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Making the Case for Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana in jars

Paige Figi consistently voted against the legalization of medical marijuana. That was, until her 2-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was diagnosed with Dravet's syndrome, a rare disease that causes hours-long seizures and rapid cognitive decline.

At her worst, Charlotte had 300 seizures a week. She spent most of her young life in ICUs and emergency rooms, on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals that did more harm than good.

In the end, it was cannabis oil without psychoactive properties that controlled the violent seizures and gave Charlotte back her life.

Pot, weed, reefer, hemp, marijuana – no matter what you call it, cannabis and its legalization is a controversial topic. Supporters and detractors often present a long list of pros and cons, and it's easy to get lost in the political posturing surrounding the issue. Regardless of which side of the line you find yourself on, there is sound evidence that cannabis has valid medicinal uses.

"I want to scream it from the rooftops," Charlotte's father, Matt Figi, told CNN. "I want other people, other parents, to know that this is a viable option."

My View

Growing up, I was pretty straight-laced. I never smoked or drank and certainly had a very bad opinion of recreational drugs in general. I thought everyone who smoked pot was a miscreant or a loser. The whole "medical" marijuana movement seemed like an excuse to just get high.

Then, recently I started researching the medical benefits of marijuana while writing for Drugwatch, and it changed the way I looked at the much-maligned plant.

Consider this: According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data from 1997 to 2005, cannabis was not listed as a primary cause of a single death. In contrast, more than 10,000 deaths were caused by 17 FDA-approved drugs during the same time period. Vioxx, a popular painkiller, caused 4,540, and Viagra was responsible for 2,254 deaths.

Alcohol kills almost 26,000 people a year and is perfectly legal.

And according to Brown University, cannabis is also "virtually impossible to overdose from, which sets it apart from most drugs." (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one death occurs every 19 minutes from unintentional drug overdose in America, mostly from prescription pain medications.)

These facts alone are compelling, but it was the stories of cannabis taking away debilitating pain or nausea caused by chemotherapy in a cancer patient, or controlling grand mal seizures in a young child, that really made me pay attention – and dig a little deeper.

Marijuana has been around in this country since its birth and has always been a part of its medical history.

Medical Marijuana's Beginnings in America

In its infancy as a country, America had a more forgiving view of cannabis.

It was even cultivated by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for commercial use in rope and cloth, and the plant was also prized for medicinal uses.

In the late 1800s, the plant was added to the United States Pharmacopeia, the official authority on prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The book said marijuana could treat a host of ailments, including tetanus.

By the early 1900s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was producing 60,000 pounds of marijuana a year for medicinal use and study on a farm in Mississippi. Drug giants Parke-Davis and Eli Lilly produced and sold marijuana extract.

The drug was legal in the United States and taxed at $100 per ounce for recreational use and $1 per ounce for medicinal use.

Doctors were on board with the use of marijuana as well, and the American Medical Association (AMA) advocated the drug until the 1940s.

So, how did cannabis turn into a dangerous, highly addictive drug with no medicinal value? The answer remains murky.

Reefer Madness

In the 1930s, a lot of what the average American knew about cannabis came from propaganda and opinion.

One of the most famous pieces of propaganda was Reefer Madness, a movie that showed "innocent" teenagers being driven to manslaughter, suicide and rape as a result of smoking pot and "drug-crazed abandon."

The hippie movement in the 1960s put the spotlight on recreational use of pot, and the government started to get involved.

President Richard Nixon began his war on drugs in the 1970s, lumping cannabis in with other schedule I drugs like heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Cannabis was to be classified as a schedule I drug because there was a "considerable void" in current medical knowledge, according to Nixon's secretary of Health. However, before making his decision, Nixon consulted a panel of researchers whose report recommended decriminalization of the drug and removal from the scheduling system.

Nixon ignored the recommendation.

As for that "considerable void" in knowledge, researchers are publishing more studies, though many seem to be skewed toward what is wrong with marijuana. Still, evidence exists of its safety profile and medical benefits.

Marijuana Medical Studies

According to critics – the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) included – cannabis is highly addictive, is a "gateway" drug that leads to addiction to other drugs and is not medicine.

However, a study conducted by the New York Academy of Science way back in 1944 found marijuana did not lead to significant addiction. Only about 9 percent of users developed dependence, whereas 30 percent of cigarette smokers become addicted.

The study also failed to find evidence that pot led to addiction to other drugs like morphine, cocaine or heroin.

Pot doesn't make people violent either. In Jeffrey A. Roth's 1994 U.S. Department of Justice Report titled Psychoactive Substances and Violence, his research concluded that the drug actually "temporarily inhibits violent behavior."

As for the claim that pot is not medicine, there are studies that show cannabis is effective for a variety of medical uses.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

For patients who suffer from various cancers, cannabis can be a powerful medicine. One study by the University of California states that pot is effective at controlling pain, nausea and vomiting and severe weight loss – applications that can be used to treat the side effects of chemotherapy.

For example, New York State Judge Gustin L. Reichbach was diagnosed with Stage 3 pancreatic cancer and in 2012, he wrote in the The New York Times, "Inhaled marijuana is the only medicine that gives me some relief from nausea, stimulates my appetite, and makes it easier to fall asleep."

Palliative Care

For people stricken with serious or terminal illness, marijuana can mean the difference between lingering in pain and getting much-needed relief. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care stated that cannabis is a safer alternative to current opioid pain relievers and its use would reduce morbidity in seriously ill patients.

Patients with difficult-to-treat cancers like mesothelioma – an aggressive cancer that most often affects the lining of the lungs – also often find relief from consuming oils or foods made with marijuana.

Diabetes and Multiple Sclerosis

Cannabis also shows promise in treating muscle conditions and peripheral neuropathy in diseases like multiple sclerosis. The drug may also treat type 2 diabetes. GW Pharmaceuticals is developing a new drug derived from cannabis that can reduce blood sugar levels and improve the production of insulin.

Changing Attitudes

Americans are changing their view on the drug – especially when it comes to medical use.

According to a 2011 CBS News Poll, 77 percent of people say that doctors in every state should be able to prescribe medical marijuana.

These changing attitudes are reflected in the choices made by voters. In early August 2013, Illinois became the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana, and other states have laws pending on ballots. Also in August, more than 100 groups applied to obtain one of the 35 licenses to run medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts.

On Aug. 29, 2013, the federal government announced it would allow Colorado and Washington to be the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana use - a sign that perhaps the "war on drugs" may be taking a turn.

The DEA maintains that marijuana is highly addictive, dangerous and has no medicinal value. The drug remains illegal at the federal level.

"No sound scientific studies support medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States, and no animal or human data support the safety or efficacy of marijuana for general medical use," said the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

What constitutes "sound scientific studies"?

All I know is that because of cannabis, Charlotte Figi, now 6, is finally starting to talk.

Matt Figi asked: "My thought now is, why were we the ones that had to go out and find this cure? This natural cure? How come a doctor didn't know about this? How come they didn't make me aware of this?"