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Elections 2016: Fact And Fiction Swirls Medical Marijuana Debate

12-year-old Christina Clark takes medical marijuana.

Her mother Anneliese Clark uses it to treat the seizures her daughter has had since she was three months old. At her worst, “she just literally, she wasn’t doing anything,” Anneliese Clark said. “She laid on the couch and shook and twitched.”

Clark remembers Christina locked in a fetal position, unable to hold her head up, swallow her own spit, or control her bodily functions. After trying 17 different pharmaceutical drugs, Anneliese turned to medical marijuana.

Illegal But Effective

Now, Christina Clark sits at a small table in the living room in a Jacksonville suburb. She pulls toys out of a box, one by one. First a maraca, then a bell. She doesn’t speak, but she makes noise, and has started using different tones.

The drug Anneliese credits with keeping her daughter seizure free for the last eight weeks is a medical marijuana oil from Hungary. It comes in a small glass bottle with a rubber dropper at the top. She keeps it on her kitchen counter, along with other medical marijuana oils she’s tried. They look like herbal supplements you’d buy at the grocery store.

Check here to see a TedX talk Clark gave

Full-strength medical marijuana is illegal in Florida, and Anneliese Clark felt exposed after she started doing interviews about her situation. Now, she keeps a note on her fridge with instructions on what to do if she’s arrested. It includes who to call for bail money, how to alert the press, and the number for the local sheriff and a narcotics detective, both of whom know she gives her daughter medical marijuana.

Ironically, Clark used to be against legalizing the drug.

“I was also misinformed,” Clark said. “I thought medical marijuana was a ruse for legalizing it.”

Cutting Through The Smoke: The Legalities And Science Of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana legalization is back on the Florida’s ballot this year.

Supporters and detractors have spent a total of more than $5.6 million to sway voters on Amendment 2. A similar measure was narrowly defeated in 2014.

Opponents like Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings say it would amount to defacto legalization of recreational marijuana. The issue is personal for Demings. His brother died of an opioid overdose in 1999.

“My brother was first introduced to an illegal substance, a controlled substance, back in the late 1960s,” Demings said. “Marijuana was that substance. That ultimately I think created the type of desire in him to experiment with other illegal substances, and he became addicted to heroin and cocaine over the years.”

This story is part of a series looking at issues voters find important this election. Check here for more.

Demings and other detractors fear if Amendment 2 passes, marijuana would be as easy to get in Florida as it is in California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996.

Professor Jon Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College has been studying drug policy for 25 years. He says Amendment 2’s language is more restrictive than California’s law.

“The list of conditions for which someone can get a recommendation does not have the obvious, gaping loopholes that the authors of the California proposition inserted, likely intentionally because they wanted to create such a loophole,” Caulkins said.

In California, patients can get medical marijuana recommendations by simply telling a doctor they have chronic pain or anxiety. Florida’s Amendment 2 would require a diagnosis of one of 10 conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, HIV-AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.

Medical Effectiveness Largely Unknown

Scientists are still studying the effectiveness of marijuana as a medical treatment.

“It’s not true that cannabis has no value whatsoever and there’s no science,” said Dr. Igor Grant, a psychiatrist and the director of the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California – San Diego.

Grant said research shows medical marijuana is effective as a treatment for four conditions: chronic neuropathy, or nerve pain; muscle spasms resulting from multiple sclerosis; nausea; and low appetite in patients who need to gain weight.

Grant said marijuana is also effective for lowering pressure in the eye to treat glaucoma, but, he wondered, “do you want people to be stoned to treat their glaucoma when there are other treatments?”

“It’s also not true that it’s a panacea and will cure everything,” Grant said with a laugh.

Grant also pointed to early indications that states using medical marijuana to treat pain are seeing a statistically significant drop in opioid overdoses. He said early research suggests low doses of medical marijuana can reduce the amount of opiates patients use to treat pain.

“Maybe the dose could be low enough that you can benefit the pain without the person becoming stoned or impaired as a driver,” Grant said. “This is an area we’re very interested in.”

If Florida voters approve Amendment 2, many of the details about implementation will be left up to the Florida Department of Health.

“It would be really wonderful to separate out the medical issues from the more general social policy on marijuana,” Grant said. “Quite often the discussion of medical marijuana gets tied up with legalization for recreational use.”

Abe Aboraya is a reporter for WMFE in Orlando. WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.
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