Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Marijuana as medicine is moving in the Kentucky legislature but before we jump on the bandwagon, we should make sure we are using the same definitions so that we don’t talk past each other. Most people think when you say medical marijuana that a doctor is prescribing a carefully produced and dosed medicine that has been scientifically verified to treat a particular condition. That’s not the case with HB 136.

We all want to see suffering people get a medicine that will help them, but I’m concerned that the medical marijuana bill (HB 136) moving through the Kentucky legislature will have the opposite effect.

It’s true that the marijuana plant contains compounds that have medicinal benefits. The FDA has approved several medications that are synthesized or derived from the marijuana plant, including a cannabidiol (CBD) medication to treat seizures in children. These are available now with a doctor’s prescription and do not require any further legislation. Unfortunately, what is proposed in HB 136 is very different.

The way medical marijuana currently works in other states is a “provider” (who may or may not be a doctor and often only does marijuana recommendations) evaluates you (sometimes over a Skype session); they say of course you qualify, and then you take your medical marijuana “recommendation” (not prescription) next door to the pot shop. There, a “budtender” with no medical training tells you about “Gorilla Glue” or “Death Star” varieties, which may or may not help your chronic pain because none of these marijuana strains have been researched for any medical purpose. Also, there is no difference between marijuana sold for recreational or medical purposes.

By contrast, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed over 10,000 research studies of benefits and harms of cannabis and cannabinoids. This review showed that isolated cannabinoids may have a benefit for a limited set of conditions, but more research is needed when it comes to the whole plant. Unfortunately, there is a greedy marijuana industry in other states that makes all manner of false health claims about what marijuana can treat or cure. They also claim that it’s safe.

Consider Colorado. It’s one of 11 states that allow recreational use of marijuana. It also saw a spike in traffic fatalities linked to pot use. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), roughly one in five of all fatal accidents in 2018 were linked to marijuana use. Even more troubling was a survey by CDOT finding that over half of marijuana users got behind the wheel within two hours of using.

And marijuana’s effects are magnified for young people whose brains are still developing. Under HB 136, children can get a medical marijuana card if a provider recommends its use. Yet children’s brains aren’t fully developed until at least age 25. We know that teens are more susceptible to addiction. According to a 2012 study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, one out of six teens who begin smoking low-potency pot before the age of 18 develop an addiction.

The side-effects or benefits for adults are hazy. That’s because the marijuana industry has skipped clinical trials or FDA testing, relying on anecdotal stories and budtenders’ speculations. We don’t know long term impacts on children, teens, pregnant and nursing mothers, or the elderly. Today’s marijuana contains 20-30 percent THC which is much more potent than it was 30 years ago when THC potency was in single digits.

When pharmaceutical companies do trial runs, they try to determine the dose-response relationship. How much of a drug is needed to treat an illness? Too little of a powerful drug means it won’t work. Too much means it might do more harm than good. HB 136 fails to determine dose-response relationships, making users potential guinea pigs and society vulnerable to pot’s negative effects, including compromising public safety. As one British scientist noted, “while laboratory animals are an expensive way of understanding the risks of cannabis use, North Americans come free.”

Medical marijuana is riding a strong wave of populist demand in the Commonwealth, but it isn’t based on science or testing. Prudent policy is based on research and facts. And in the best interest of the Commonwealth, legislators should protect citizens and make sure we’re not trading one drug crisis for another.

Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center. Garth Van Meter is the Vice President of Government Affairs at Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).