Special report: Medi-pot scrips easy to get, health effects are debated | TheUnion.com

Special report: Medi-pot scrips easy to get, health effects are debated

More than a dozen years after California passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act to legalize the medical use of cannabis, the debate rages on regarding the health benefits – and dangers – of marijuana use.

Because medical marijuana users are not required to register their doctors’ recommendations with any governmental entity, it is impossible to know how many residents of Nevada County possess “scrips.”

It’s easy to acquire one. CannaMetrix HealthCare recently ran a half-off sale – just $70 for a visit to the office in Grass Valley (another is in Yuba City). All you need is medical documentation showing you have a condition that could benefit from medical marijuana.

Their advertising campaign suggested back or neck pain, insomnia, headaches, anxiety, and muscle spasms all are conditions that can be alleviated by medical marijuana.

Dr. Stephen Bannister, of Highland Springs Wellness Center, has prescribed medical marijuana for “thousands” of patients since 1996, he said.

While many people associate medical marijuana with reducing nausea and increasing appetite in AIDS and chemotherapy patients, Bannister said about 80 percent of his patients seek treatment for pain and sleep issues.

“Any kind of chronic pain – back pain, neuropathy – pick a pain,” he said.

The relief afforded by marijuana has been studied extensively, Bannister said.

He also prescribes marijuana for four or five patients with Tourette’s syndrome, and for teens and adults with attention deficit disorder.

“One of the myths is that you’ll function less,” Bannister said. “Most (of my) patients use cannabis after work or school and are highly functional in their day-to-day lives.”

While some people do not respond well to marijuana, the side effects, such as dry mouth, are typically minor, Bannister said.

“Euphoria is not a horrible side effect,” he said with a smile.

Yes it is, argued Dr. Aaron Cleveland, medical director for Community Recovery Resources, an addiction treatment and rehabilitation program in Grass Valley. New research shows marijuana use can increase substance dependency by heightening a user’s response to other drugs, he said.

“It primes the pump,” Cleveland said. “The bottom line is, (marijuana) is going to lead to the use of other drugs … by creating a heightened response to that medication.”

Perhaps for some, Bannister said.

“Addictive people have problems with cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, alcohol,” he said. “Way down on that list is cannabis.”

Research on the topic is “inconclusive,” according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, at the University of Maryland. In a recent New Zealand study, “a majority of marijuana users studied (63 percent) did not progress to the use of other illicit drugs,” CeSAR reported.

Members of the American Psychiatric Association for years have debated the effects of marijuana and its usefulness in treating mental illness, with adherents in both camps.

Scientists know THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active substance in marijuana, bonds in the brain with the neurotransmitter anandamide to create a soothing sensation in the body. Anandamide receptors are concentrated “in those parts of the brain associated with short-term memory and reasoning, coordination, and unconscious muscle movements,” according to CeSAR.

But the effect may soothe in low doses, while causing depression and heightened anxiety in higher doses or with prolonged use, the APA reports.

Effects can range from stimulant to depressant to hallucinogen, depending on the person and setting, CeSAR reported.

But in Bannister’s view, a patient with anxiety or depression is better off smoking marijuana than taking chemical anti-depressants.

Warren Daniels, executive director of Community Recovery Resources, pointed out marijuana most often is ingested by smoking, which is harmful to the lungs.

“Why wouldn’t we believe there is a health risk?” Daniels said. “That’s pretty serious denial.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229

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