Roy Exum: ‘Would Marijuana Help?’

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I was talking to one of my doctors last week who knows I wrestle with chronic pain and I brought up the fact that medicinal marijuana has become the national rage. Twenty-one states now allow it and Tennessee is one of about a dozen other states that is taking a hard look at a topic our best scientists admit they know too little about.

I’ll admit I am nearly paranoid in my fear of prescription narcotics but several months ago, after Colorado legalized marijuana, I became fascinated with the tale of tiny Charlotte Figi, a six-year-old girl who has a rare disease called Dravet Syndrome. The kid was having 200 grand mal seizures a week – about once every 25 minutes – and was in a living hell. Strapped in a wheelchair, the child had a one-word vocabulary.

Today young Charlotte can walk, speak in full sentences and has a blend of marijuana named in her honor called “Charlotte’s Web.” Her life has been totally changed after her desperate parents began to mix a strain of the embattled cannabis with olive oil and started giving Charlotte two treatments a day. There is documentable proof Charlotte and about 85 other kids have had their lives altered and today – get this -- there are 2,000 more people on a Colorado Springs waiting list. Over 100 families have literally moved to Colorado!

So I am talking to this doctor I trust with my life and I suddenly asked, “Would marijuana help me?” The answer came out easily. “It is illegal for me to prescribe it. It is illegal in the state of Tennessee … but I would not tell you not to try it … “

Holy smokes, that was unbelievable for me. That is the closest real-life example I have ever heard that maybe there is more to all the hoopla, and growing public acceptance. Seriously, maybe there really is more to marijuana than mainstream conservatives have been willing to admit until now but scientists worry there may be more we don’t know.

Amy Brooks-Kayal, the vice president of the American Epilepsy Society, was quoted in an Associated Press story the other day as saying "Until we have information (and proven research), as physicians, we can't follow our first creed, which is do no harm," she explained,  carefully noting that, to date, it hasn’t been proven there aren’t threatening side effects to the children who are now avoiding the life-threatening seizures.

The strain of cannabis that is being given to these kids with seizures reportedly contains a relatively small amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component in marijuana, which means the user doesn’t get the “high” that the marijuana being sold in Colorado’s regular pot stores provides. Doctors remain leery, of course, because there is virtually no data yet available.

Josh Stanley, who grows the strain, told the AP, “My brothers and I thought that this little-known compound might just be the missing link to provide some validity in the realm of cannabis research and as it turns out we were correct," he said.

"Now the plant we had created, while it may have immense medical benefits, is completely non-psychoactive... so we named the plant 'The Hippie's Disappointment' (but) it proved incredibly useful to Charlotte."

There is some belief – and worry – that medicinal marijuana is the last step towards totally legalizing the drug, which the state of Washington will be the next to do. In Florida legalizing marijuana is on the November ballot but – just to be safe -- three state senators just sponsored a separate bill for the medicinal cannabis to be approved by the legislature – not the popular vote.

"Charlotte’s Web helps patients improve their quality of life and offers hope to parents desperate to provide relief to their children," state Senator Rob Bradley said. "While many Floridians have significant concerns about medical marijuana being misused, SB 1030 offers a new opportunity for Floridians who have not found relief with current medications." And Senator Aaron Bean added, “This is completely different from what the public knows about marijuana. I’m excited about the possibility of ending seizures in medically challenged kids."

In New York a recent poll showed 88 percent of voters now favor medicinal marijuana and 58 percent favor recreational pot. According to government surveys, some 25 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the past year, and more than 14 million do so regularly despite harsh laws against its use. You can almost bet it will pass because New York and many other states are admittedly coveting Colorado’s tax haul, on pace to exceed $100 million a year (for the record, alcohol in Colorado nets $39 million in taxes annually).

Candidly, I think it is just a matter of time – a recent Wall Street Journal/CBS News poll showed 55 percent of Americans favor legal sales. I see medicinal marijuana in Tennessee on a fast track and, with the war on marijuana long a joke, let’s legalize and tax the stuff. The United States is spending an estimated $7.6 billion a year in its losing fight against marijuana possession laws and maybe we could use that money to help children who suffer from seizures.

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I retired from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, with 37 years of state service in 2015. I graduated from East Ridge High School in 1969 and raised my son in this community. I am proud to be from East Ridge. Several months ago, I decided to learn more about East Ridge leadership by attending the City Council meetings. At the meetings, I met ... (click for more)

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