Health Beat: Medical marijuana debate: Light up or pop a pill?

Medical marijuana debate: Light up or pop a pill

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Yet it's still a controversial topic in the United States.

Under federal law, only FDA-approved medications can be prescribed; marijuana is not one of them. Still, medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states, plus our nation's capital. So, is marijuana really medicine?

Gretta used to suffer with seizures, having up to three a day as a child.

"It's scary because anything could happen to you," Gretta said.

She took prescription medication, but it had nasty side effects like liver spots, severe headaches, and bleeding gums.

"I could eat a piece of bread and my gums would start bleeding," Gretta said.

Then, three years ago she lost her insurance and turned to marijuana.

"I have not had a seizure since," Gretta said.

She also hasn't had any side-effects. The account interests Dr. Eduardo Locatelli. He's had 20 epilepsy patients tell him they've used cannabis this year, even though it's illegal where he practices.

"I can tell you it's not making the epilepsy patients worse, but I need to answer the other question, does it make it better?" said Dr. Eduardo R. Locatelli, director of the epilepsy program at Holy Cross Hospital, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Dr. Shirley Zelikovsky believes it may. She sees patients with terminal illnesses and chronic pain.

"They've told me that it just makes them feel better, and it reduces the need to take the other medications," Zelikovsky said, family medicine physician, Bethesda Health City in Boynton Beach, Fla.

It is something Richard Corso is worried about. His back pain is so severe he's on hospice level pain pills.

"If you make a mistake with that, you don't get another chance. You die," Corso said.

The CDC has no reports of marijuana-induced deaths, but every 19 minutes someone dies of a prescription overdose.

"You can't overdose on marijuana, but you can on the other drugs," Zelikovsky said.

And get this: recent studies show opioid drugs used to relieve pain in cancer patients may stimulate the growth and spread of tumors.

Experts from the United Kingdom, however, said the cannabis plant has been used to treat everything from cancer and glaucoma to Crohn's disease and multiple sclerosis.

Even so, Dr. David Gross, a consultant for the Drug Free America Foundation, said smoking the drug is not the answer.

"My concern is there's going to be no control whatsoever on the use of the marijuana on the way it is now," said Gross, editor in chief of the Journal of Drug Policy and Practice.

Possible side-effects could include impaired memory, anxiety, lung damage and weakening of the immune system.

"What happens is you have the psychedelic, psychoactive effects on top of all of the toxins, which include things like benzene, toluene, and xylene. They are all carcinogenic agents," Gross said.

Still, he does see value in scientists isolating the "cannabinoids" to do more studies on the health impacts and standardizing the dosage.

"I look forward to that, but I look forward to doing that the right way," Gross explained.

As for Corso, he would like to try it as long as it takes his pain away.

There are more than 480 natural components found within the cannabis plant, of which 66 are classified as "cannabinoids."

Advocates in Florida are fighting to legalize a strain, known as Charlotte's Web, which is high in a non-hallucinogenic compound in cannabis. They said it can reduce and even eliminate seizures in children and is already available in Colorado.

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