Department

Chronic Cure

Medical marijuana is all the rage in Colorado—but does weed actually have medicinal benefits?

December 2011

There are a lot of double entendres when it comes to Colorado’s consumption of medical marijuana—one of the most common is that the entire state is high. Figures of speech aside, Colorado does like to toke: The state is known nationally for having the most medical marijuana dispensaries per capita. Whether you think this is a plus or a minus likely depends on what side of the joint you’re on, but individual opinions aren’t likely to have much impact on the state’s thriving medical cannabis business. More than 128,000 state residents have already registered with the Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry; 3,000 more are filing for registry cards each month; and more than 1,000 physicians have officially recommended medical marijuana to their patients.

Clearly, there is great demand for the green stuff, but along with that demand comes misinformation about what medical conditions pot is truly good for. Talk to dispensary owners, like Erik Santus of Lotus Medical, and they’ll tell you about customers who’ve been helped, including those with cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis—all of which have symptoms the state agrees can be soothed by marijuana. Talk to Santus’ customers, and you’ll find they’ve received medical marijuana cards to ease severe back pain and even chronic migraines.

Physicians, however, tend to be more conservative. “The extravagant claims made for marijuana combined with the lack of studies is a problem for many physicians,” explains Dr. Nick Foreman, a neuro-oncologist with Children’s Hospital Colorado. “We’ve had parents who have children with recurrent brain tumors who are desperate for therapy and have been told that marijuana would be effective against their child’s cancer. To be honest, that seems unlikely.”

There’s a catch-22 involved in the medical marijuana usefulness debate. While large studies are needed to ensure its medical effectiveness, the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance alongside heroin and LSD. This puts researchers at risk of prosecution and means zero federal money is available for testing.

So, how do you know if a condition would be helped by medical cannabis? Good question. We dug through the studies that do exist, including those from the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego; talked to prescribing physicians like Dr. Paul Bregman, formerly the chief of mammography at Denver Health and now a medical cannabis expert; looked at what the state qualifies as a “debilitating medical condition” that can be helped by medical marijuana—and came up with the below checklist.