Cutting through the Haze on Medical Marijuana

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With more and more states legalizing it, so-called "medical marijuana" is getting a lot of attention these days. In 2014 a University of Wyoming study found 72% of Wyoming residents support adult use of marijuana if prescribed by a physician. Advocates for legalizing cannabis say it has nothing to do with rolling up a joint, but rather taking advantage of a plant they argue can make a real difference in people's lives.

Rayna Januska suffers from a rare condition called amyloidosis: an abnormal protein is building up in her organs, and there's no cure.
"My condition is terminal,” Januska explained. “I have limited number of days left, and I'd like to live those days as pain-free as possible and I know I'm not the only person in Wyoming," she said.

Chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant recently gave her more time, but all this comes with a lot of pain and a lot of pills. "After I had my last treatment, which was the most painful, it took me a while to get off of the pain medication, and I don't want to go back on it. It was difficult to get off," Januska said.

Januska takes fistfuls of medications on a daily basis. She knows using cannabis for her health isn't going to cure her condition, but she believes it could help eliminate some of the medications which treat side effects of other medications. She estimates five of them would be gone.

"I currently take a schedule four narcotic every day. I take Xanax, it's highly addictive. I have to, to maintain my anxiety. Marijuana's not even close to the Xanax," Januska said.

To be clear, not all physicians agree cannabis is the better alternative. But Januska says her doctors in Colorado wanted to prescribe it to her. Her experience is what's pushing her to collect signatures and let Wyomingites decide to at least make it an option.

Dr. David Wheeler is a neurologist and member of the Wyoming Medical Society. He says the organization opposes legalization, in large part because just calling it "medical marijuana" isn't accurate.

“What hasn't happened from our perspective is there hasn't been enough good quality medical science research related to the potential benefits of medical marijuana products in order for them to be classified as medications. Beyond that, there isn't enough specificity about what is actually meant by 'medical marijuana' so really the description is extremely broad," Wheeler explained.

That doesn't mean he thinks cannabis is bad. “It kind of violates our Hippocratic oath to tell people ‘you can't do that cause it's illegal’ when in fact it's probably not hurting them, and it could be helping them. So I want to be able to engage patients in a reasonable way to make informed decisions about whether or not marijuana is right for them. That's very different from prescribing them meds," Wheeler said.

Wheeler adds it's already happening. He and other doctors are having these conversations with patients who decided independently to use it for their health.

Several marijuana bills are in the works for the 2016 legislative session. Representative Gerald Gay (R-Casper) wants to allow one essential component of cannabis, cannabidiol -- more commonly called c-b-d -- without the part that gets you high.

"America is 95% of the world's opioid usage, so we really need to get the United States off the opioids and cannabidiol is a working alternative to the opioids," Gay said. And Januska thinks the drug has gotten a bad rap through popular culture, one that’s undeserved. “It's not just about rolling a joint and smoking something. It's a much bigger issue here than that," Januska said.

One of the big arguments with cannabis activists is that it's just not dangerous, they say it's not even addictive. But Central Wyoming Counseling Center staffers, who treat addicts, have a heaping dose of caution to add to the debate.

Substance Abuse Program Director Carol King finds the growing popularity of the plant extremely concerning: "I was neutral about marijuana when I started in the field. I'm not now," King said. She adds it’s definitely not all benefits.

"There are also effects of paranoia, panic reactions, there's a loss of storage of memory..." King said.

King says CWCC treats far too many teenagers for marijuana addiction already, and making it more accessible would only make it worse. It's the number one addiction for minors at the center, and second only to alcohol for adults.

"When folks say that it's not addictive, I'm watching people suffer when they don't have it. In our clients that come in that are cannabis users, they have the same sleep difficulties, and the same depression and irritability as people who are addicted to alcohol or methamphetamine," King said.

Cannabis activists say there's a big difference between the stuff teens experiment with and CBD oil bought with a prescription for example. But King argues a lot of what is being sold in Colorado dispensaries isn't that different from the stuff people smoke for fun, and she adds it's not the only answer.

"To my knowledge, there's nothing that marijuana medically treats that cannot be treated with another substance,” King said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Wheeler is actually of the personal opinion that the drug should not be illegal, but he feels the focus on medical marijuana is misplaced. "I don't understand why we're wasting time talking about things that aren't really appropriate, like whether it's a medicine or not. Let's find out if it's a medicine, let's go research it and come up with some real answers. In the meantime, let's stop putting people in jail for living their lives, I don't understand that," Wheeler said.

And it's time that those stuck in the cross-hairs say they may not have.

"Get it to the people who need it right now. We need it right now. I don't need it a year from now, I might not be here a year from now. I need it right now. And there are a lot of people in Wyoming that need it right now,” Januska said. “But then, look beyond medicinal use, and really educate yourself about the uses of cannabis and hemp, and you'll realize that sky's the limit," she added.

Wyoming NORML, one of the organizations pushing for legalization, wants 51,370 signatures by February 8, 2016 to put the issue to a referendum, and Rep. Gay is also presenting another bill that would do just that.

For more details on the ballot initiative, the Wyoming Medical Society’s statement on medical marijuana, or ways to contact the Central Wyoming Counseling Center for help, see the links on the right.