Attempts to legalize marijuana for “medical” use in North Carolina have made large gains this year, with SB 711–NC Compassionate Care Act passing the State Senate in June by a 36-7 vote. Though the legislature adjourned for the year without moving SB 711 through the State House, the success of this legalization effort means it is likely a similar bill will be introduced next session.
In the latest edition of NC Family’s flagship publication Family North Carolina magazine, Luke Niforatos wrote about the misleading nature of this push to legalize “medical” marijuana, in an article entitled “The Medical Marijuana Myth.” Niforatos is Executive Vice President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and he joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss this topic.
Niforatos points out that the push for marijuana legalization, whether medical or recreational, has been driven by anecdotes and personal testimonies, not science or medicine. “What we’re seeing is states like North Carolina,” he says, “are choosing to vote on marijuana as medicine, and we don’t vote on ibuprofen as medicine; we don’t vote on Tylenol. We have an established process in this country for medicines that goes to the FDA clinical trials…”
“Our lawmakers don’t know a thing about how to approve medicines, nor should they. They need to focus on policy and representing their constituents, and they need to leave scientific decisions to the scientists.”
Some scientific facts about marijuana:
“I think a lot of people come into this with really good intentions,” concludes Niforatos. “But there are ways to have compassion without setting up an entire apparatus to sell and distribute and promote a drug.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Luke Niforatos dispel the “medical marijuana myth.”
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Attempts to legalize marijuana use in North Carolina are making historic gains this year as a bill—SB 711, innocuously entitled NC Compassionate Care Act—has already been approved by the State Senate and now awaits consideration in the State House. Now, this would mark North Carolina’s entrance into the marijuana industry, albeit under the guise of medical use. Despite its name, the legalization of marijuana has been proven to be far from compassionate in other states when the totality of its impact is considered.
Well, here to help us get beyond the rhetoric is Luke Niforatos, Executive Vice President at Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy. His article, “The Medical Marijuana Myth” is available in our most recent edition of the Family North Carolina magazine.
Luke Niforatos, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
LUKE NIFORATOS: Hi, thank you so much for having me on. It’s a real pleasure.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright. So you have been known to say that the debate surrounding marijuana as medicine is riddled with half-truths, anecdotes, and empty promises. Why is that?
LUKE NIFORATOS: It really is. So, I think a lot of people hear the word “medical” marijuana and, like you said, it sounds innocuous. It sounds like something we can do to help people who maybe have tried other medications and they haven’t worked and maybe marijuana will work for them. So, I think a lot of people come into this with really good intentions. However, we have to look at the science, right? So, all the research that is out there tells us that marijuana is addictive; it’s got grave consequences for our mental health. These are things I can get into later, but there are a lot of scientifically established harms with using marijuana.
As it relates to the medical benefits, what we’re seeing is states like North Carolina are choosing to vote on marijuana as medicine, and we don’t vote on ibuprofen as medicine; we don’t vote on Tylenol. We have an established process in this country for medicines that goes to the FDA clinical trials—a nonpartisan, no-conflict-of-interest scientific body reviews our medicines to make sure that they’re safe and efficacious. So, a lot of people don’t realize this, but the FDA has actually already approved several marijuana-based medications that you can legally get prescriptions for from your doctor today, like Marinol (which is pure THC) and Epidiolex (which is pure CBD, which is something we hear about a lot). That’s a safe way to get your medicine, but when you’re talking about voting on your medicine and calling it “medical marijuana,” a lot of people don’t realize that it’s just marijuana. Whether you call it medical or recreational, these stores are for-profit companies that are selling weed that you smoke and just simply calling it medicine—there’s no dosage, there’s no prescription.
So, I think what we’re hearing is anecdotes. You’ll hear that people say marijuana worked well for them and maybe it did work for them, but the issue is that this is not being treated like a medicine; it’s not regulated; it’s not overseen by the FDA. So, those are concerns we have to look at when we talk about medicine. Do we really want to let an industry sell weed that people can just smoke and use, which is really not how medicine works? Or do we want to follow the scientific process, which has really worked out well for our country over the last hundred years? Our lawmakers don’t know a thing about how to approve medicines, nor should they. They need to focus on policy and representing their constituents, and they need to leave scientific decisions to the scientists. As it relates to medicine, that’s really important.
I think it’s really interesting—you look at North Carolina’s law that they’re considering, this Compassionate Care Actit has a wide array of different “qualifying conditions” that would qualify you to receive medical marijuana. Now, what we know from the science is that marijuana-based medications can help with very rare forms of seizures, and they can help late-stage cancer patients possibly with their appetite or nausea. Those are the two most well-documented instances of benefit for a marijuana-based medication. If this bill truly was trying to follow what medicine should be, you would think it would address only those two conditions, possibly just to have some sort of basis in science. But the bill is far broader than that for folks with Crohn’s disease and folks with other forms of illness that there’s no scientific literature that supports them using marijuana in any way, shape, or form.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Of course, North Carolina has a large military population, and PTSD is one of the conditions that people talk about marijuana being helpful for. Talk a little bit about that. Is it efficient for treating PTSD, in your knowledge?
LUKE NIFORATOS: That is the inclusion that really upsets me the most because you see all these anecdotes of, “Let’s take care of our veterans,” and “Let’s give them medical marijuana so they don’t use opioids.” That message sounds very good, but unfortunately, the literature we’re seeing out there actually indicates marijuana may make PTSD worse, not better. There was a massive review of over 500 studies done on marijuana and PTSD just last year, and the summary of all those 500 studies found that not only does it not help PTSD, using marijuana worsens it. It gives them more suicidal thoughts, more issues with depression; it actually hurts our veterans.
So, that’s one of those conditions that really just makes you scratch your head and wonder why. Unfortunately, it’s because, again, coming back to this point, we don’t vote on our medicines. So, when you are doing medicine through a political process, our lawmakers from North Carolina hear anecdotes in testimonies about, “Oh, well, I use marijuana and that’s worked great for me.” And they have to take that into account. That is just not how we do medicine. If we did medicine that way, then we would have the person who’s an alcoholic who says, “Well, I drink whiskey every day and it helps me with my depression,” which we all know it actually makes that worse, but that’s that person’s anecdote. We would have alcohol as medicine in this country. We would have other horrific substances as medicine in this country. So, the reason why we do that, why we follow scientific process, is because it’s objective. We look at facts and data and we say, “Is this medicine actually helping people? Or is it hurting people?” So, with PTSD, we need to be very clear that the literature does not show a benefit for using marijuana with PTSD.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Boy, these anecdotes work though, don’t they? I mean, we see this in so many instances where people are pushing issues where they’ll choose this anecdote that really wrenches your heart, but, as you just said, the science doesn’t support it. So, talk a little bit about that. Talk about the science, the research, and the data about the use of marijuana for other medicinal purposes.
LUKE NIFORATOS: First of all, we have to be very clear. The push to legalize medical marijuana is not about medicine; it’s about profits; it’s about an industry. So, again, when you legalize medical marijuana, it’s not your physician prescribing you anything. They can’t; it’s not FDA approved. So, you get a card that says it’s okay for you to go to a for-profit pot shop that’s selling high-potency marijuana products like gummy bears, candies, ice creams—these things that are super high potency.
For those of you who don’t know, marijuana 10 years ago was 2 to 3% potency. Now, with this industry—medical or recreational, it’s both the same—we’re talking about up to 99% potency products. So, it’s a totally different drug. It’s much more potent, and so it’s much more addictive. We saw what happened with addictive medicines with the opioid crisis. Now, it’s killing over a hundred thousand Americans a year; it’s devastating, and that was a highly regulated industry that pulled that off—the pharmaceutical industry. So, the marijuana industry is not even close to the level of regulation as pharma companies, and yet, they’re also selling an addictive substance, albeit a different substance from opioids, but it certainly is much more addictive.
The harms are really on the mental health side. So, what the literature tells us is that—I mentioned the two studies that show some benefit of marijuana-based medications for seizures and nausea related to cancer. But outside of that, we are not seeing an indication of medical benefits for this drug. Now, that is not to say that if someone is in the late stages of cancer and they want to try marijuana or whatever else…I think we can have compassionate laws that maybe respect these one-off, two-off situations where someone’s really saying, “You know what, I’m in the late stages of a terminal illness, and I’d like to try any medication, whether it’s marijuana or anything else; I’d like to try something else.” I think we can have compassion on those folks with very limited approaches of saying, “Look, they can try this,” versus what you’re talking about in North Carolina, where you are blanket legalizing an industry to sell what’s called medical marijuana. That’s a much bigger policy decision with broader consequences. So, there are ways to have compassion without setting up an entire apparatus to sell and distribute and promote a drug. So, I think that’s a key distinction to make there.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Now, you mentioned the harms that are being seen on the mental health side, and it’s interesting because there are several states that have legalized marijuana, so we can see what has happened and learn from their experiences. Talk a little bit about what we are seeing in those other states.
LUKE NIFORATOS: Absolutely. So, with medical marijuana and recreational, because again, I can’t emphasize this enough: it’s the same drug; it’s the same weed. People are smoking it; they’re calling it either medical or they’re calling it recreational; it’s an issue of semantics, not substance. So, when people are using this high-potency marijuana that we’re talking about, what we are seeing is if you are a regular user of this high-potency marijuana, you are five times more likely to develop schizophrenia or psychosis. Now, this is extremely important to talk about, especially now where we’re seeing rising rates of violent crime and property crime in states like mine. I’m from Colorado, the first state to legalized marijuana. We’ve seen 40% increase in our violent crime and 20-30% increase in property crime over the last decade since we legalized marijuana. Look at California, similar circumstance there. Look at any state that’s legalized marijuana and they are seeing soaring rates of property and violent crime.
Now, that’s not to say we have a causal link established yet. “They legalized marijuana and that caused it,” we can’t say that yet. But what we can do is look at the data that’s out there, and it’s not encouraging right now. We need to learn more about what these links are, but when you look at this now really becoming an established link between marijuana use and psychosis, marijuana use and schizophrenia, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing folks turn violent because those ailments, those mental illnesses are very highly associated with violence.
So, those are things we really need to look into more, especially as a number of states have decided to legalize this for recreational or medical purposes. I think what we’re also seeing is the addiction rates. That’s another concern. One decade ago, one in 10 people who used marijuana in the last year would develop an addiction to it. That’s according to our National Institute on Drug Abuse, our federal government’s top research institution in looking into drugs. Now, 10 years later, after states have legalized this, after potency has skyrocketed, one in three people who use marijuana in the last year will develop a cannabis use disorder. So, addiction rates are skyrocketing, and that’s another thing we should be very concerned about when we look at legalizing “medical” marijuana.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re about out of time, so talk a little bit about your organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
LUKE NIFORATOS: Absolutely. We would love to connect with you and be a resource. Our website is learnaboutsam.org. We are led by a science advisory board of people from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale who are doing the research on marijuana every day. They guide all of our work on all the studies I talked about on this podcast. They actually are available to you on our website, again, learnaboutsam.org. We see ourselves as the middle road approach to this. We’re not looking to throw patients in prison. We have compassion too, but what we’re worried about is legalizing a drug and building an industry around it, because when you do that, the potency increases. The promotion, the production, and the commercialization become serious health concerns. So, that’s what our big concern is about and we’d love to be a resource to you in your communities.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We want to remind listeners that you can find Luke’s recent article that he wrote for our latest Family North Carolina magazine called “The Medical Marijuana Myth” either in the hard copy of the magazine or on our website at ncfamily.org. Also on our website, you can find ways to contact your local North Carolina lawmakers if you want to speak out about this issue. Luke Niforatos, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
– END –