Physician advocates for medical marijuana
February 25, 2006
Brendan McKenna, Rutland HeraldAs he opened his remarks about medical marijuana, Dr. Joseph McSherry said he couldn't be as informative as he would like to be. "I asked a very good friend, who happens to be a medical marijuana patient, what I should tell you today," McSherry said. "He said to tell you not to ask a doctor. Doctors don't know (expletive) about medical marijuana."
McSherry, a neurophysiologist and PhD associated with Fletcher Allen Medical Center and the University of Vermont, said his friend is largely correct: There have been few scientific studies on the effects of marijuana as a medicine, and even less research has been conducted on its medical effects in humans.
"You'll probably be more educated than your doctor by the time we get through," McSherry told his audience at the Godnick Center in Rutland on Friday.
He walked the audience through the limited medical data on cannabis and the properties of the chemicals in marijuana other than THC that can have beneficial effects.
Canabanoids, McSherry said, can boost the effectiveness of other painkillers, inhibit the growth of tumors and alleviate wet macular degeneration, which causes blindness in some cases.
"We're just beginning to scratch the surface of this iceberg," he said.
McSherry said that inhaled marijuana can be very effective at treating sudden swift pains, while many other painkillers, including marinol — a legal prescription drug that is a capsule of THC in sesame oil — can take too long to take effect.
"I don't approve of smoking for anybody," he said. "There's got to be a better way of doing it, but the U.S. government hasn't been interested in doing any research.
"If you eat it, the chemicals peak in two to four hours. Eating it is probably the worst way of intaking THC," he said. "If you inhale it, THC levels peak in a few minutes and it actually goes away in the first hour."
He noted that researchers in other countries are trying to develop different types of medical cannabis for patients.
Two members of the audience who said they use the drug for medicinal purposes offered compelling testimony about its benefits. Neither identified themselves.
The first patient said that at one point he had been on 17 different medications to treat his multiple sclerosis — some to counteract the side effects of other medications.
"Now I think I'm on four medications now," he said. "I'm not on medications for the side effects of medication. I'm not drugged out or high. From 17 meds, down to four."
A second patient said he had lost more than 50 pounds while undergoing chemotherapy before using marijuana to counteract the nausea.
"I went from 236 pounds down to 176," he said. "Part of the problem was the sickness of chemo. I couldn't hold down food, and marinol did not work for me. Cannabis did work."
Members of the audience had many questions about medical marijuana, from its chemical properties to the intricacies of growing plants to use for medicine.
"If you have a seed that has a known history of consistent product, you will get a consistent product medically," McSherry said. "That's why I think patients ought to be able to grow their own."
One audience member wondered how patients who don't grow it can access medical marijuana.
"Where does the pot come from if you're not a green thumb person?" she asked.
McSherry said "compassionate clubs" have formed in California that allow medical marijuana patients to bring in prescriptions to be filled with marijuana of a known quality rather than forcing patients to rely on what they can find on the black market, he said.
"In Vermont, if you have a friend or a grandson … you can make a provision to register with the state that you're a registered patient and they're a registered grower," he said, adding that Vermont's medical marijuana law does not shield users or growers from federal prosecution.
McSherry sees access to the drug as an uphill battle. He said many doctors are resistant to the notion of medical marijuana.
"There are very definitely a lot of doctors who are very adamant it's not a medicine," he said. "There are doctors that believe if it were a medicine, the FDA would approve it and pharmaceutical companies would make cannabis that you can take as a product.
"But patients' definition of a medicine is a different thing," he added.
Contact Brendan McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.