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Societal interest in making cannabis available for medicinal use has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Beginning with the passage of Proposition 215 — the legalization of medical cannabis in California and opening of the state’s first dispensary — to a count of now 25 states with some form of a medical cannabis program, public support has grown considerably.

Some may argue that 2008 marks a tipping point in the history of medical cannabis, as the rate of medical cannabis program adoption increased thereafter by more than 60 percent. A closer look at why public opinion has shifted from disapproval to exploration to acceptance to endorsement uncovers several key reasons.

Medical community
The efficacy of cannabis has been publicly validated by the medical community:

  • Credible media figures in health care, such as CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta and acclaimed Israeli cannabis research pioneer Dr. Ralphael Mechoulam (whose work is funded by the National Institute of Health), have been outspoken about the medicinal benefits of cannabis and the need for rescheduling it as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.
  • Various state-based medical associations across the U.S., including the Florida Medical Association and Massachusetts Medical Society, have begun offering continuing medical education classes with content that includes The Endocannabinoid System, the History of Medical Cannabis, and Medical Cannabis Use for Epilepsy/ Cancer/ Neuropathies, etc., in an effort to educate the medical community.
  • To further the cause, some medical associations, such as the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine and American Cannabis Nurses Association, have been established with the express purpose of promoting cannabis as medicine through “high ethical and practice standards in the clinical application of cannabis and cannabinoids.”
  • The National Cancer Institute, part of the U.S. Department of Health, added information to their website on Cannabis and Cannabinoids, as a viable treatment for people with cancer-related symptoms caused by the disease itself or its treatment.

Over time, more health care practitioners are undoubtedly likely to jump on the figurative medical cannabis bandwagon.

Expanded research
Natural cannabis-based medicines, such as Marinol or Sativex, have been used for quite some time to treat nausea, vomiting, neuropathy and severe pain. More recently, however, new cannabis pharmaceuticals have come to market and gained approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with noteworthy attention from the media.

Epidiolex is a highly concentrated cannabidiol (CBD) oil extracted directly from cannabis. In June 2016, a landmark announcement was made on the positive outcome of the drug’s Phase 3 clinical trial for those patients suffering from a rare and severe form of epilepsy. Similar cannabis-based formulations are in development to treat muscular dystrophy, pancreatic cancer, autism and schizophrenia.

The passage of these clinical trials flies in the face of the FDA’s long-held position that cannabis is not safe or effective. With an expected increase in the number of positive findings from these trials, more pharmaceutical companies are likely to begin developing cannabis-based medicine for an expanded list of conditions.

Furthermore, these product developments are concurrent with cannabis-based research studies. A cursory search through some of the most credible medical journals reveals research on subjects ranging from natural cannabis vs. synthetic cannabis, cannabis as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans, and the effect of medical cannabis on the absence of sickness, among others. One of the more recently publicized studies was done by the University of Michigan, exploring the relationship between medical cannabis use and opioid consumption. The article, published in The Journal of Pain, provides evidence of a 64 percent decrease in opioid use, decreased number and side effects of medication, and an improved quality of life for those patients medicating with cannabis.

Hence, some may conclude that medical cannabis might be a remedy for the opioid epidemic plaguing our nation and, further, assert that medical cannabis therapy should be part of opioid addiction treatment.

Complementary care
According to William Hollander, partner at Midwest Compassion Center (an Illinois licensed medical cannabis dispensary), “Cannabis falls in accord with integrative therapies that seek to unify conventional and non-conventional methods of treatment.”

Broader growing interest in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) among the general population has grown over the last decade. CAM includes the practices of yoga, meditation, herbal medicine and massage. People are turning to CAM to treat everything from insomnia to anxiety to depression, often aspiring for a greater sense of well-bring. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, more than 40 percent of Americans have tried some form of CAM.

“The majority of alternative medicine users appear to be doing so not so much as a result of being dissatisfied with conventional medicine but largely because they find these health care alternatives to be more congruent with their own values, beliefs, and philosophical orientations toward health and life,” stated the Journal of American Medicine (May 1998).

Significant propaganda and misinformation around cannabis have fueled the public’s desire to know the truth. Sanjay Gupta writes, “The road to medical marijuana research is paved with surprises and hypocrisy nearly everywhere you look.” Though the Drug Enforcement Administration maintains the status of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services holds a patent on cannabinoids for a wide range of medicinal purposes. This contradictory information has undeniably sparked public curiosity.

Non-smokable products
Although smokable flowers or “buds” still account for the largest portion of sales at most medical cannabis dispensaries, cultivators are always looking to develop new products. Oil can be extracted from the cannabis plant, through a process similar to how essential oil is extracted to make fragrances for perfumes. Cannabis oil is then often repurposed into a variety of products, including transdermal patches, suppositories and capsules.

These new cannabis products provide a myriad of benefits over smokable flowers. They offer an alternative for many patients reluctant to smoke due to the associated health risks. Also, these products can be applied to the localized area most affected by the patient’s condition. For example, a patient with a neuromuscular disorder such as muscular dystrophy may apply a patch to their leg that is experiencing involuntary muscle spasms, or a cancer patient undergoing radiation therapy may rub an oil on their skin to relieve irritation from the burn. In addition, these new products are in line with traditional methods of pharmaceutical administration, i.e. lotions are commonly accepted as applicants for skin regeneration.

Public support of medical cannabis is likely to continue growing at an accelerated rate as legislation relaxes, social stigmas dissolve, additional non-smokable products come to market, and research findings are diffused.

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Nicole van Rensburg
Nicole van Rensburg is a partner and co-founder of Midwest Compassion Center (www.midwestcompassion.org), a dispensary in the Chicago suburbs that provides safe access to high-quality, affordable medical cannabis. With 15 years of experience in the healthcare field, Nicole brings her expertise in physician education, quality assurance, public outreach and patient interactions to MCC. In an effort to destigmatize public perception around cannabis, Nicole frequently speaks to medical practitioners, Veterans groups, and state legislators. Nicole holds a BBA from Emory University and, as a scholarship recipient, is completing a MBA at Northwestern University. Nicole's hobbies include ballet, reading, and babysitting her niece and nephew. Contact her at nicole@midwestcompassion.org.

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