By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Researchers are eager to tap $10 million from Colorado’s health department to study the potential benefits and harms of marijuana.
The most pressing concerns center on whether marijuana can help veterans suffering from PTSD and children with debilitating seizures.
A bill that would allow the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to solicit and fund marijuana research now is making its way through the Colorado Senate. (Click here to read Senate Bill 14-155.)
The $10 million that would fund the studies is separate from marijuana taxes on recreational sales that are beginning to flow into state coffers. Lawmakers are bracing to debate another bill that would devote about $24 million in pot taxes to several efforts including youth prevention, law enforcement, treatment for adults in county jails and an education campaign aimed at decreasing impaired driving, drug abuse and potential harms from marijuana to kids and pregnant women.
The millions for research come from fees that people have paid to obtain marijuana cards since Colorado first allowed medical marijuana in 2000.
Colorado’s major hospitals and research institutions including the University of Colorado, Children’s Hospital Colorado and National Jewish Health sent representatives or letters to hearings in the Senate, expressing their support for the bill and a desire to conduct research.
Parents desperate for cures for seizures have been flocking to Colorado eager to see if marijuana derivatives can help their children. While hopes are high, doctors have little evidence to guide them.
Dr. Amy Brooks-Kayal specializes in pediatric seizures at Children’s Hospital Colorado and said there’s a profound need for robust science.
“At present, we simply do not know if marijuana is effective for epilepsy and if it is safe for children. Nor do we know the long-term effects,” Brooks-Kayal told lawmakers at a hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Of more than 50 patients that Brooks-Kayal and colleagues have seen at Children’s, she said only about one in four parents say they see any improvement in seizures when they give their children marijuana derivatives.
In some cases, Brooks-Kayal said use of marijuana compounds has worsened seizures and forced children to be hospitalized.
When doctors use encephalograms to try to measure whether marijuana is helping, “we don’t see any difference,” Brooks-Kayal testified.
“It’s critical that we get the data we need to inform the families well,” she said.
Furthermore, if Colorado keeps attracting very sick children without proof that marijuana can help the kids, the state faces major challenges.
“The many children with severe epilepsy who are moving to our state…(pose) significant potential economic repercussions for our state. These children require extensive medical care that puts a strain on our health care providers, our hospitals and potentially on our state Medicaid budget,” Brooks-Kayal said.
“At present, there is no clear scientific evidence that marijuana improves epilepsy in children,” she said. “Senate Bill 155 will help our state, our health care providers and those many desperate parents … know with greater certainty about the potential harms and benefits.”
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, is one of the primary sponsors of the bill. He said using the money for research could help “obstinate” members of Colorado’s State Board of Health, who have for years refused to add illnesses to the list allowed for medical marijuana.
“Anytime anyone has asked them to add additional illnesses they have cited the lack of scientific research,” Steadman said. “They’ve wanted science and data to rely on.”
Steadman and some marijuana proponents testified that they want to be sure the research will look for “potential therapeutic benefits.”
“It’s not my intention that this grant funds support research that shows marijuana is harmful because the government in general, and more specifically, the federal government has spent a boatload of money for decades to prove marijuana is bad,” Steadman said.
Among those eager to study marijuana is Dr. Bob Sievers, a professor at the University of Colorado and a former CU regent.
“I represent a faculty group this very interested in pursuing ethical drug applications of cannabis sativa,” Sievers told lawmakers.
He said professors, researchers and doctors at all of CU’s campuses are “very interested” in studying medical marijuana and industrial hemp.
A businessman who said he’s launching a study of 10,000 vets with PTSD also wants to apply for funds from the state, and marijuana advocates say the time has come to spend the registry dollars on an issue that they think can help patients.
Officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will not control the outcome of the studies. Those that win funding will have to be scientifically sound and well designed.
Nonetheless, marijuana proponents are hopeful that science will soon be on their side.
“The feds will fund negative aspects of marijuana all day long,” said Teri Robnett, executive director of the Cannabis Patients Alliance and a Colorado NORML board member whose bio on the site says she goes by the moniker “RXMaryJane.”
“It’s really important that we focus on the potential benefits.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to consider the marijuana research bill on Friday.