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People who use medical marijuana are less likely to be 'aging hippies” trying to get high than people wanting to avoid opioid addiction, according to a University of Iowa researcher planning a study of Iowans registered for the state's medical marijuana program.
Last summer, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill expanding Iowa's medical marijuana law to allow more medical conditions to qualify for use and to authorize more practitioners to certify patients. House File 2589 also set a cap of 4.5 grams of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, over 90 days - a provision replacing part of the law that previously limited medical marijuana products to no more than 3 percent THC.
Part of the bill that got less attention allows the Iowa Department of Public Health to do an observational study on the effectiveness of medical marijuana in treating debilitating conditions.
Brian Kaskie, an associate professor in health management and policy at the UI, is working with the department to develop that study, to begin by July 1.
Q: Your UI profile page says you are interested in the intersection between public policies and older people. How did you get involved in studying medical marijuana?
'About 10 years ago, I worked with some folks in Des Moines. We were investigating the unwelcome result of opioids for persons with dementia living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. About that same time, marijuana appeared as kind of a medical alternative for pain management. After that, I started calling around to different states with medical cannabis programs to ask questions. Do you have older adults turning up at your dispensaries? The overwhelming answer was yes. We just started researching in that area to find out what they were using it for.”
Q: What have been the hurdles to marijuana research?
'In general, we don't have a lot of research in this area funded at the national level because cannabis is still considered a narcotic in the same class as heroin. Second, in states, Iowa included, there is a lack of public support for this stuff. There just wasn't a high demand for this research either at the federal level or among the population. It's kind of been a slow movement. People are starting to realize they need information.”
Q: What will the new study look like?
'We did a survey last year for the department. We surveyed the providers - doctors - here in Iowa to find out what they knew about medical cannabis. I think we'll just follow up on that precedent, but this time we will talk to participants of the program.”
Q: Do you think it will be a challenge getting patients who use medical marijuana to talk with you?
'I don't think so. I've worked in California, Colorado, Illinois, a lot of other states. A lot of folks thought these were just aging hippies, right? It's not. Actually, we find, it's older females who just don't want to get on opioids because they've had a bad experience with opioids, either themselves or someone in their family. So what I think you're going to find is there are a lot of people interested in telling us their stories.”
Q: How is this research funded elsewhere?
A: 'In other states, of the revenues generated by the state program, a certain percentage is plowed back into the state department. So, for example, the University of California San Diego has a whole center now that is funded by the California program. And there's a lot of research going on now that just wasn't happening five years ago.”
Q: Iowa's medical marijuana program limits the number of manufacturers, vendors and medical conditions that qualify. Does that approach make sense?
'This is a big transformation of the public health space. One way to be cautious about it is to support research that tells you what are the harms and the benefits of it. If you make it too easy for people to get or don't have proper screenings, you're going to have people who are already on opioids and are just looking for more of a high.”
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