Wisconsinites use cannabis as a medicine, but research and the law are not yet on their sidePosted by On

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After four decades of using strong prescription drugs to treat Crohn’s disease, a chronic digestive disorder, Patty developed an aggressive form of skin cancer. 

“It’s because my body has been suppressed for so long, it can’t fight it (cancer),” the Wisconsin resident said. 

Patty, who has worked at her father’s restaurant for 27 years, now struggles to handle full-time duties. 

“I’m trying to get disability, but I’ve been denied once already. I don’t plan on quitting working. I just need help. I need help because I can’t do a full-time job,” Patty said.

The Cannabis Question is a series exploring questions about proposals to legalize marijuana in Wisconsin.

Related story: List of federally approved marijuana medications in the U.S. is short

In March 2017, a friend who lives in New Mexico, where medical marijuana is legal, mailed her Buddha Tears, a cannabis oil product containing cannabidiol (CBD), and THC, the psychotropic component of cannabis. After consuming a tiny amount of the oil each day — as well as smoking marijuana — Patty said she saw a massive improvement in her condition. 

“Unfortunately, I have to smoke everyday, because if I don’t, I will be in the bathroom all the time,” said Patty, who asked that her last name not be published because she is using an illegal substance. 

Courtesy of the subject

Wisconsin resident Patty was sent Buddha Tears, a medication containing a highly concentrated form of THC, the psychotropic component of cannabis, and CBD derived from cannabis by her friend who lives in New Mexico. Patty uses the cannabis products to treat debilitating symptoms from Crohn’s disease. Patty asked that her last name not be used because she is using a substance that is illegal in Wisconsin.

But these days, Patty is again struggling with the symptoms. 

“My connection (for CBD and marijuana) got cut off,” she said. “I’m very angry.”

While Patty and others have found success treating their medical ailments with cannabis, the drug remains illegal in Wisconsin. 

And because of its status as a Schedule I drug — the most restrictive classification — there has been limited research in the United States about its effectiveness as medicine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized one component of cannabis to treat serious and rare seizure disorders, as well as three drugs with synthetic cannabis substances; no other uses have been approved. 

Although it remains illegal federally, 33 states and the District of Columbia have authorized medical use of cannabis. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed legalizing it for medical use in Wisconsin, and another group of Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill in October to decriminalize possession of less than 28 grams. But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, remains opposed.

Claire DeRosa / Wisconsin Watch

Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, announces legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in Wisconsin at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 30. The bill, still in draft form, would decriminalize possession of 28 grams or less of marijuana in Wisconsin. It was introduced by Crowley, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, and Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, and is backed by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

An April poll conducted by the Marquette Law School Poll showed that 83 percent of registered voters polled support the use of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription. 

“When issues receive more than 70% support from registered voters in Wisconsin, the Legislature needs to listen and act,” said Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee. 

Marijuana misclassified?

According to Dr. Angela Janis, director of psychiatry for University of Wisconsin-Madison’s University Health Services, Schedule I drugs, including marijuana, are considered to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, whereas for Schedule II drugs, there is less potential for abuse, and there is some therapeutic benefit. 

Janis is intimately familiar with this distinction. In addition to her university job, Janis is chief medical officer at LeafLine Labs, a Minnesota-based medical marijuana company. 

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

Dr. Angela Janis, chief medical officer at LeafLine Labs and director of psychiatry at University Health Services, says the United States’ categorization of cannabis as one of the most dangerous drugs limits the ability of researchers to study it. Janis is pictured inside the Student Activity Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on April 11.

“To put this in perspective: methamphetamine is Schedule II because it’s approved for obesity. Cocaine is Schedule II because it’s approved for nasal surgery since it can constrict your blood vessels as they do surgery in your nose. So that’s the bar for what ‘medical benefit’ means,” Janis said. 

According to Janis, cannabis has less abuse potential than any of those substances. 

“Cannabis is not appropriately scheduled. And that’s one of the barriers, but not the only barrier, to research,” Janis said. 

Janis recommends rescheduling the drug so researchers can further study its properties. Even Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which opposes marijuana legalization, is “fully supportive” of drugs containing cannabis that have been approved by the FDA, said Colton Grace, a spokesman for the group.

How marijuana works in the body 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cannabinoids are substances within the cannabis plant that act on specific receptors in the human brain and body. They are the main active ingredients in the medical products derived from cannabis. 

These receptors affect many essential functions, including one’s memory, thinking, concentration and coordination. Interfering with it can have profound effects — both positive and negative. 

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

LeafLine Labs director of operations Megan Gaulke is seen at the company’s headquarters in Cottage Grove, Minn., April 18. Gaulke explains how the cannabis plants are dried in this room, so they can be shucked, then used to make cannabis oil, which is the base of most of its LeafLine Labs’ medicinal products. A total of 33 states plus the District of Columbia have legal medical marijuana, although Wisconsin currently does not.

Two of the most extensively studied cannabinoids are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD. However, there are dozens of cannabinoids that may also have medical uses. 

“Many strains of the cannabis plant can have 60, 70, 80 cannabinoids in them that all interact in different ways,” Janis said. 

The National Institutes of Health reported spending $191 million on researching cannabinoids for medicinal use in 2017-18. 

Some effects are already known. For example, THC can affect the central nervous system, producing benefits such as decreased vomiting and nausea, increased appetite, reduced pain and anti-inflammatory effects. CBD also acts as an anti-inflammatory, increasing immune function, reducing pain and keeping certain cells from proliferating. 

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

LeafLine Labs employee Antonio Ryan pours cannabis oil into a syringe in the packaging room of the company’s headquarters in Cottage Grove, Minn., April 18. The 42,000-square-foot indoor cultivation and production facility is used to grow marijuana for medical use. Medical marijuana is not currently legal in Wisconsin.

Cannabinoid receptors are not in areas that control breathing, which is why there are no fatal overdoses with marijuana, Janis said….

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