There’s a struggle underway — in laboratories, corporate executive suites, doctor’s offices, patients’ homes and some retail stores — to determine whether legal, medical cannabis will become just another product in America’s medicine chest, or if it will continue to remain outside of the healthcare mainstream.
Clinical data about the health benefits of cannabis remains limited, at least in the U.S.
And what cannabis the federal government grows and distributes for study has been criticized by researchers for its alleged poor quality and low potency.
But there’s been other research over the past several years that reports many patients in cannabis-legal states have been turning to cannabis for a wide variety of ailments, and away from some prescription drugs.
As the Washington Post reported in 2016, these studies suggest “that when medical marijuana is available, pain patients are increasingly choosing pot over powerful and deadly prescription narcotics.”
America’s medical establishment and pharmaceutical corporations have been contesting such endorsements of medical cannabis for years. Cannabis opponents, meanwhile, continue to sound the alarm with claims that pot can cause mental health issues while acting as a “gateway” to harder drugs.
And while the FDA recently approved at least one cannabis-based drug for use in the U.S., other countries, Israel and Canada in particular, have been pioneering medical cannabis research and development to the point where they are years ahead of the U.S. and many other nations.
DOPE Magazine spent weeks interviewing patients, researchers, inventors, corporate spokespeople and others involved in the medical cannabis industry.
During our investigation, there were enthusiastic cannabis supporters who consider cannabis to be a “silver bullet”: a miraculous medicinal cure-all they say drug companies and the federal government suppress. Others, including researchers, cast doubts about such claims.
There’s a financial factor, of course. Some researchers accuse “Big Pharma” of seeing cannabis as a competitor to their existing drugs, and of actively suppressing the study of medical cannabis.
And then there’s the political element to the medical marijuana question, as states and politicians take up medical cannabis as a campaign issue and talking point.
Last November Michigan voters passed Proposition 1, the measure to legalize recreational cannabis in their state. In the lead-up to the election, Prop 1 supporters released several campaign ads online that stressed the benefits medical cannabis would bring to Michigan.
In one advertisement, a trio of veterans talked about their support of Prop 1 and how legal cannabis is important for Michigan veterans suffering from PTSD.
“Marijuana is already here,” says a former Air Force security officer. “And it’s not dangerous. Also, half a billion in new revenue for Michigan, and more funding for PTSD.”
“I retired about two years ago, due to the effects of multiple sclerosis,” she says. “I decided to try some medical marijuana for symptom relief. And I was able to discontinue the use of nine pharmaceutical medications. The results were instantaneous. I had headaches and nausea every single day. I would take two puffs [of cannabis]; instantly my headache was gone and the nausea was gone. A yes vote on Prop 1 means that more people will have access to tested, safe products. I’m voting yes on Prop 1.”
There’s also growing momentum on the national political landscape for medical marijuana legalization — with some lawmakers pointing at corporate interests, especially from pharmaceutical companies, as one of the main impediments to medical legalization.
“I don’t see [cannabis] as a gateway to opioids,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) said in a televised interview last year.
“What I see is the opioid industry and the drug companies that manufacture it, some of them in particular, are just trying to sell more drugs that addict patients and addict people across this country,” she continued.
And Sen. Gillibrand further criticized the opioid industry for seeing medical marijuana as “competition for chronic pain [treatments]. And that’s outrageous because we don’t have the crisis in people who take marijuana for chronic pain having overdose issues,” she said.
Our investigation found that, as you might expect from such a diversity of opinions, the truth about medical cannabis appears to fall somewhere in between the extremes.
There have been numerous media stories about so-called “marijuana refugees”; families that have moved to states where medical cannabis is legal so a sick family member, usually someone who has exhausted all conventional medical treatments, can find some relief via cannabis.
“ … while there have been notable examples about how medicinal cannabis has made seemingly miraculous changes in some people suffering from Parkinson’s, epilepsy and other neurological issues, those outright success stories are still rare — and far from telling the whole story.”
And while there have been notable examples about how medicinal cannabis has made seemingly miraculous changes in some people suffering from Parkinson’s, epilepsy and other neurological issues, those outright success stories are still rare — and far from telling the whole story.
Andrea and Mitch are a couple in their early 40s living in Denver’s southern suburbs. Their daughter Lauren is 10. (The family’s names have been changed to protect their privacy).
Lauren has been struggling from infancy with a rare genetic mutation that causes her to have scores of seizures daily.
Lauren’s first set of spasms began at around six months of age. “Her eyes got real glassy; her lips started turning blue,” Andrea remembers. “She just stopped breathing. The paramedics came, and I had already started mouth-to-mouth on her. And that was the first time I had to do that on a real human; I had been a nurse since ‘97. So it was horrible.”
Mitch, an animator, became a stay-at-home-dad for the next eight years, tending to their child, while Andrea continued to work as a registered nurse.
The parents also began an extensive and expensive regimen of procedures and medications for their daughter: $35,000 for a vagus nerve stimulator implant, $30,000 for intravenous immunoglobulin. They were also spending, on average, $3,000 a month just on pharmaceuticals.
One of the drugs they used when Lauren was an infant is known as ACTH, or Acthar Gel, which calmed down Lauren’s erratic brain waves. According to a CBS “60 Minutes” report that aired last year, Acthar sold for around $40 per vial in 2001. But by the time Lauren first used it, the cost of ACTH had already risen dramatically, and its price continues to soar.
“It was $26,000 [per vial] when Lauren tried it, and she needed five or six vials,” says Mitch. “We called it ‘liquid gold.’ Now it’s $40,000.”
Insurance covered a lot of Lauren’s meds and kept the family financially solvent, but her doctors admitted they didn’t know what to do next. After tests with close to a dozen different drugs, the doctors classified Lauren’s seizures as intractable, or unable to be controlled.
The couple was dismayed by the lack of any real answers — and by how the pharmaceuticals prescribed for Lauren were making their daughter zombie-like.
“So we were just tired of that,” says Andrea. “Once we started hearing about the cannabis and how it’s been working for epilepsy and all, we had to try it.”
When Lauren was around six, and after researching their options, the couple went to Realm of Caring, a Colorado Springs-based non-profit that works with medical patients using or considering the use of cannabinoid products.
Realm of Caring made international headlines for its championing of a high-CBD oil developed by a set of local brothers at their grow facility called “Charlotte’s Web” — a treatment that was reported to have a high success rate for children with intractable epilepsy. But Mitch and Andrea discovered there were over a thousand people on the waiting list ahead of Lauren, with a wait time of at least one year.
After getting a “red card” from the state of Colorado, the documentation needed for them to use and purchase legal medical marijuana, the couple found a grower in the northern part of the state who was selling “Haleigh’s Hope,” another high-CBD, low-THC strain of cannabis explicitly developed for medical use. The cannabis was also available in oil form, similar to Charlotte’s Web. Andrea and Mitch quickly began treatments for Lauren.
Andrea says they videotaped giving Lauren her first dose of Haleigh’s Hope, while Andrea’s mother watched on Skype.
“So that day, we were very hopeful. She lay down to take a nap with me. And when she woke up … ” Andrea pauses to laugh. “She does utterances, does two or three-word utterances, not full sentences or anything. But [when] she woke up, she said, ‘I feel better.’ Just like that.”
“And clearly, clearly,” Mitch adds.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ So we were just very happy, hopeful, everything,” says Andrea. “And she did great for about six days.”
At the time, six days without a seizure and some increased language use was a huge improvement for Lauren. But after those initial gains, Lauren went back to her baseline.
“We were never getting those six days again,” says Andrea. “So we kept giving it. We tried different doses, sometimes increasing seizures, sometimes changing the times of seizures. We tried different things.”
They tried cannabis oils and extracts for over a year and then switched back to mainstream medications. But there was little improvement.
A year ago Lauren had a corpus callosotomy: surgery where some nerve fibers in the brain are severed in an effort to stop the spread of seizures from one brain hemisphere to another. That procedure kept Lauren seizure-free for about two weeks, but the seizures have since returned.
The family recently signed up for a prescription of Epidiolex. The pediatric anti-seizure drug, a product of U.K.-based GW Pharmaceuticals, is the first cannabidiol (CBD) prescription medicine to be approved by the FDA.
But Mitch and Andrea say they’ve had to go through an exhaustive process of first getting the drug approved by their insurance company, then tracking down a specialty pharmacy that stocks Epidiolex.
While they are hopeful regarding Epidiolex, they know from hard-won experience that medical cannabis can have very mixed results. And there are some optimistic examples. Mitch mentions how they recently ran into a couple they knew whose child has epilepsy.
“They’ve tried a number of different medical marijuana [strains], and they’re having really good success,” he says.
Andrea worked for over a dozen years at two different pharmaceutical businesses as a nurse (she was recently laid off), and during that time she rarely, if ever, heard any company discussions of cannabis as a viable medicine.
But she did offer this “inside scoop” of how the corporate pipeline works when it comes to the funding, research and development of new drugs — with Big Pharma prioritizing financial considerations above all.
“Coming in as a nurse into the pharmaceuticals … we had no clue,” she remembers. “We’d go to meetings; they’d talk about business and all the numbers that were coming up and everything. We had no idea what they were talking about, and it was mostly bottom line. ‘Get out there, get the prescriptions, get them new prescriptions, get them refilled.’ And this is how you get your bonus.”
Andrea and Mitch are currently training a rambunctious golden retriever puppy to become Lauren’s seizure alert dog; the animal will recognize when Lauren shows signs of an impending seizure and alert her human caregivers.
And as the puppy happily chewed on the family’s shoes and socks, Mitch offered his perspective on medical cannabis.
“Cannabis is effective for some people, but I would say it’s maybe one eighth, one tenth of the people that try it,” he says.
“I think it will have the most effect against the pharmaceuticals that deal with depression and bipolar issues and PTSD. I think we all know its long effects over the last 80 years for mood enhancement and as a recreational drug. And I think, given in the right dose or not overdoing, it will provide relief for a lot of these people. But as far as [cannabis being the] silver bullet that everybody wants it to be, it’s not.”