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

Marijuana’s illegality nationally makes it difficult to study, and its prohibition in Wisconsin makes it hard to obtain for people who rely on it for treatment

Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Watch

Harvested cannabis flower is seen at LeafLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn., on April 18. The 42,000-square-foot indoor cultivation and production facility is used to grow marijuana for medical uses and create pharmaceutical cannabis products. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, including Minnesota, but not in Wisconsin. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed legalizing marijuana for medical uses in Wisconsin.

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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smoke everyday, because if I don’t, I will be in the bathroom all the time,” said Patty, who asked that her last name not be published because she is using an illegal substance.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. CBD actually blocks the psychotropic effects of THC, Janis said. 

In addition to all those cannabinoids, the cannabis sativa plant has a lot of other chemicals. For instance, terpenes, which give each strain its particular smell, such as lemon or pine, “are thought to have a lot of effects, but we just don’t know what they actually do in the body,” Janis said.

An effective treatment for pain

In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine came out with one of the most comprehensive reviews of scientific research on what is known about the health effects of cannabis and cannabis-derived products. The committee considered more than 10,000 scientific abstracts. It reached nearly 100 conclusions, finding substantial evidence for just a few indications — the biggest one being pain. 

The report found there is substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults, specifically nerve pain, Janis said. 

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

LeafLine Labs director of operations Megan Gaulke shows various medical cannabis products at the company’s headquarters in Cottage Grove, Minn., April 18. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, including Minnesota, but not in Wisconsin.

The group also found conclusive evidence for cannabis treating chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting and MS-associated muscle spasms. 

The report also showed moderate evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for improving sleep in individuals with sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis. 

It also found limited evidence for cannabis as effective for increasing appetite and decreasing weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS, relaxing muscle tightness and pain from MS, symptoms of Tourette syndrome, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Anecdotal evidence has also proven the effectiveness of cannabinoids for treating Rett syndrome.

Norah Lowe, 10, started feeling relief from the rare neurological disorder one year ago when she began using CBD to treat her symptoms. Rett syndrome impacts nearly every part of a child’s life, including the ability to speak, walk, eat and breathe. A distinct feature of the condition is repetitive, almost constant hand movements. 

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Norah Lowe, from Merrimac, Wis., who suffers from Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder, spoke using a computer after Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, announced plans to introduce a bill to fully legalize marijuana on April 18, in Madison, Wis. Sargent introduced the bill on May 17. Norah is seen with her mother Megan Lowe.

Norah, who uses a wheelchair, has experienced “increased flexibility, decreased pain and muscle cramping, increased communication, cognitive ability, reduction in seizures, better mood control, and the list goes on and on,” her father, Josh Lowe, said.

At a news conference arranged by state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, to introduce her latest bill to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, Lowe said he is frustrated that state law prohibits Norah from trying medical marijuana, which has helped others with her condition.

A 2017 study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews analyzed several studies, concluding that cannabis-based medicines were better than placebos for pain relief — and that these medications also improved sleep and psychological distress — it concluded that any potential benefits might be outweighed by their potential harms. 

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Madison resident Gary Storck has suffered from glaucoma since childhood and has been using marijuana to alleviate the symptoms since he was a teenager. He also uses it to help with a number of other health conditions, including as a homemade treatment for prostate cancer. Storck says he normally uses marijuana as medicine every two to three hours. Here he inhales vapor containing heated marijuana in his apartment in Madison, Wis., March 20.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, the most common conditions accepted by states that allow medicinal cannabis relate to the relief of the symptoms of cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and MS. Some other common indicators include Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s, Parkinson’s disease and PTSD, according to the group, which advocates for marijuana legalization. 

Additionally, the University of Michigan published a study in the February issue of Health Affairs to understand the reasons why people are using cannabis for medical purposes, and whether those purposes are evidence-based. 

The authors found that 85.5 percent of uses of medical cannabis were for conditions for which there was substantial or conclusive evidence of their therapeutic effectiveness. Even more, they found that chronic pain is currently the most common qualifying condition reported by medical cannabis patients, used by 64.9 percent of such patients in 2016. 

“That’s a good sign,” Janis said. “Even though a physician can write it (a cannabis prescription) for a variety of things, it seems to be being used for what it’s intended for.” 

Barriers to research continue

Since cannabis is a Schedule I drug, it is “very difficult to study at any institutional level” because, in order to do so, researchers need sign-offs from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which has “historically been unwilling to provide them,” said David Abernathy, vice president of data and government affairs for the Arcview Group, a firm that advises investors in the cannabis industry.  

Because of this, “Things like double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials weren’t happening in the U.S.,” Abernathy said. But there has been a lot of research in the past decade in other countries including Israel, Canada, China and Italy, and “now we’re starting to see more research in the U.S.,” he said.

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch

LeafLine Labs director of operations Megan Gaulke shows foul-smelling raw cannabis oil before it has gone through a heating process at 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 various pharmaceutical cannabis products. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, including Minnesota, but not in Wisconsin.

The 2017 National Academies review of cannabis research agreed that the drug’s status as a Schedule I substance made it hard to study. “Researchers also often find it difficult to gain access to the quantity, quality, and type of cannabis product necessary to address specific research questions,” the review found. 

Patty, the Crohn’s patient, believes that her cannabis treatment not only alleviated her Crohn’s symptoms, but she credits it with keeping her aggressive skin cancer at bay. 

According to a 2018 article published in Biochemical Pharmacology, studies have shown the potential of cannabinoids to reduce of skin cancer progression. However, there is a significant lack of clinical studies promising enough to make any conclusive statements at this time. 

“I haven’t had the cannabis oil since March of 2018, and once I couldn’t get it anymore, I mean I just finished my 12th surgery (for cancer),” Patty said. “So, you tell me, what do you think?”

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