MUSC’s Inaugural Medical Cannabis Conference by Katherine C. Mangus Lohr

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On September 28, 2018, I attended the Inaugural Update on Medical Cannabis at MUSC.  I gained an understanding of the current scientific and anecdotal data related to medicinal cannabis.  I also learned that South Carolina has a unique opportunity to further science, assert its state rights, pass conservative medical cannabis legislation, create a niche economy, and most importantly, help citizens who are suffering and unable to obtain relief from conventional pharmaceuticals.

According to Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, Vice President of Research at the University of South Carolina, the cannabis plant evolved about 25 million years ago.   Cannabis is just one of many medicinal plants that humans have used for thousands of years.  Recorded use of the plant goes back to 2727 BC in China and India.  The use of cannabis was mainstream in the 1840s.  Cannabis was only deemed harmful in the late 1930s when it was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia.  During the last 80 years, this God-given plant has been demonized and its medicinal properties grossly understudied and vehemently discounted.

We are all born with an endocannabinoid system.  The endocannabinoid system helps the body maintain homeostasis, or balance, in its other physiological systems.  The endocannabinoid system regulates the nervous system, stress and emotions, digestion, and immunity, among others.  It is now well understood that inflammation is the underlying cause of all major clinical disorders.  Dr. Nagarkatti stated that cannabinoids, particularly THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis), are some of nature’s most potent anti-inflammatories.  He also stated that CBD and THC have been shown to suppress multiple sclerosis symptoms and that cannabinoids cause the death of cancer cells in mice.  Debra Kimless, M.D., a physician in Maryland, has had success in treating patients with prostate cancer, leukemia and glioblastoma with a plant-based diet and microdoses of cannabis.  The “before and after” imaging studies of her patients were astounding.  Rigorous, scientific study must begin now and is a huge opportunity for South Carolina researchers to advance scientific exploration of the body’s endocannabinoid system and the effectiveness of medical cannabis.

One of the issues with scientific study of medicinal cannabis is that cannabis continues to be listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.  Under federal law, cannabis is deemed to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential of abuse.”  Many of the speakers, nearly all of whom were part of our healthcare system, debunked the notion that cannabis “has no currently accepted medical use.”

About 9% of users become addicted to cannabis; there have been no known deaths associated with medical cannabis.   That is a very small percentage compared to patients who develop addictions to opioids, which is now a national epidemic with long-term spiritual, familial, medical and financial consequences.  South Carolinians should have the opportunity to choose between a drug created by God or one created by man.

In addition to a medical treatment option, the legalization of medical cannabis is also a states’ rights issue.  Thirty-one states and D.C. have legalized medical cannabis.  According to Senator Tom Davis, of those states that have adopted programs already, the SC Compassionate Care Act is considered one of the more conservative approaches.  Only patients with specified debilitating medical conditions whose physicians recommend medical cannabis could qualify.  A patient must have a bona-fide physician-patient relationship with the doctor, which means that the patient must have an ongoing relationship with a physician who is aware of the patient’s history. That requirement means no pop-up doctors who are willy-nilly handing out recommendations for medical cannabis.  The bill does not allow smoking cannabis, which should alleviate fears of some that anyone with a medical card can fire up a joint anytime.  The SC Compassionate Care Act is an opportunity for South Carolinians to uphold the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship and decide for themselves how they will help their fellow citizens.

I met a Lowcountry hemp grower and CBD oil producer.  I am a granddaughter of farmers and as such have a great respect for farmers all over this country.  South Carolina family farmers have had a tough time making a living from the land for decades.  From growing cannabis to the manufacture, testing, distribution and sale of medicinal cannabis products, there is a real opportunity to recreate a niche economy in South Carolina.

The last speaker of the day was Sergeant Jonathan Lubecky, Ret. US Army.  He detailed his combat-related PTSD and his battle with near constant suicidal ideation.  Cannabis helped him through those dark times, not man-made pharmaceuticals.  This country asks a lot of its military personnel and they and their families give back to us with great personal cost.  It is not acceptable that we turn our backs on our military when they now need our help the most.  It is not acceptable that we turn our backs on anyone who is suffering or fighting for their lives.  We have an opportunity to use a God-given plant for the betterment of humanity and we need to do so now.

It was an insightful day. Medical cannabis has a lot of promise for our state, and our seriously ill patients deserve access to this important plant. The medical future for cannabis is bright – not only do people benefit from it today, there remain so many things to learn and discover as research continues. The economic promise it can bring to our state alone is a significant improvement, yet its benefits go far beyond that, particularly for patients who deserve a safer alternative, including many veterans with limited options for care. We need to pass and adopt a well-regulated program for our own well-being and for all residents of South Carolina.

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