Medical marijuana hearing

Elaine Burns, a licensed naturopathic physician, testifies Friday at a Health Department hearing that marijuana has potential for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly since the alternative for sufferers often is self-medicating with alcohol. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

A parade of Arizonans hoping to expand the use of medical marijuana told state health officials Friday how much better their lives are since they have been using the drug, legally or otherwise.

“Within minutes, I could function as a mom to my daughter, able to make her meals, function to take care of her and, most important, tolerate the sound of her voice,” said Stacey Theis, a migraine sufferer since age 9. She explained that while her child’s voice was normally “music to my ears, with a migraine it’s the most annoying thing to have to listen to.”

Daryl Williams, who said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said marijuana helps because it allows people “to slow our brains down enough to forget about what happened and properly move forward within our lives.”

And Cory Tyszela said her husband’s use of the drug has enabled him to recover from his experiences as a combat veteran. She said the alternatives that were prescribed left him “a zombie.”

But Health Director Will Humble said while the stories are compelling, they are not enough by themselves to allow him to heed their pleas to expand the number of conditions that a doctor can cite in deciding to recommend marijuana.

He wants scientific evidence of not only the efficacy of marijuana — evidence that Humble conceded is currently in short supply. Humble also wants to be sure that in allowing a doctor to recommend marijuana, he does not cause greater harm because the patient will not get other necessary treatment.

The hearings are an outgrowth of the 2010 voter-approved law which allows doctors to recommend marijuana for patients suffering from a list of medical conditions. That list includes glaucoma and AIDS as well as any chronic or debilitating condition that leads to severe and chronic pain.

With that recommendation, patients can get a card from the state allowing them to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

That 2010 law, though, requires state health officials to consider petitions to expand the list. This first-ever effort includes not just migraines and PTSD but also depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

Leland Fairbanks, a doctor who has been active in anti-smoking efforts, urged Humble not to make such a move absent approval of the Food and Drug Administration to add marijuana to the list of drugs considered safe and effective. In fact, Fairbanks said he does not believe marijuana should ever have been allowed for many of the conditions already permitted.

But Charise Voss said that ignores her own personal experience with migraines and how using the drug got her off of far more dangerous prescription medications. And, turning to address Fairbanks, Voss said, “I hope you do more research and find out there’s medical uses for this.”

Anyway, Voss said, marijuana is the best of all possible medical alternatives.

“It’s a safe thing to do,” she said. “It’s not going to kill me.”

With formal published research still in short supply, Humble acknowledged that last factor may have to fit into the decision he expects to make by the middle of July.

“The challenge with marijuana is it’s difficult to get the studies done because it’s a Schedule 1 drug according to the FDA,” Humble said, meaning the government has determined there is no legitimate medical use for it. That becomes a Catch 22, throwing roadblocks in the way of the kind of clinical trials that produce hard evidence of whether a drug is safe and effective.

Humble said research may be on the way with more than a dozen states already permitting medical marijuana. He said these can be the “laboratories” where doctors who run dispensaries can design and do studies on patients who are already being allowed to use the drug.

He conceded, though, it could be years until that kind of research is done, giving him the information he needs to grant one or more of the requests to expand the use of marijuana.

Still, Humble said his medical staff is reviewing not only reports submitted by proponents of expanding the medical marijuana program but is actually doing outreach: The state has a contract with the University of Arizona College of Public Health to scour publications for any available research.

But Humble told Capitol Media Services after the hearing that still leaves the possibility of allowing doctors to recommend the drug even if much of the evidence is anecdotal — and if, as Voss said, it won’t do any harm.

The most likely prospect deals with migraines.

He said everything he has seen suggests that those who end up using marijuana have tried a full array of over-the-counter and prescription medications, ending up with marijuana because nothing else worked. More to the point, Humble said the condition being treated is, in fact, the symptom.

By contrast, he worried that approving marijuana for PTSD might result in some people treating only the symptoms and not getting the necessary medical or psychological help to deal with the underlying problems.

That concern was echoed by Kent Eller, a doctor who is chief medical officer for the Southwest Medical Network which provides treatment for people with behavioral health problems.

Eller said he has seen evidence that marijuana makes sense for patients with cancer and the chronic wasting of AIDS. But he said the drug makes no sense in treating depression, saying all it does is provide “instant symptom control.”

“Depression can be a fatal illness,” he said. Eller also said that what is often considered depression turns out to be a more serious mental condition that needs a different kind of treatment.

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