“Based on the research to date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not recognized or approved the marijuana plant as medicine,” Mario Moreno Zepeda, spokesperson for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said. “However, research on marijuana extracts, called cannabinoids, has led to FDA-approved medications.”
FDA approval of marijuana would require “carefully conducted studies (clinical trials) in hundreds to thousands of human subjects to determine the benefits and risks of a possible medication,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The News21 analysis of medical marijuana programs across the country also showed states diverge on what health conditions qualify a patient for medical marijuana, and little or no research has been done to determine whether marijuana or its derivatives effectively treat those conditions. AIDS, cancer and chronic pain qualify as conditions for medical marijuana treatment in more than 20 states. But traumatic brain injury qualifies only in New Hampshire and Tourette syndrome qualifies only in New Mexico.
To be considered qualified for medical marijuana, patients under all 24 programs must be diagnosed with an approved condition by a physician. Yet the standards for physician evaluations vary. The California doctor that Harrington saw in San Francisco legally certified him for medical marijuana even though the consultation took less than five minutes and he was one of hundreds seen on the same day. That’s all that’s required in California.
A single physician in New Jersey has approved over 1,000 of that state’s more than 4,000 medical marijuana patients. In Washington state, at least 12 doctors have faced penalties for operating so-called mills at which they recommended medical marijuana for large numbers of people, according to Donn Moyer, a spokesman from Washington state’s health department.
Dr. Anthony Anzalone, the New Jersey doctor who has paved the way for over 1,000 of the state’s medical marijuana patients, is a former gynecologist who left his former practice to evaluate patients for medical marijuana. He said that he wants to see patients have access to medical marijuana, even if he has to dig for a reason.
“Patients say, ‘Oh, I have post-traumatic stress.’ I say, ‘Unfortunately, the state will not allow it at this point in time. However, tell me more. Do you have any kind of GI (gastrointestinal) problem - irritable bowel (syndrome)?’” Anzalone said. “They don’t think about that.”
He said the idea is to make people feel better – not high.
“If you are not getting approved for medical marijuana in New Jersey, you are going to the wrong doctor,” said Anzalone’s patient counselor, Kevin Long.
Connecticut is the only state that treats medical marijuana like any other pharmaceutical drug.
Jonathan Harris, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, said Connecticut is “the only state in the nation that has a true medical marijuana program.”
Once patients are approved by a doctor and registered through Harris’ department, they must obtain their medical marijuana from one of six licensed dispensaries, which are owned and operated by licensed pharmacists.
When Laurie Zrenda, a pharmacist of 27 years, opened her dispensary in Uncasville, Connecticut, patients handed her hundreds of dollars in cash to pay for their medical marijuana.
“And then, I realized they were paying their drug dealers all of this money before,” she said. “They were used to it.”
Her dispensary, Thames Valley Alternative Relief, serves 515 patients. “I didn’t realize how widely used it was for so many other conditions,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing that one plant can do all these things. … I know the evidence is anecdotal, but it’s there. It’s hard to deny it.”
Eight states – Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York – and Washington, D.C. – require patients to use dispensaries rather than allowing the option of home cultivation.
Of those, seven states require their dispensaries to submit product for testing.
New Jersey’s Public Health and Environmental Laboratories, however, is the only state-run lab in the United States to test product from the medical marijuana dispensaries, according to Megan Latshaw, the director of environmental health programs for the Association of Public Health Laboratories.