In April 2016, medical marijuana became legal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This is good news for many people for whom using medical marijuana may help ease the effects of certain diseases. But many people have questions about its use. Is marijuana now legal? How do people get medical marijuana? Have researchers studied its effects on people?
First, medical marijuana comes from the whole, unprocessed marijuana plant and its extracts. It is used to treat a disease or symptom. Pennsylvania law indicates that only people with serious medical conditions can be approved to use medical marijuana. The law lists the approved conditions, which include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)/AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), post-traumatic stress disorder and sickle cell disease.
In general, medical marijuana products tend to have higher concentrations of the chemical cannabadiol and lower concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than recreational products. Some evidence suggests that cannabadiol is the medically effective compound in cannabis. THC is the psychoactive component that produces euphoria or a “high.” Medical marijuana is not “weed” that people smoke for recreational drug use. Marijuana that is smoked or used for nonmedical reasons is not legal in Pennsylvania.
It also has been illegal in Pennsylvania for a health care provider to write a prescription for medical marijuana. To explain this a bit, some background on drug classification is important. In 1970, the United States grouped drugs according to their acceptable medical use and their potential for abuse or dependency, according to Michael A. Zemaitis, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. Class 1 drugs have the highest potential for abuse and dependence. They have no accepted medical use. Marijuana is a class 1 drug. It is an illegal substance in the United States. Because it is illegal under federal law, health care providers cannot prescribe it.
So, how can medical marijuana be legal in Pennsylvania? Put simply, the federal government has not required states to enforce federal laws. Pennsylvania and 24 other states have made their own laws with regard to the medical use of marijuana; however, it is still a highly controlled and regulated drug.
People cannot go to their local pharmacy and fill a prescription for medical marijuana. Health care providers can only recommend its use to their patients. The process to get medical marijuana involves:
Being in the care of a physician registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH). If physicians feel that medical marijuana can help ease pain or the effects of certain diseases, they will sign a certification that patients have a serious medical condition.
Patients then apply for a medical card with the PA DOH.
If the PA DOH approves the medical card, patients can then purchase medical marijuana from a licensed dispensary.
Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program is still being organized. It is expected to take between 18-24 months for people to be able to use the program. Because marijuana is an illegal drug, it cannot be shipped across state lines. “Medical marijuana will have to be grown in the Commonwealth,” says Dr. Zemaitis. “The marijuana will have to be made into product in the state. Growers and dispensers will have to be licensed and regulated by Pennsylvania.”
In addition to getting the Medical Marijuana Program running, a lot more research has to be done on the drug and its effects on people. “Because marijuana is classified as an illegal drug, it has been difficult to do research on it,” says Dr. Zemaitis.
“The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the marijuana plant yet. That means it has to go through rigorous clinical trials to prove it’s effective and safe enough for people to use. There’s some evidence that medical marijuana use is helpful, especially in children with severe seizure disorders. But we need more solid scientific studies to determine its effects on the body and what it does to the developing brain.”
As with any medication, talking with a health care provider about whether medical marijuana would be helpful is important.
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