Medical marijuana vs. prescription pills

Nationwide debate now in the Florida spotlight


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, yet it's still a controversial topic in the U.S.

Under federal law, only FDA approved medications can be prescribed; marijuana is not one of them. Still medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states, plus our nation's capital. So is marijuana really medicine?

Gretta used to suffer with seizures, having up to three a day as a child.

"It's scary because anything could happen to you," Gretta said.

She took prescription medication, but it had nasty side effects like liver spots, severe headaches, and bleeding gums.

"I could eat a piece of bread and my gums would start bleeding," Greta added.

Then, three years ago she lost her insurance and turned to marijuana.

"I have not had a seizure since," Gretta said.

She also hasn't had any side effects. The account interests Dr. Eduardo Locatelli. He's had 20 epilepsy patients tell him they've used cannabis this year, even though it's illegal where he practices.

"I can tell you it's not making the epilepsy patients worse, but I need to answer the other question, does it make it better?" said Locatelli, director of the Neuroscience Institute and director of the Epilepsy Program at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale.

Dr. Shirley Zelikovsky believes it may. She sees patients with terminal illnesses and chronic pain.

"They've told me that it just makes them feel better, and it reduces the need to take the other medications," said Zelikovsky, who's a family medicine physician with Bethesda Health City in Boynton Beach.

It is something Richard Corso is worried about. His back pain is so severe he's on hospice level pain pills.

"If you make a mistake with that, you don't get another chance. You die," Corso said.

The CDC has no reports of marijuana-induced deaths, but every 19 minutes someone dies of a prescription overdose.

"You can't overdose on marijuana, but you can on the other drugs," Zelikovsky said.

And get this; recent studies show opioid drugs used to relieve pain in cancer patients may stimulate the growth and spread of tumors.

However, experts from the UK say that the cannabis plant has been used to treat everything from cancer and glaucoma to Crohn's disease and multiple sclerosis.

Even so, a consultant for the Drug Free America Foundation says smoking the drug is not the answer.

"My concern is there's going to be no control whatsoever on the use of the marijuana on the way it is now," said David A Gross, special advisor to Drug Free America Foundation and editor in chief of the Journal of Drug Policy and Practice.

Possible side effects could include impaired memory, anxiety, lung damage, and weakening of the immune system.

"What happens is you have the psychedelic, psychoactive effects on top of all of the toxins, which include things like benzene, toluene, and xylene. They are all carcinogenic agents," Gross said.

Still he does see value in scientists isolating the "cannabinoids" to do more studies on the health impacts and standardizing the dosage.

"I look forward to that, but I look forward to doing that the right way," Gross explained.

As for Corso, he would like to try it as long as it takes his pain away.

There are over 480 natural components found within the cannabis plant, of which 66 are classified as "cannabinoids."

Advocates in Florida are fighting to legalize a strain, known as Charlotte's Web, which is high in a non-hallucinogenic compound in cannabis.  They say it can reduce and even eliminate seizures in children and is already available in Colorado.

Read more about state laws across the country related to marijuana.

Additional information:

In 1972, the U.S. Congress placed marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act because they considered it to have "no accepted medical use."  Since then 20 states, plus Washington, DC, have legalized the medical use of marijuana. However, these state marijuana laws do not change the fact that using marijuana continues to be illegal federally.  Nor do these state laws change the criteria for FDA approval of safety and effectiveness.  State laws vary greatly in their criteria and implementation, and many states are experiencing vigorous internal debates about the safety, efficacy, and legality of their marijuana laws. Many local governments are even creating zoning and enforcement ordinances that prevent marijuana dispensaries from operating in their communities.  States that legalized marijuana include: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Washington, DC.  Maryland has a law that allows medical marijuana use as a legal defense in court.  Possession of more than one ounce of marijuana and public consumption for medical reasons is still illegal.  (Source: whitehouse.gov/ondcp/state-laws-related-to-marijuana)

THE PROS:  Proponents of medical marijuana argue that it can be a safe and effective treatment for the symptoms of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, pain, epilepsy, and glaucoma. Now, new research has revealed that chemical compounds found in cannabis may help to reduce brain damage following a stroke.  Researchers at the University of Nottingham conducted a meta-analysis of experimental studies into cannabinoids; chemicals related to those found in cannabis, some of which also occur naturally in the body.  The findings show that the compounds could reduce the size of stroke and improve neurological function. Also, research published by the National Institute of Health has found that cannabinoid-based medicine administered through IV may provide a method of helping an indicial resuscitate from cardiac arrest. Another study performed on mice and rats at the National Cancer Institute suggests that cannabinoids may have a protective effect against the development of certain types of tumors. (Source: biosciencetechnology.com/news/2013/12/cannabinoids-can-limit-neurological-stroke-damage#.UtcKD7SCUtV  and ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24346544 and http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page4)

THE CONS:  Opponents of medical marijuana argue that it is too dangerous to use, lacks FDA-approval, and that various legal drugs make marijuana use unnecessary.  They say marijuana is addictive and can lead to harder drug use.  They also claim that marijuana use interferes with fertility, impairs driving ability, and injures the lungs, immune system, and brain.  Heavy marijuana use lowers men's testosterone levels and sperm count and quality.  Pot could also decrease libido in some heavy-smoking men.  Many experts believe that marijuana is physically addictive.  Symptoms of withdrawal from pot might include: