How Safe Is Pot as a Treatment for Health Conditions?

Steph Sherer is the executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a national organization promoting safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic uses and research. ASA works with a grassroots base of over 50,000 members to effect change using public education and direct advocacy at the local, state, and federal level. She recently caught up with us to explain the debate over medical marijuana and why you should care about it. 

What is medical marijuana used for? 

Medical marijuana (cannabis) is used to treat a variety of health conditions ranging from chronic pain to seizure control to PTSD. The great utility of medical marijuana, in part, is the remarkable safety of the medicine and lack of serious side effects. The other is the unique breadth of its therapeutic actions. A variety of compounds in the marijuana plant (cannabinoids) interact with a series of receptors in the body called the endocanabinoid system (ECS). This system is at work when we 1) Eat 2) Sleep 3) Forget 4) Relax and 5) Protect (nueroprotection and apoptosis-killing bad cells). For recreational users, many of these effects are a familiar experience, short-term memory loss, munchies, euphoria, etc., that are happening due to over stimulating the ECS.

However if you suffer from a disease or condition that negatively affects this system, medical marijuana treatments stimulate the system creating a therapeutic effect. Some examples of this include a person going through chemo-therapy regaining their appetite and ability to sleep, and someone with chronic pain controlling inflammation and pain. For many patients, there are no other medications that will treat them. For others, they find they are intolerant of the side-effects of prescription drugs that treat their ailments. Research has shown that in states with medical marijuana programs there has been a reduction in suicide rates and overdose deaths from opiates. Because it is simultaneously a pain killer, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective agent, a single dose of marijuana can replace a handful of pharmaceuticals.

Why is it illegal?

When creating the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, President Nixon ignored the commission he assembled to inform Congress on marijuana’s proper scheduling (that suggested it be completely removed from the CSA) and kept in Schedule 1, the most restrictive status. Arresting people for marijuana possession solved a problem for his Administration; dealing with the social unrest in the US population from the social justice and anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s. Activists and protestors could not be arrested and jailed for expressing their right to free speech, but marijuana was another story. Marijuana has remained illegal because of a combination of corporate greed, racism, apathy and misinformation, and federal agencies that have a bias toward conventional medicines (non-plant based).

Is using marijuana for medicinal purposes a slippery slope to recreational use?

I think recreational use is slippery slope for medical use. For those using marijuana medically there is a very different experience. Because these individuals have a deficiency in their endocanabinoid system they are not feeling a recreational effect. However, I do think that in the near future medical professionals will recommend everyone over the age 45 should have a daily dose of cannabinoids to promote nerve and cell protection.

Who are the biggest lobbying forces against you?

The prison industrial complex (law enforcement, prosecutors, drug test companies, prison guards), pharmaceutical companies and the lack of involvement from the 87% of Americans that support medical marijuana.

What can people do to help?

Wear t-shirts with pot leaves on them and tell everyone marijuana legalization is inevitable (joke!)…. No really, they should become educated voters. Marijuana policy is rarely decided by a single vote like an initiative or referendum. Instead policymakers at every level of government are making decisions about marijuana almost every day across the country. Lawmakers need to hear from the 87%. That is why we have built an online tool that gives American voters a new criterion to evaluate elected officials and candidates based on their legislative records and surveys on medical marijuana policy. Every vote is a vote for medical marijuana and it is important for our elected officials to know that we are watching and we will hold them accountable.