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EDITORIAL: Doctors should lead the way on medical cannabis

by 420insight on August 27, 2014

A Camden County father cooks up marijuana-infused coconut oil for his 7-year-old daughter, who has a severe form of epilepsy. He pays out of pocket for the three doctors who must approve the girl’s medical marijuana card and drives across the state to buy the drug, which he credits for reducing the frequency and severity of her seizures.

A Franklinville mom makes a similar mixture for her 14-year-old, who’s suffered from epilepsy since she was 2. The woman adds the oil to yogurt and feeds it to her daughter every four hours. Spreadsheets keep track of the teen’s seizures and behavior, as well as the marijuana strains that her mother administers through trial and error.

These parents are doing what it takes to care for their children. But however certain they are that cannabis is helping, they are among the few who have jumped through the hoops of New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, which makes cannabis available through just three dispensaries. (The only South Jersey facility is in Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County; another planned for Bellmawr has been waiting nearly a year and a half for a permit.)

As the Courier-Post’s Kim Mulford reported this week, just 2,895 patients have enrolled in the tightly controlled program. That’s a far cry from the tens of thousands expected when then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine took the first step toward creating it.

The night before Corzine left office in January 2010, he made New Jersey the 14th state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. Since then, nine other states and the District of Columbia have signed on, with legislation pending in three other states, including Pennsylvania.

But Gov. Chris Christie has been less enthusiastic. He argues that medical marijuana is just a front for legalization, and no doubt some advocates are hoping that’s the case. Indeed, Colorado and Washington state have since gone a step further, legalizing marijuana for recreational use. A growing number of states and cities have decriminalized possession, making it on par with littering.

Whether the benefits of outright legalization outweigh the drawbacks is still fodder for debate. Just this week, JAMA Internal Medicine — an American Medical Association journal — published a study that found that while fatal overdoses of prescription painkillers have risen since 1999, such deaths were 25 percent lower in states with medical marijuana laws.

While marijuana is not the wonder herb some proponents believe it is, the war on drugs has failed — as even Christie admits — and society has paid a steep cost to outlaw a drug that, as many doctors, most Americans and even the president agree, is less dangerous than alcohol.

But there’s little doubt that cannabis has been a godsend for seriously ill patients. Many can’t smoke marijuana or would rather take it another form, like the oils prepared by the parents in Mulford’s story. Since so much remains unknown about the drug’s effects, physicians have been reluctant to prescribe it. Though the Medical Society of New Jersey endorsed the state’s program, its chief executive officer isn’t surprised that only about 350 of the state’s 21,000 doctors have registered to write prescriptions for patients diagnosed with any of the 14 defined conditions covered by the program.

“Smoked marijuana, as a pharmaceutical intervention, is not well understood and not well studied,” Larry Downs said. “When you have that type of experimental therapy, it’s not surprising at all that physicians aren’t jumping over one another to get involved in the program.”

What is clear is that more study is necessary. You can’t fault desperate parents for experimenting with dosages to save their children from suffering. But physicians should be leading the way — with the state’s encouragement.

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