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The misplaced war on pot

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Feb. 26, 2019 - 4:18 PM

“Marijuana should be legalized. Younger medical professionals in particular believe in legalization, at a minimum for medical use.”- Doug Skelton, MD, chancellor of Trinity Medical Sciences University and former head of the state of Georgia’s mental health/substance abuse programs

As reported in The Times-Herald, a bill was introduced in the House (1-14) making it feasible to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana. That is a good first step, although not enough.

The American public believes in “Just say no” … to ridiculous federal and state legislation outlawing all marijuana growing and use. It is not surprising that 68 percent of Americans now say that they believe marijuana should be made legal (May 1, 2018 survey; the Center for American Progress/GBA Strategies).

A Pew survey (10-8-18) found much the same, with 62 percent approval. Politically, 59 percent of GOP leaning independents want legalization, as do the 75 percent of independents who lean towards the Democrats.

Nearly 10 years ago, the AMA Council on Science and Public Health presented its findings to the full AMA, which accepted them. Essentially, the AMA wants the feds to fund research into uses of medical marijuana and its long-term effects, consider whether cannabis should be moved off the Schedule 1 list – see below – and not enforce legal penalties against physicians prescribing it. Despite the AMA’s position, funding by Congress has just not occurred, forcing states to act on their own.

Over the last 12 years, 31 states have approved cannabis for medical usage (NCSL, 6-27-18). A handful of those states – California, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Vermont, Colorado and Massachusetts – have full legalization or close to it. In other states and cities, penalties have been reduced. For example, the City of Atlanta (Ordinance 17-0-1152) has cut the fine for possession to $75 with no incarceration at all.

Even our home state of Georgia has taken steps to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, although the law is confusing because it is poorly written. It legalizes use but prohibits growing it and does not establish dispensaries; hopefully the legislature will take care of this issue this session.

But federal law remains antiquated and still prohibits interstate distribution.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug. This designation means that it has no known medical uses and is highly addictive. Many medical cannabis users, and an increasing number of health professionals, believe both points are incorrect.

President Obama – who used to be a marijuana smoker himself – understood this fact and, faced with a Congress politically reticent to take the necessary steps, directed the executive branch to refrain from enforcement of this law when applied to marijuana. However, the Trump administration has taken the opposite view, rescinding all of the Obama era legal guidance limiting enforcement, saying it was “unnecessary.”

Furthermore, former AG Sessions, a social conservative, issued a specific marijuana law enforcement directive (1-4-18) ordering: “all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principals that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis and thwart violent crime across our country.” In other words, don’t look the other way when cannabis is involved.

Our neighbor to the north has fully legalized marijuana. Many public health professionals here know that marijuana has medical uses and has fewer negative health side effects than alcohol or tobacco.  The National Bureau of Economic Research Health and Retirement Study found: “medical marijuana law passage leads to reductions in chronic pain and improvements in self-assessed health among older adults.”

The number of millennials wanting legalization, 74 percent per Pew, is even higher than the general public. So, legalization throughout the nation will happen eventually. Why not now?

In the meantime, the least we can do in Georgia is to permit controlled growing and dispensing of medical cannabis to patients needing it. Any less is morally indefensible.

Jack Bernard, formerly director of health planning for Georgia, was on the Jasper County Board of Health and County Commission and now lives in Fayette County. Dr. Doug Skelton is the former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources – mental health, health and welfare – and former dean of the Mercer School of Medicine. Currently Skelton is chancellor and dean of the Trinity School of Medicine in St. Vincent.