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Dr. Stuart Gitlow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (center), urged the Illinois Senate to defeat the medical marijuana bill.

Passing medical marijuana bill will put Illinois on a dangerous path, opponents say

by Tanvi Misra
Apr 25, 2013


Tanvi Misra/MEDILL

Former DEA Administrator Peter Bensinger shows statistics about marijuana and road safety, after demonstrating with a bag of cigarettes the amount of marijuana accessible to a card-holder through the bill.

The American Society for Addiction Medicine called on legislators to defeat the medical marijuana bill in the Illinois Senate, saying it would be dangerous to pass it.

The society, representing more than 3,000 physicians, opposed “parlaying of marijuana as medicine.”

“Medical marijuana would mean that the drug has been synthesized, that the risks and benefits have been properly considered, that dosages have been properly considered, that the timing for which the drug has been considered, all the things that we have normally for medicine,” said Dr. Stuart Gitlow acting president of society.

“Medical marijuana, there ain’t no such thing.”

At a Thursday’s press conference in Chicago, the society offered its reasons for opposing the bill: marijuana is harmful and not approved by the Food and Drug Association, and that it would pose a risk for society as a whole.

Andrea Barthwell, director of Two Dreams Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, said that FDA approval was a prerequisite for physicians to recommend marijuana, and that the “same standards applicable to other prescription medicines” should apply.

However, proponents of medical marijuana disagree.

“Marijuana is not, and will not go through the FDA process because the FDA is not really set up to study whole plants,” said Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project.

Riffle said there is no lack of studies that prove the benefits of medical marijuana, but there is a lack of those recognized by the FDA.

Lewis Butler, from American Society for Addiction Medicine, countered that there is protocol for botanical approval at the FDA, but it hasn’t been pursued by medical marijuana advocates.

Society leaders decried the harmful effects of marijuana, saying that it was “clearly an addictive drug,” and that there were alternatives available. Marijuana-use leads to more emergency room visits than heroine, said Barthwell.

But Dr. David Ostrow vice-president of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine, said cannabis is safer than opiates approved for the treatment of pain.

“Multiple studies have shown that in states with medical marijuana, there is no increase but in fact, a decrease in emergency room visits for cannabis-related side effects,” Ostrow said. He added that although 6-8 percent did develop a problem of regular use, it still wasn’t clear if the factor was the cannabis in and of itself.

“Some of the components have moderating effects on the other components,” Ostrow said.

Riffle added that marijuana has never caused an overdose fatality, and the side effects are less severe than those relating to other drugs.

“It’s just a safer option,” Riffle said.

While acknowledging that the physicians had compassion for the sick and the dying, the society’s Gitlow said, “Passing this legislation would put Illinois and its citizens on a dangerous path.”

He was joined by Peter Bensinger, former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who argued the public safety perspective.

“Each card holder will be able to purchase dealer qualities of marijuana every 14 days, coming away with 183 joints at a time,” he said, emptying a clear plastic baggie of cigarettes to demonstrate his argument. "I have no doubt that much of that surplus marijuana will find its way into the hands of street gangs and their drug distribution networks."

Traffic safety would also be a concern, Bensinger said, cautioning the hazards of driving under the influence of marijuana.

But Riffle, of the Marijuana Policy Project said, “If their concern was that people might use marijuana and then drive under the influence, then why would we not have that same concern for people who might use Oxycontin, Vicodin and any other drug and drive under the influence of it?” He said the safeguards in the Illinois bill were much more restrictive than what was in place for other drugs.

Gitlow, head of the American Society of Addiction Medicine brought the question down to benefits for the individual versus society.

“Is it worth the risk to our society to give one person an intoxicant that will help them to feel better, while not actually making them better, while putting our entire society at risk by making that intoxicant available to everybody?” Gitlow said.

But multiple sclerosis patient Julie Falco responded, "I'm not one person."

She said she spoke to people every day that felt that marijuana was better than chemical alternatives. Falco said that when she was on them, she felt like she was under “a fog of side effects and depressive symptoms.” She had entertained thoughts of suicide, she said.

Then, she was introduced to cannabis. “I’ve been eating it consistently since 2007, basically, it’s saved my life,” Falco said.

Meanwhile, the medical marijuana bill, which passed in the Illinois House of Representatives with a 61-57, April 16, will go to the state Senate for review.

Eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have passed laws approving the medical use of marijuana.