Why Doctors Are Changing Their Minds About Medical Marijuana
A Doctor's Statement of Retraction
When marijuana was prohibited in 1937, the American Medical Association (AMA) objected because, at the time, cannabis was commonly used to treat many medical conditions. Currently, though, the AMA opposes the legalization of marijuana. After decades of demonization by the government (that’s government, not science), why would it be otherwise? And once marijuana became associated with the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, it became even easier for mainstream medicine to dismiss its medicinal benefits.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta summed it up neatly when he explained why he initially rejected medical marijuana:
I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule I substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have "no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse."
He also references a sentiment that many doctors and politicians that have changed their mind about medical marijuana often speak of:
… I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis. … Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high.
The AMA, however, has made some concessions with position statements calling for "the modification of state and federal laws to emphasize public health based strategies," rather than punitive, incarceration-based measures. It is also now encouraging marijuana research.
There is another group of medical doctors and professionals that is pro-marijuana and wants it legalized and regulated for the sake of public health. They are the Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and their mission is concerned with the following:
- The war on marijuana has failed.
- The misuse of marijuana should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.
- The only rational approach to the cannabis trade is for the government to regulate and tax it, directing significant revenues to evidence-based drug education and treatment.
This group is actually going after the N.F.L. to stop punishing their players for using marijuana for pain relief rather than opioids.
So what has doctors changing their minds?
Facing the Misinformation Factor
Doctors and health care professionals take their cues from science. They aren’t educated by politicians or policy. But like all of us, they are expected to defer to it. And like many other Americans, for decades, they perhaps believed that the policy the federal government made regarding marijuana was based on scientific evidence.
Let’s revisit, for a moment, the Nixon administration.
In 1970, Assistant Secretary of Health Roger O. Egeberg recommended that marijuana temporarily be placed in schedule I, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending the Schaffer Commission's report. The Schaffer Commission was appointed by Nixon to help determine where marijuana would land in the Controlled Substances Act (C.S.A.) that was being drafted in 1970.
There are two significant points about this marijuana policy-making moment that would have been good to know, especially for health care professionals:
- Egeberg made his recommendation based on a lack of evidence, not any existing evidence that marijuana fit the criteria of a schedule I drug.
- The Schaffer Commission (composed of congressmen) found that marijuana did not cause widespread danger to society and recommended decriminalizing it. The Nixon administration ignored the commission report.
To further add insult to injury, as Gupta points out, Egeberg was wrong about there being no evidence about the effects of marijuana. In 1944, the New York Academy of Science performed research commissioned by then-Mayor LaGuardia. They found that marijuana did not lead to significant addiction, nor did they find that it led to an addiction to harder substances.
Another form of misinformation that has made it difficult for doctors to recognize the benefits of medical marijuana, is that for so long, studies were designed to find harm, not benefit. In 2013, Dr. Sanjay Gupta discovered that about 94% of the current U.S. marijuana studies were investigating the harm of the drug, not the benefits.
Dr. Kerr, a physician in Northern California, made it her mission to seek out studies that had been done about the effects of marijuana on pregnancy and breastfeeding. In her research, she found that the data collected was skewed, inconclusive, or did not have follow-up data. For example, she discovered that one study did not look at mothers that only used marijuana, but may have included a demographic that used alcohol and tobacco as well, which are known to have negative effects on babies.
If decisions regarding the effects of marijuana are based on the moral judgment of a few policymakers, and research is purposely skewed to the negative, how can doctors be expected to know about the medical benefits of cannabis?
We must hold our legislators to a standard of science-based evidence.
Seeing the Effects of Medical Marijuana with Their Own Eyes
Oftentimes, until we can see the reality with our own eyes, our imagined or the socially prescribed image of something is all we allow ourselves to go on. This is true of health care professionals as well, and many doctors that change their minds do so because they witness the humanity of a patient benefiting from medical marijuana right before their eyes.
Many doctors expect to see weed heads when they first encounter medical marijuana patients. Here’s what Dr. Janice Knox, founding doctor behind American Cannabinoids Clinics, says about her life-changing experience when she filled in for another doctor at a “card mill” (a practice known for writing medical marijuana prescriptions):
“I was shocked to see the people that came into card mill,” she said. “Grandmothers, grandfathers, people with seeing-eye dogs. They weren’t at all who I expected. . . . These were people who conventional medicine had failed.”
More and more doctors and politicians, alike, are sharing these personal experiences that change their professional opinions about marijuana. The facts, the reality of the benefits of cannabis, override their previous opinions when they are confronted with them.
Recently, former House Speaker John Boehner changed his mind about medical cannabis after he saw what it did for a friend who needed relief from back pain. He admits that he had been “unalterably opposed” to marijuana legalization. Once the personal experience opened the door, the Republican Boehner also realized the criminal justice implications of marijuana criminalization. He has even joined the advisory board of a cannabis company called Acreage Holdings.
It’s been a decade's long road, but the facts of the benefits of cannabis are finally emerging, proving that facts, no mattere how suppressed, don’t die. But in all that time that was wasted, when marijuana could have been studied and used for its benefits, people most certainly did die; people, perhaps, whose lives or quality of life could have been much different because of the medicinal benefits of cannabis. It’s important that we demand facts, actual scientific evidence; that we listen to anecdotal voices that have verified experiences and pursue scientific evidence from those. For the benefit of everyone, can we once and for all stop bending to fear-based propaganda? Don’t we know better by now?
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Gupta, Sanjay. “Why I changed my mind on weed.” CNN. 8 April 2013. Web. Accessed 12 October 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/08/health/gupta-changed-mind-marijuana/index.html
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Kerr M.D., Stacey. “Cannabis Use During Pregnancy: Is It Safe?” Project CBD. 29 August 2017. Web. 12 October 2018. https://www.projectcbd.org/about/clinical-research/cannabis-use-during-pregnancy-safety
Gould, Dr. P. “Family of Doctors are Changing the Face of Medical Marijuana.” BlackDoctor.org. 4 May 2018. Web. Accessed 11 October 2018. https://blackdoctor.org/521026/family-of-doctors-are-changing-the-face-of-medical-marijuana/2/
Burch, Kelly. “Former House Speaker Changes Mind About Pot, Joins Cannabis Firm’s Board.” 13 April 2018. The Fix. Web. Accessed 12 October 2018. https://www.thefix.com/former-house-speaker-changes-mind-about-pot-joins-cannabis-firms-board