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A new study shows that 1.4 million Californians have used medical cannabis and an overwhelming majority of those users (92%) believe cannabis helped treat the symptoms of a serious medical condition. The study, which will be published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, challenges the commonly held perception that medical cannabis is being overused by healthy people and demonstrates that California’s medical cannabis laws are providing real relief to a lot of people. This scientific data is important and timely, given that lawmakers, voters, and the courts will be making important decisions in the next two years that will affect who can get medical cannabis and how for years to come. Those choices need to be informed by facts, not misperceptions.
Patients and advocates will probably not be surprised by the facts that a lot of Californians (5% overall) have used medical cannabis and that almost all of them report positive outcomes. We have been saying that for decades. In fact, the authors’ estimates of use in the state mirror earlier estimates by Dale Gieringer, Ph.D., from California NORML. This report is significant, however, because it is the first estimate based on a large dataset that is representative of the state’s population. The California Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which is an ongoing cross-sectional telephone survey, interviewed more than 7,500 Californians in English and Spanish to generate this data.
The analysis shows that one in twenty Californians have used medical cannabis. More than 30% used medical cannabis to treat chronic pain, 11% used it for arthritis, 8% for migraines, and 7% for cancer. Participants also reported using medical cannabis to treat the symptoms of AIDS, glaucoma, muscle spasms, nausea, stress, and depression. The results refute smaller studies that suggest most users are young white males. Researchers found that medical cannabis was used at similar rates by men and women, the young and the old, patients with high and low levels of education, and in various regions of the state.
Rigorous scientific proof that medical cannabis is commonly used throughout the state by a diverse population, and that it is highly effective in treating serious conditions, matters right now. Voters are going to the polls to approve or deny twelve separate ballot measures related to medical cannabis in November. State lawmakers and a growing cohort of lobbyists for and against medical cannabis will be back at the table to debate commercial regulations in California next year. The courts are about to make big decisions about the authority of local government to ban and regulate cultivation. And a vote on legalizing cannabis for non-medical use is expected in 2016.
We need everyone who is going to make a decision about medical cannabis in the next two years – voters, lawmakers, judges, and us – to understand that it is real medicine that helps a lot of people. That is important because the decisions we make about genuine medicine will be fundamentally different than the decisions we make about regulating a vice like alcohol or tobacco. We cannot let decision makers rely on the cynical misperceptions that most medical cannabis users are not really sick or that their use is not medical. The science says otherwise, and our local and state policies should reflect that.