In July 2014, my family and I traveled to a suburb of Denver, Colorado for a family reunion. As a subject matter expert on Mexico’s drug war, I’ve commented pretty frequently in the media on the potential impact of marijuana legalization on Mexican drug cartel operations and profits. I also keep track of how much dope is coming across the border, who's bringing it across, and how. Because it's not right in front of my face, the whole marijuana thing has always been an abstract concept for me. To make my point, when we were in Colorado, I never even thought about the fact I could just go anywhere and buy pot after we arrived in the first state to fully legalize it.
Then I learned that one of my family members—a conservative Tea Party Republican—had actually gone to visit a pot shop a few weeks earlier. I was floored. She didn’t buy, let alone smoke anything, and her visit was more out of curiosity than anything else. But then came the real shocker—several of my relatives suggested I go check it out for myself.
I've had MS now for almost ten years, and one of my symptoms is muscle spasticity in my legs. That means that my hamstrings get very tight if I’ve been sitting or lying down for more than a few minutes, and in moments of stress, nervousness, or fatigue, my legs straighten like a board. I also get bad muscle cramps at night, so I take a prescription medication called Baclofen to help relieve that. It’s no secret that people with MS-related spasticity and pain have also (or otherwise) been smoking or otherwise ingesting marijuana to help relieve these symptoms, but the thought of actually trying it made me nervous. I have never used any kind of illegal substance in my entire life, mostly because I was a Special Agent in the Air Force for eight years and the daughter of very conservative and anti-drug Cuban parents.
So I started to do what any analyst worth her salt would do: I researched the hell out of marijuana. I knew that I did NOT want any sort of psychotropic effect, or “high.” I also didn’t want to feel too fatigued, or “stoned,” because I have kids and responsibilities and need to function as well as possible. In other words, I was looking for a strain that would make my legs feel better and would leave me feeling at worst like a just had a glass of wine. The amount of information available about different marijuana strains and what they do is overwhelming. I had to learn about the difference between sativa and indica, the balance between THC and CBD levels, and the difference between “high” and “stoned.” There are many more aspects of the pot plant that are too numerous and complex to list here, but for my purposes, this was the kind of information I needed to be able to pick from a pot shop menu.
Long story short, I found the blend that I felt would work best for my MS symptoms—something called AC/DC, and in some places it’s also known as Charlotte’s Web. It has a high CBD content and very low THC content, which is ideal for therapeutic purposes and people like me who have no interest in getting high. Sadly, after many hours of research spent finding this perfect blend to try, the pot shop my family members had visited didn’t stock this strain, and we ran out of time to visit a shop that did sell it before we had to fly back home.
But recently I’ve started thinking, why was I the one who had to do all this painstaking research? With 23 states and the District of Columbia selling medical marijuana legally at the state level, why isn’t the federal government falling all over itself to allow multiple transparent scientific studies to be conducted on the effectiveness of marijuana for different physical ailments? After all, if the Obama Administration supports the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s stance that marijuana has no medicinal value whatsoever, it should be anxious to fund studies that will no doubt prove them right…right?
On August 9, the New York Times published a thought-provoking article on the obstacles the federal government has placed in front of several attempts to conduct research on the potential medical benefits of marijuana. The most obvious example of these obstacles is the fact there is only one place in the entire United States where researchers can legally obtain marijuana for use in their studies—a federal facility at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The facility also doesn’t grow every strain that’s currently available at pot dispensaries around the country, so growing a new strain for research can delay a project for a year or more. The regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles that researchers must jump over to get a study approved are enormous, to say the least.
Part of the reason behind these challenges is the fact that marijuana is classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug. This schedule ranks different drugs based on their potential for abuse and medicinal value (if any). Drugs in the Schedule I category are thought to have a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value at all, and include marijuana, heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, peyote, Quaaludes, khat, and “bath salts.” This is despite the fact that marijuana is less addictive than nicotine or cocaine (a Schedule II drug), and neither cigarettes nor alcohol have any accepted medicinal properties. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a highly respected doctor and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, wrote in August 2013, “[Marijuana] doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.”
But let’s assume for a moment just two things: that the federal government wants US citizens with diseases and chronic health conditions to get better, and that it honestly doesn’t believe marijuana is the answer. Faced with overwhelming anecdotal and some researched-based evidence that marijuana in some forms does provide relief for several medical conditions, why wouldn’t an administration that says it supports education and scientific research more strongly encourage and facilitate transparent academic studies that might help more people? If President Obama and the DEA truly believe marijuana can only get people high and that it deserves to remain a Schedule I drug, such research should substantiate their claims and end the argument for good. So what is the government so afraid of?
Clearly marijuana use—whether for recreational or medicinal purposes—remains highly controversial, although popular sentiment in the US about its use for any reason has softened considerably over the past several years. Personally, I'm all in favor of legalizing [just] marijuana--not because I want to get high, but because I think it's hypocritical that alcohol and cigarettes are legal when they are more addictive, physically harmful, and dangerous when abused in the case of alcohol. Considering how many other drugs with higher abuse potential are currently being prescribed (don’t get me started on Oxycontin) and studied, it’s hard to understand why people like me have to throw themselves into the sometimes nebulous world of sort-of legal marijuana just because our government refuses to facilitate the study of a simple plant.
You may have read in my last post that very soon I'm making the emotionally difficult transition from using a walker to using a power wheelchair. I know marijuana won't help me walk any better, but those painful leg cramps and stiffness I talked about? What if that can help me? I'm too timid to try anything that's illegal or not strictly regulated, and I have a feeling there are plenty of other people with MS who share my apprehension. I guess that's my challenge to Obama on this pot research issue: If you think you're so right about medical marijuana, then work harder to prove me wrong.