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Science should guide marijuana-based medicines

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Brenda Hanken, guest columnist

Few things make a parent feel more powerless than when their child is suffering. I am a parent who has seen firsthand the addictions that marijuana can lead to. My daughter ended up in a Psychiatric Medical Institution for Children unit for 17 months. I witnessed the close friend of my other child whose life and future was destroyed by marijuana.

This powerlessness is only intensified when nothing doctors try or recommend for us to do seems to help. That is why my heart goes out to parents whose children suffer from rare conditions that cause constant seizures. Some of these children use cannabidiol (CBD) — a non-psychoactive product extracted from the marijuana plant that does not get you high — that appears to help, although it is not yet FDA-approved. (A medication with this compound is in the final stages of FDA approval, and is expected to come to market in approximately the next 18 months.)

Unfortunately, one solution a handful of parents are now promoting — a federal bill legalizing all marijuana, containing the addictive chemicals that make people high, in order to obtain access to the single, non-psychoactive compound their children need — goes way too far. Unlike CBD, which shows promise as a medication, the most prestigious national medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and do not consider “whole plant” marijuana to be medicine. This is quite simply because the whole plant (1) contains over 300 compounds, and even more when smoked; (2) cannot be dosed, since each plant is different; and (3) contains addictive, psychoactive compounds. In fact, the FDA just reviewed marijuana as a medication and agreed with the major medical associations — unlike specific compounds found in marijuana, the science doesn’t justify calling the whole plant “medicine.”

Also, a growing body of evidence shows that marijuana use, especially among young people, can actually cause serious psychological problems. Just as an example, studies from the last year show that marijuana can aggravate PTSD, is associated with psychosis, and go hand-in-hand with increased alcohol use. Perhaps even more compellingly, a recent long-term study of over 45,000 men showed that those who started using marijuana often when they were kids were 40 percent more likely to die before age 60 than those who did not use the drug.

A growing, unscrupulous industry is leveraging serious medical cases to lobby for laws going far beyond CBD use, like the one mentioned above, to enlarge their profits despite the health risks. Indeed, theirs is a somewhat disingenuous argument now that FDA approval of a CBD medication is on the horizon. The supporters of this bill know that once that drug is approved, they will no longer be able to use CBD to sell broader marijuana legalization.

Additionally, they know that what they are really suggesting is a special exception to FDA rules and regulations just for marijuana. While every other prescription drug on the market must go through a rigorous FDA clinical testing process, with serious liability for manufacturers when a patient has a bad reaction to their drug, marijuana wouldn’t. They also know that by legalizing marijuana generally, they will profit off people who take advantage of state medical marijuana laws to buy the drug just to get high. Why else would they lobby for that special treatment, if not to protect their profits?

The way forward is therefore legislation that encourages more responsible research on CBD and other components of marijuana that show promise, protecting our public health without legalizing pot wholesale. Senator Grassley has recently proposed one such bill, which would allow for more research, and provide a legal “safe harbor” for children with serious medical issues to use CBD products as safe, regulated drugs obtain FDA approval.

Senator Grassley has also worked tirelessly to ease the regulatory burdens to conduct research on marijuana, including CBD. He actually helped persuade federal agencies to conduct a scientific and medical analysis of CBD, to see if there is a scientific basis to change its schedule, and has held a hearing on the issue of CBD research, as well. Also, agencies have eased regulations on CBD research at his request. I’m certainly encouraged by the fact that the DEA has recently opened up more research sites to study marijuana.

There is a role for the federal government to play to encourage legitimate medical research to help develop medicines, while at the same time protecting the public health from harmful, illegal drugs. To me, Grassley’s approach strikes that balance. Other approaches, sponsored by the marijuana industry, would fuel an increase in recreational marijuana use across the country, in the name of profits. With those addicted to marijuana much more likely to become addicted to drugs like heroin, we don’t need an approach designed by special interests to line their pockets.

• Brenda Hanken is a parent, grandparent, a retired early childhood special education teacher/consultant, who is actively involved in the community and a concerned citizen with a great passion for people.

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