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Matlin Smith, Las Cruces Sun-News
To qualify for New Mexico's Medical Cannabis Program, patients must meet one of 17 conditions, among them cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, Post Traumatic Stress disorder and HIV/AIDS.
The program was created under the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, which, according to the New Mexico Department of Health, allows the beneficial use of medical cannabis in a regulated system for alleviating symptoms caused by debilitating medical conditions and their medical treatments.
"Cannabis is an ancient herb and in many cultures, they drank it, ate it and applied it topically," said Dr. Hilda Chavez, a naturopath with Tesoro Health Center. She is a NM Medical Cannabis Patient Consultant.
Today, there are many different ways for medicinal marijuana patients to reap the benefits outside of smoking the plant, which, Chavez said, is the most expensive option. There are tinctures and extracts to help control the dose by a couple of drops under the tongue. Topical applications ease achy joints and muscles without the mental affects. And drinking it in juice or tea, or taking cannabis capsules, can serve as a painkiller and is better on the liver, as is making cannabis butter to put in baked goods for consumption.
"There is real value in education in the different delivery methods," Chavez said. "(Most patients) want quality of life and to be able to function and they don't want to be high."
Chavez, a practitioner, and medical cannabis patient since 2007, sees around 10 patients a day who have been referred by general practitioners, oncologists, psychiatrists and other medical professionals to be screened for, and educated about, the program.
"The majority of patients I see are legitimate adults not interested in recreational use. I make sure the patient understands what they're getting into. They can't just go home and smoke pot. Their card has to be renewed every year, so we have to see improvement," Chavez said.
According to the NMDOH, marijuana is classified by the federal government as a "Schedule I controlled substance," which means it cannot, by law, be prescribed by any health care professional. New Mexico law, however, allows doctors to recommend medical cannabis for patients, who are then referred to the cannabis program to apply for their medical card.
There are currently 22 states that have medical cannabis programs enacted.
Types of cannabis and methods of use
There are several species of cannabis, a genus of flowering plant, Chavez said.
•Cannabis sativa: Contains THC — the psychoactive-inducing part of the plant — and the effects are primarily on the mind and emotions.
•Cannabis indica: Effects are primarily physical and some emotional, including relaxation, sedation and pain reduction.
•Cannabis ruderalis: This strain is also called hemp and has no THC.
•Cannabis hybrid strains: The result of cross pollination of various strains. The effects are often stronger than the original strain.
Cannabinoids are the medicinal component of the cannabis. The main health-related cannabinoids, or CBs, are good for epilepsy, anxiety and insomnia, among other conditions.
Running a risk
As with every medicine, there are side effects to medicinal marijuana.
Some of the short-term side effects include dizziness, drowsiness and short-term memory loss, according to WebMD. More serious side effects include severe anxiety and psychosis, stemming predominately from the plant's THC level. THC — the factor that makes the plant illegal for recreation use — can also cause rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, red eyes, dry mouth, increased appetite and slow reaction time.
These effects are reduced after three or four hours, WebMD says, but marijuana can remain in your system for as long a month after use. Lingering affects can mean impairment for several days or weeks. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heavy marijuana use can lower men's testosterone levels and sperm count and quality. It could also decrease libido and fertility in some men who are heavy users. Medical marijuana is not monitored by the Federal Drug Administration.
Cannabis, kids and pets
Marijuana may pose a risk to pets and children who get a hold of it by accident.
A recent veterinary study in Colorado and data gathered by Pet Poison Helpline indicate that marijuana poisoning in pets is on the rise, especially following the legalization of marijuana in New Mexico's neighbor to the north. According to the Pet Poison Helpline's data, while it's rare, pets can die form marijuana poisoning if they inhale smoke, ingest the dried plant or eat food laced with marijuana. Signs of marijuana poisoning in dogs and cats include glassy eyes, stumbling, dilated pupils, vomiting and even coma, according to the helpline.
Children are also susceptible to dangerous encounters with medical marijuana. Americans for Safe Access — an organization that seeks to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic uses and research — recommends keeping all medical marijuana out of plain sight, like in a medical jar with other medications, stored in an area children cannot access. For patients who cook with medicinal cannabis, ASA recommends clearly labeling any food products containing the substance as medicinal, and keeping them far away from any children's food.
"Use discretion when medicating, and do not do so when your child is present," reads a statement on the ASA website. "Specifically, think about medicating when you have several hours open before any interaction with the child or after (they're) already in bed."
The group also encourages parents to talk to older children, explaining the purpose of medicinal marijuana, its private nature and that, like any other prescription medication, it's not for your child.
For more information about the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program, visit nmhealth.org/mcp.
The qualifying conditions eligible for the Medical Cannabis Program:
•Spinal cord damage with intractable spasticity
•Painful peripheral neuropathy
•Hepatitis C infection currently receiving antiviral treatment
•Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
•Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
•Severe chronic pain
•Inflammatory autoimmune-mediated arthritis
— NM Department of Health
Guidelines for safe use of medical cannabis:
•Respect the law.
•Use common sense.
•Do not drive or operate heavy machinery under the influence of cannabis.
•Do not mix cannabis with alcohol, as it may cause dizziness, vomiting and nausea.
•Do not smoke cannabis if you have lung disease or respiratory illness.
•Do not share joints or other smoking tools with others.
•Do not cross state lines in possession of cannabis, as it is a federal offense.
•Do choose organic cannabis to minimize exposure to unknown pesticides and other chemicals that may compromise your immune system.
— Dr. Hilda Chavez, Tesoro Health Center