with a $500,000 contribution, it became the largest donor to Arizona's anti-legalization campaign. To this, critics said that the company contribution was a ploy to protect its market share. And it mirrored other donations to anti-cannabis drives by pharma and alcohol companies that fear the growing clout of the legal drug. Besides Insys, Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories were among the largest contributors to the Anti-Drug Coalition of America. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, one of the biggest opponent of marijuana, spent nearly $19 million on lobbying in 2015.

The simple truth is that marijuana is a viable substitution for many medicines available on the market, and the pharmaceutical chiefs realize that. So several companies decided not to fight the legalization but to use the moment. They are currently developing cannabis-based treatments by working directly with the DEA. AXIM Biotech just recently received the funding needed to pursue multiple clinical trials on cannabinoid derived drugs. Kannalife Science is also working to develop a new medicine derived from cannabinoids.

4. Is Driving High the Same as Driving Drunk?

The question of whether driving stoned is less or more dangerous that driving drunk has long been debated. Research on the subject is poor at best, and there is little consensus among scientists and law enforcement officials on the issue. For every study suggesting cannabis use impairs driving ability, there is another study showing that driving under the influence of marijuana is no more dangerous than driving sober.

A 1993 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation revealed that stoned drivers are only moderately impaired. As it stated, “the impairment manifests itself mainly in the ability to maintain a steady lateral position on the road, but its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol.” The researchers concluded that marijuana's adverse effects on driving performance appeared relatively small, and all subjects were able to finish the driving test without difficulty.

According to another report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the incidence of car crash victims with marijuana in their systems jumped from 4.2 percent in 1999 to more than 12 percent in 2010. A study of cannabis use and car accidents showed that fatal crashes involving stoned drivers have tripled over the last decade. Nearly one in nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for the drug. However, some experts think that because the total number of car crashes remains almost the same and the marijuana use has increased significantly, the picture looks more or less optimistic.

So how dangerous is driving while high? Actually, no one knows yet. While previous studies on the issue have suggested that the drug use may impair coordination and reaction abilities, others have proposed that driving while impaired shows no significant change in the risk of being involved in a crash.

The only thing scientists know for sure is that stoned drivers behave differently from drunk drivers. Stoned drivers tend to be more aware that they are intoxicated, so they try to drive more carefully and slowly. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports, low doses of THC moderately impair the psychomotor and cognitive tasks associated with driving. Therefore, people who are slightly stoned are generally safer drivers than people who are a little drunk.

5. When Will Legal Medical Marijuana Destroy the Illegal Market?

What is a “black market”? From everything we have heard, the black market is a magical place where anything could be sold: people, pets, weapons, drugs, movies, and music. The black market is a realm of sales that never get recorded, taxed or filed. Drug dealers pay no rent, license fees, handling, and shipping. What is a “gray market”? That is when two persons have done something illegal, but only one can really be prosecuted for violating the law (the difference in age is critical in this case). And finally, what is a “white market”? That is when one licensed and registered adult sells products to another adult who can prove his age or show a valid medical marijuana card.

Legal marijuana can do at least one thing that a decades-long war on the drug could not—take a bite of drug cartel's profits. But, unfortunately, it will not happen anytime soon.

Many believe that this November became the tipping point for the drug, the beginning of the war on marijuana in the United States. If you ask any regular user if they would be willing to pay more for a legal drug, they will more likely say “yes,” because legalization brings many benefits, including immunity from prosecution, convenience, a safer purchasing environment, and a greater variety of products.

In order to know how to train the dragon, it is important to understand how big it is. No one knows for sure, which is why it is called the “black market,” but estimates from various sources have often cited a figure as high as $100 billion. For comparison, ArcView Market Research reported that legal marijuana sales had reached $5.4 billion last year.

The black market will probably never be completely brought into the light, but there are things that could be done to significantly reduce its influence. While law enforcement officials in legal states continue to attempt to stem the flow of exported cannabis, relief from this problem may come from loosening the laws rather than the expansion of them. Also, product quality may serve as sales distribution factor.

6. Does the Government Block Medical Marijuana Research?

The official answer from the administration is “no, of course not.” The federal government supports marijuana research that may result in the development of products for the effective treatment of debilitating conditions and chronic pain. The federal government is committed to the highest standards for basic science and clinical research on a wide range of substances, including cannabis, that show promise.

In reality, one of the most utilized arguments of the government officials is “the lack of scientific data,” which essentially means that they will not move forward with the pro-marijuana policy if there is not enough peer-reviewed scientific literature on the topic. Of course, all those 20,000 published papers on the issue seem not enough to understand that marijuana is unfairly classified a Schedule I drug, along with heroin.

For months, the DEA had been considering a petition to reschedule marijuana, a move that could have opened the door to more research on the drug and eased the path to marijuana-based treatments, but the FDA concluded that cannabis had no accepted medical value.

Researchers often had difficulty obtaining some kinds of weed, including the ones with large amounts of THC. The federal restrictions so limit the supply of marijuana approved for research purposes that scientists said it could often take years to get it.

If the Trump administration were to have an impact on medical or recreational marijuana in the states that voted for the legalization, it would likely be via the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from spending federal funds to enforce the federal prohibition laws in those states. In another case, it could come via the Cole Memo, written under former attorney general Eric Holder's Justice Department, which states that the federal government will not interfere with the states' law as long as the states abide by a series of guidelines. It is also possible that if Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie are appointed, they could put the brakes on the four states that legalized the recreational use of marijuana. It is unlikely that the Trump administration would backtrack the cannabis progress, but Giuliani or Christie’s appointment would certainly not be a positive thing for the industry.

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