By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Colorado’s health department could begin funding $10 million in marijuana research by next year if a bill to authorize new studies passes the Colorado legislature this spring.
The unconventional research of what has long been an illegal drug would aim to determine whether pot has health benefits or harms people.
One of the highest priorities for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is to learn whether marijuana can help children who suffer from seizures and whether there are any harmful side effects. About 215 children now have medical marijuana cards in Colorado. Both their parents and the health department must grant permission for children under age 18 to use medical marijuana.
Colorado has become an epicenter for families seeking alternative treatments for children with severe seizures. But no one knows whether there’s any scientific basis for anecdotal reports that marijuana can calm kids’ seizures. And there’s no information about possible long-term effects of giving marijuana to children.
“It’s about safety. I’m not convinced that allowing these cannabis oils in kids is safe because nobody has studied this. That’s the whole reason for doing the studies,” said Dr. Larry Wolk a pediatrician who is executive director and chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Wolk said the limited research that so far has been done on marijuana shows heavy use can harm the brain.
“What we know is that it impacts brain development. It impacts your intellectual capabilities and your motivation. It leads to an increase in the probability of having a car accident. And it also has the potential to lead to other potentially harmful drug and cigarette use down the road,” Wolk said. “If you develop a habit as a kid, it’s likely to be a habit when you’re an adult.”
On the other hand, some people who suffer from PTSD, cancer or diseases like multiple sclerosis report benefits from using marijuana.
The aim of new research in Colorado would be to learn if scientific evidence supports or contradicts various claims. Colorado voters first approved medical marijuana in 2000. Then hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries started opening around the state in 2009. Voters in 2012 legalized pot for recreational use.
Public health officials now are trying to catch up with expanded use. That’s difficult because researchers long have been barred from studying marijuana since the federal government still considers it illegal and a “Schedule 1” substance, meaning it has no “accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Colorado lawmakers soon will begin debating whether to allow marijuana research. The $10 million to pay for the studies would come from medical marijuana registration fees which the state has already collected. No hearing date has been set, but the bipartisan members of the Joint Budget Committee have introduced Senate Bill 14-155 and it will head first to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
State officials would not conduct the research themselves. Rather they would solicit proposals from academic researchers.
Dr. Mike Van Dyke, section chief for environmental epidemiology and toxicology at the state health department, said Colorado would not be the first state to study the health effects of marijuana. California led the way with the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California San Diego.
The California center has tried to conduct the most rigorous types of studies: clinical trials. Here in Colorado, doctors won’t be able to conduct clinical trials on children suffering from seizures because they can’t randomly give marijuana to children. But they could conduct what are known as “observational” studies. If parents already are choosing to give their children marijuana to help with seizures, doctors overseeing their care could monitor the children and track long-term effects.
“If it appears to be working for them, it’s not very compassionate to deny it. At the same time, we don’t have any idea of the safety,” Van Dyke said.
“We definitely need research to help us make sure we’re making the right decisions.”
State officials also want to be sure that research supports the list of “debilitating conditions” that allow patients to seek medical marijuana. People with cancer, glaucoma or HIV can get medical marijuana cards in Colorado. Those with severe pain, muscle spasms, seizures and severe nausea can also get cards.
Marijuana is not approved for a variety of other disorders including PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, asthma or Tourette’s Syndrome.
Nearly all — 94 percent — of the 111,030 people who currently have medical marijuana cards in Colorado have sought them for pain. That makes many health officials skeptical that people with cards are using marijuana for genuine medical purposes. Two-thirds of people with cards are male and the average age is 41. (Click here to see statistics on marijuana cards.)
Van Dyke says new research could clarify whether marijuana should be allowed for various disorders or symptoms.
“Someone with PTSD might not have any physical pain and no seizures. Therefore it might be more difficult to get medical marijuana,” Van Dyke said.
If Senate Bill 14-155 passes the Colorado legislature this spring, health officials would hope to set the research parameters later this year and solicit proposals from researchers.
“The goal would be to start the research in 2015,” Van Dyke said.
Having public health workers supervise pot research is certainly a new approach, but one state officials feel compelled to consider.
“The citizens of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana and it’s our responsibility as a public health department to figure out how to address the public health issues around marijuana and the best ways we can use science,” Van Dyke said.
“It’s necessary to know if this is harmful or helpful.”