Lobbyists’ claims about medical marijuana don’t hold up


The law enforcement lobby has been conducting a full-court press in editorial pages and in legislative committees against a medical marijuana bill that may end up on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s desk. And it seems to be working. Pawlenty has cited the opposition of law enforcement to the bill as his motivation for making sure the bill never becomes law.

Pawlenty waded into the debate recently when he was filling in for a conservative Christian talk radio host on KKMS. “I don’t like it,” he said of medical marijuana. “Is it really the only thing that can give [patients] relief?”

He said it was law enforcement officials who informed his opinion of medical marijuana and inspired him to veto the bill if it passes. “Law enforcement, in the form of county attorneys and the sheriffs, have great concerns about it from a law enforcement standpoint,” Pawlenty said. “I have come down on the side of saying I stand with law enforcement on this issue.“

But the claims made by Minnesota law enforcement officials are at best half-truths and exaggerations, and in some cases directly contradict government data.

Claim: Medical associations don’t support it

Dakota County Attorney James Blackstrom, representing the County Attorneys Association, the Minnesota Police & Peace Officers Association, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Sheriffs Association and the Minnesota State Association of Narcotics Investigators, penned a recent editorial to virtually every newspaper in the state against the bill. Among the reasons he cited was that major medical associations don’t endorse medical marijuana.

“[I]t is important to keep in mind that the use of marijuana has not been endorsed by the major medical organizations representing the groups of patients proponents say need it the most, including the American Cancer Society, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the American Academy of Ophthalmology,” he wrote. “The Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Society of Addiction Medicine also oppose the passage of this law.”

But the American Cancer Society does support medical marijuana research, even if it doesn’t recommend it as a treatment. “The ACS [American Cancer Society] is supportive of more research into the benefits of cannabinoids. Better and more effective treatments are needed to overcome the side effects of cancer and its treatment,” says the group’s position. “The ACS does not advocate the use of inhaled marijuana or the legalization of marijuana.”

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMMS) similarly says it doesn’t advocate medical marijuana because there hasn’t been enough study, but it remains open to it.

“The National MS Society is funding a well controlled study on the effectiveness of different forms of marijuana to treat spasticity in MS, and established a task force to examine the use of Cannabis in MS to review what is currently known about its potential,” says the group’s statement on the issue. “This task force had made specific recommendations on the research that still needs to be done to answer pressing questions about the potential effectiveness and safety of marijuana and its derivatives in treating MS.”

NMSS also acknowledged the benefits of inhaled marijuana versus pill form. “Because inhaled smoked cannabis has more favorable pharmacokinetics than administration via oral or other routes, research should focus on the development of an inhaled mode of administration that gives results as close to smoked cannabis as possible.” The group also acknowledges benefits to marijuana. “There are sufficient data available to suggest that cannabinoids may have neuroprotective effects.”

While Blackstrom cherry-picks organizations that haven’t endorsed medical marijuana, he leaves out many of the groups of patients and physicians who have endorsed it. The American College of Physicians, the second largest physicians’ group in the nation, endorsed medical marijuana in 2008. Other groups that have endorsed include the American Academy of HIV Medicine (AAHIVM), the American Nurses Association (ANA), the American Public Health Association (APHA), the Arthritis Research Campaign, the HIV Medicine Association of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Lymphoma Foundation of America (LFA), The National Association for Public Health Policy, Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Public Health Association and the Minnesota AIDS Project.

Claim: Medical use leads to use by children

Perhaps the most popular refrain from law enforcement is that the legalization of medical marijuana will entice children to start smoking it. Blackstrom mentioned this in his editorial. “Legalizing marijuana for medical purposes sends a message to our children that it is safe to use when it is clearly not,” he wrote.

Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, in a recent column in the Alexandria Echo Press, echoed that concern. “I’m worried about the message this will send to our young people,” he said. “If our society equates marijuana with just another painkiller, you send the message to our youth that they’re doing nothing more than abusing over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin or Tylenol, and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Dennis J. Flaherty, the executive director and chief lobbyist of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, wrote a similar editorial last week. “Legalizing it for medical purposes will create a perception among many, especially our children, that marijuana is a good thing, when we all know that it is not.”

With more than a dozen states allowing patients to possess medical marijuana, research has begun to address the question of the effects of legalization (at the state level, anyway) on children.

The only published study to date (PDF) comes from the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that advocates for medical marijuana.

Drawing on federal and state government surveys of adolescent drug use, the group looked at data from states that have legalized medical marijuana and found that in the majority of states, teen marijuana use dropped after medical marijuana was legalized.

California saw a 47 percent drop in monthly teen marijuana use between legalization (1996) and 2004. Washington state surveys saw anywhere from a 25- to 50-percent decrease in teen use from legalization (1998) to 2006. Teens in Hawaii, Vermont, Nevada, Maine, Alaska, Rhode Island and Montana all described a decline in use of marijuana after passage of medical marijuana laws.

It’s important to note that over a similar time frame, the national numbers for teen marijuana use also declined. In California, Alaska, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada and Rhode Island, however, teens reported much larger decreases in marijuana use than the national average. In Vermont and Oregon, the results were mixed, with some indicators showing a larger decrease than the national average and other indicators showing smaller decreases. Only Oregon lagged significantly behind the nation.

Claim: Patients could grow up to 30 pounds of marijuana a year

Another part of the argument against medical marijuana is that the bill allows a patient, or a nonprofit acting on behalf of the patient, to grow too much marijuana. The current bill reduced the number of plants a patient could possess from 6 to 12.

Blackstrom in the Star Tribune wrote, “ [The bill] allows for the growing of far more marijuana than a legitimate patient would ever need for medical purposes (up to 12 plants per patient, which can produce 12-30 pounds of marijuana per year — excess quantities create incentives for drug ‘rip-off’ robberies and organized crime involvement).”

But whether marijuana plants can yield an average of 1 to 3 pounds per plant is in dispute. Most studies on the matter have been done by law enforcement, but some have been done outside the United States where marijuana isn’t as taboo.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences published a study about indoor marijuana yields in the Netherlands, a country with very lax marijuana laws. Researchers found that “for the median Dutch grow room, the predicted yield of female flower buds at the harvestable developmental stage… was 33.7 g/plant.” That’s less than a pound for 12 plants.

For outdoor growing, the DEA conducted two studies. In controlled growing situations, marijuana plants averaged between 215 grams and 1,015 grams per plant, or between a quarter of a pound and two pounds. The DEA also surveyed seized plants from 15 states and found that the average yield was 1 pound.

A cursory survey of online marijuana seed suppliers shows these clandestine operations claim yields similar to those reflected in the research. Seeds from an Amsterdam supplier are touted as providing 500 grams per plant outdoors for their products. Other seed suppliers tout between 400 and 700 grams for outdoor cultivation depending on variety — between less than a pound to a pound and a half per plant.

Even Blackstrom has backed off his early claims of very high yields. He told Minnesota Public Radio’s “Midday” in March 2007 that “one plant can yield anywhere from one to five pounds of marijuana, depending on the potency of the plant.” Five pounds would be 2,268 grams, well above what most experts agree would be a typical yield from one marijuana plant.

Is 12 pounds of marijuana per year necessary for a patient? In 1978, the federal government launched the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program that provides marijuana to patients. It was discontinued in 1992, but four patients are still grandfathered in and receive between 320 and 360 grams of federally grown marijuana monthly. That’s 9.5 pounds per year. More than the current bill would allow but less than the 12-plant limit originally contained in the bill.

Claim: Marijuana is medically unsafe

Blackstrom also says that marijuana hasn’t gone through the proper scrutiny. “The FDA has stated that ‘medical’ marijuana laws are ‘inconsistent with efforts to ensure that medications undergo the rigorous scientific scrutiny of the FDA approval process and are proven safe and effective.’ No medicine in America is delivered via smoking for obvious health-related reasons (and marijuana contains three to five times more tar and 50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke).”

But the FDA has refused to study it and in the few instances they have allowed research to continue, the DEA has blocked it. The DEA prevented Massachusetts researchers from using non-government grown marijuana and also blocked California researchers who wanted to conduct studies on vaporizing marijuana to eliminate inhaled smoke.

The FDA said in 2004, “Current marijuana research has not progressed to Phase 2 of the clinical trials because current research must use smoked marijuana, which ultimately cannot be the permitted delivery system for any potential marijuana medication due to the deleterious effects and the difficulty in monitoring the efficaciousness of smoked marijuana.”

Ironically, the only federally endorsed (and FDA-approved) medical marijuana under the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program is smoked marijuana. The remaining patients in the program are given pre-rolled joints by the FDA — for smoking.

The debate over medical marijuana is a passionate one, but not all arguments made by law enforcement officials — and decisions made by Gov. Pawlenty — appear to be based on solid facts.

Pawlenty may have to make that decision soon. The Minnesota Senate recently passed the bill, and it could appear for a vote in the House in the next week.

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