Via Hartford Courant – Medical marijuana research has begun in Connecticut, but the election of a new president highlights the conflicting relationship the state’s medical cannabis program has with federal law.
Connecticut, the District of Columbia and the 27 other states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes are operating with an understanding from the U.S. Department of Justice, which said it wouldn’t enforce federal restrictions on marijuana where it’s allowed under state law.
President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., could roll back that laissez-faire attitude. At a Senate hearing in April, Sessions, who has long been an opponent of marijuana law reform, said “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He also criticized the Obama administration for not enforcing the federal prohibition on the drug.
David Emmel, a Wethersfield ophthalmologist and legislative chair for the Connecticut State Medical Society, called it a “reasonable concern,” even if it’s unlikely Trump’s Department of Justice would dramatically ratchet up marijuana enforcement or go after medical programs.
“This new administration coming is a complete black box,” Emmel said. “I don’t think anybody really knows exactly what’s going to come out of it because of all the contradictions we’ve experienced.”
Trump has expressed support for medical marijuana, telling a crowd at an October 2015 rally: “I think medical should happen — right? Don’t we agree? I think so.” But he was more cool to the idea of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
At the federal level, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug — meaning it has high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use — making research virtually impossible. The two research programs approved in Connecticut are at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, sanctioned under state law, and at Connecticut Hospice in Branford, one of the few marijuana studies that has been federally approved.
“What we’re going to be trying to do is seeing No. 1 whether marijuana can help people to reduce the amount of opioids that they are required to keep comfortable,” said Ted Zanker, a past president of the state medical society who is heading up the research project at Connecticut Hospice.
Zanker thinks public opinion on marijuana is shifting so fast “it’s not going to be possible,” for Sessions to enforce federal regulations to a higher degree than the Obama administration. He hopes the federal government will eventually go further and reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which would allow for expanded research.
“Science always changes as more studies are done,” Zanker said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who attended the press conference to announce the Branford research project, said that one and the study at St. Francis — which is investigating the use of marijuana as a painkiller for traumatic injuries such as broken ribs — could prove critical in the fight to reduce opioid overdose deaths, which just received a federal commitment of $1 billion.
There are many stories of people who got hooked on prescription painkillers and moved on to heroin. And a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in early December found one third of Americans who took prescription opioids for at least two months said they became addicted to or physically dependent on the drugs.
“The reason this research is so critically important is that it offers hope of a nonaddictive means of effective pain management that can avoid overuse of powerful opioid prescriptions and lifetimes of addiction,” Blumenthal said.
Sessions will “be in for a fight” if he tries to change the Department of Justice guidance on medical marijuana, said Blumenthal, adding that there is bipartisan support for using marijuana as medicine. “It’s treatment, not tripping,” he said.
Jonathan Harris, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, which oversees medical marijuana, doesn’t think Trump’s administration will be a setback for the program, which enrolls about 15,000 patients and has 586 doctors licensed to prescribe the drug.
Harris, a former Democratic state legislator, said he has a lot of concerns about Trump’s policy, “but this is not high on the list.” With 28 states plus the District of Columbia having medical marijuana programs, “more than 50 percent [of the states] have accepted that cannabis has medical value,” Harris said. “It would be very difficult for the feds to interfere with” them.
Connecticut’s medical marijuana program has taken a “measured” approach to expansion, Harris said. Allowing for research was part of a new law that went into effect in October that also expanded the use of medical marijuana to include pediatric patients. The program’s board of physicians will hold a public hearing Jan. 11 to consider adding seven new conditions to the list approved for treatment with marijuana, including eczema, COPD, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.
Like Blumenthal, Harris expects there will be a lot of interest in the research being done in Connecticut. Harris noted that while there’s been anecdotal evidence to suggest that people with chronic pain have weened themselves off of opioids through the use of marijuana, it’s never been formally studied.
“Research is crucial,” Harris said. “We see the anecdotal information. There’s observational studies, there’s things that we’ve learned. But one of the biggest drags on the program has been that physicians and others, rightfully, say that we don’t really know scientifically what it does for different conditions, how different ways of delivering the medicine have an effect.”