Medical marijuana gains support from doctors, patients, researchers

Wednesday , January 10, 2018 - 5:15 AM2 comments

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

ROY —  Should Utah pain management doctors be able to recommend marijuana to their patients? The answer to this question likely will be up to voters this November, pending successful signature-gathering for a ballot initiative that would legalize medical cannabis.

Liberty resident Katrena Lee believes the controversial plant could make a big difference for her 15-year-old son, Mike Lee. She, Mike and their two service dogs attended a medical cannabis forum at the Weber County Library in Roy Monday night, and by the end of the 90-minute discussion, she felt a glimmer of hope.

“This guy, at 11 years old, was begging to die from the pain,” Katrena Lee said. “As a parent, it was heartbreaking.”

Mike Lee is autistic and also battles digestive tract paralysis, dysautonomia, epilepsy and mild cerebral palsy. At 11, doctors put him on Loritab. He now he takes 11 different medications, some to chase Loritab’s side effects, Katrena Lee said.

“He has three different doctors that have all said that he would benefit (from medical marijuana),” Katrena Lee said. “But we don’t have access ... and I’m too afraid of the system to try it (illegally).”

Story continues below image. 

Andy Talbott, a pain management physician who practices in Park City, fielded questions from the audience alongside Weber State University Neuroscience Professor Jim Hutchins, TRUCE Utah Board Chairman Tom Paskett and TRUCE Utah Founder/President Christine Stenquist. TRUCE stands for Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education. 

“It’s tough because I can’t recommend that patients try cannabis because I could lose my license. I could lose my DEA license. I have to tell patients they can’t use this illegal drug,” Talbott said. However, he looks forward to a time when that constraint disappears.

“We need other tools in our bag besides opioid medications. I’m a big advocate for (TRUCE Utah) and the (ballot initiative) because the downside seems very low for appropriate patients,” Talbott said. “People don’t overdose on this ... and it doesn’t suppress respiration. It does impair and sedate people, so it’s not a perfect option — but it needs to be an option.”

Stenquist shared her own journey from heavy opioid dependence to pharmaceutical-free cannabis use. At 24, she was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, underwent surgery, hemorrhaged and suffered a stroke. She now battles occipital neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia, complex migraines and fibromyalgia. 

“I was on many pharmaceuticals for many years, and finally hit a wall in 2012,” Stenquist said. Those medications included a fentanyl patch,120 Percocets per month, and Dilaudid shots to handle breakthrough pain. “I finally had a doctor say to me that I had to quit the opiates or they were going to kill me.”

At that point, she decided to try cannabis. One doctor put her on Marinol, which is a synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component in marijuana. But after two weeks, Stenquist said she stopped using it due to severe paranoia. 

But when she vaporized whole-plant marijuana, Stenquist said she felt instant relief from nausea. After two weeks of use, she started walking again and also began experiencing pain relief — an unexpected surprise. Eight months later, she found her way to Utah’s Capitol Hill to share her story with lawmakers.

“But cannabis is not a panacea, it’s not a cure-all,” Stenquist cautioned. “It helped mitigate my symptoms enough so that I could start living a normal life. I started working out, and hired a trainer who helped me build my core so I could run after ‘ding dongs’ on the hill. I could not do that before.”

While 29 states along with Washington, D.C., have passed medical marijuana laws, Utah legislators proceeded much more cautiously.

In 2014, they approved House Bill 105 (Charlee’s Law) which allowed issuance of cannabidiol (CBD) oil registration cards to patients with intractable epilepsy. Having that card meant caregivers could avoid federal prosecution if they got pulled over by a police officer who found the cannabis product in their vehicles. While cannabis is now legal in a majority of states, the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule 1 illicit drug.

RELATED: CBD oil touted as broadly beneficial, but still potentially illegal

In 2015 and 2016, Utah lawmakers rejected bills to legalize whole-plant medical marijuana. In 2017, they approved House Bill 130, which paved the way for formation of Springville-based Endo-C, a company that plans to conduct CBD oil studies. CBD oil comes from hemp, which is very low THC (0.3 percent or less) cannabis.

Doug Rice, a retired firefighter that serves on TRUCE Utah’s board and also as vice-president of the Epilepsy Association of Utah, spoke in support of whole-plant marijuana Monday. His daughter Ashley is among Utah’s CBD oil cardholders, and as she aged into her 20s, doses of THC were needed to stave off seizures.

“This crap we’re dealing with now where CBD oil is supposed to be the be all and end all? I’m sick of it,” Rice said, acknowledging the fear of losing his daughter to Sudden Unexpected Death In Epilepsy (SUDEP). “I’ve got to worry about waking up every morning to find my daughter died in the middle of the night ... and that’s why I feel we have to go with this whole plant stuff."

EASING THE OPIATE OVERDOSE EPIDEMIC

According to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 64,000 people across the U.S. died from drug overdose deaths in 2016 — surpassing the 58,220 U.S. military casualties caused by the Vietnam War.

Fentanyl topped the list of offending drugs, with heroin, prescription opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines and methadone ranking second through sixth, according to The New York Times

Recent studies have noted decreases in drug overdose deaths in states that legalized marijuana. In August 2017, the American Journal of Public Health published a study scrutinizing two years of data that showed more than a 6-percent decrease in opioid-related deaths since recreational cannabis shops opened in Colorado in 2014. 

And a 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine study examined opiate-related deaths in 13 states after medical marijuana had been legalized. Those states registered an average 24.8 percent drop in annual opioid overdose mortality rates compared to states lacking legal medical cannabis.

Rice hopes 2018 will be the year Utahns decide to get on board with medical marijuana, despite vigorous opposition from some camps.

RELATED: Town hall meeting touts multiple ills of marijuana

“This isn’t just about my daughter; it’s about the lady with fibromyalgia; it's about Andy’s patients that need something besides opioids,” Rice said. “It's about having a choice, and it’s about getting our damn government out of my medicine cabinet.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×