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Change federal rule that stands in the way of wider access to medicinal cannabis

Thirty-six U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. In Connecticut alone, which legalized medical-use cannabis in 2012, there are 53,820 people registered as patients, according to statistics updated May 23 by the state Department of Consumer Protection.

Many of these patients, who suffer from conditions ranging from cancer and multiple sclerosis to post traumatic stress disorder and Crohn’s disease, attest that their conditions were debilitating until they turned to medical cannabis. It made their lives bearable, many say.

Yet the financial cost of this treatment option is available only at the patient’s full expense. This cost can be hefty. The price of products varies widely, but edibles cost between $2 to $5 a dose, for example. Before being able to purchase the products, patients also pay a physician to approve the application process and a $100 registration fee. The licenses must be renewed annually. Because the cost is not covered by any healthcare insurance, medical cannabis remains inaccessible to too many patients who otherwise could benefit from its therapeutic qualities.

The lack of insurance coverage remains because cannabis, or marijuana, remains classified by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 drug. The DEA considers drugs in this class, which includes heroin, Ecstasy and LSD, to have a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic qualities. Lawmakers’ efforts to change the schedule of cannabis, which would allow it to be prescribed by physicians, paid for by insurance and researched more thoroughly, have repeatedly failed.

One supreme irony about this, however, is that opioids such as oxycodone are listed as Schedule II drugs by the DEA and are widely prescribed despite their dangers. The cost to patients is often covered by insurance. While opioids can be highly effective pain relievers, they also are highly addictive, often abused, and their role in fueling waves of heroin addiction is well chronicled. Many patients with conditions that require only temporary pain relief also end up with surpluses of the medication. Even when used judiciously and as prescribed, opioids can have serious side effects and trigger unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when patients stop using them.

Another type of drug, benzodiazepines, commonly called tranquilizers, also are highly addictive, can cause dangerous side effects and dreadful withdrawal symptoms, yet also are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, panic disorders and insomnia. The cost of these, too, are covered by insurance.

In short, many common prescription drugs can be both helpful and hurtful, if not downright dangerous. Yet cannabis, with few reported adverse side effects and a lower dependency rate, can’t be legally prescribed.

Some historians say the legal treatment of cannabis in the U.S. has its roots in racism. A 2018 article on The History Channel’s website history.com, pointed out that Anglo-Americans and Europeans knew about the medicinal qualities of cannabis since at least the 1830s, when it was used to ease stomach pain and vomiting in cholera patients. Later in the 19th century, Americans could legally buy cannabis extracts to treat migraines, insomnia, stomach aches and other ailments.

Attitudes shifted with an influx of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Eric Schlosser, author of “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market,” wrote: “The prejudice and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana.” The drug was made illegal soon after.

The types of patients already using medical cannabis products in Connecticut are varied. Take a trip to any Connecticut dispensary and there will be patients both young and elderly, men and women, white and people of color. But many more patients could benefit from the drug.

If recreational use were legalized, patients could avoid the high costs of the medical cannabis system by growing their own product. Connecticut legislators for years have debated but failed to allow for this possibility.

State’s have led the way on legalization of cannabis products for medicinal and recreational purposes. Republicans say they are for states’ rights, yet the party has stood in the way of changing the scheduling of cannabis by the DEA and leaving matters up to the states.

By putting the drug in a scheduling category that more closely meets the reality of its risks and benefits, cannabis could be prescribed directly by physicians and covered by healthcare insurance. This is already the fact in Canada. Why not in the U.S.?

 

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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