Medical marijuana complexities aired at forum

Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Panelists at a forum on medical marijuana Wednesday discussed the various complexities of using pot medically, from the legality of growing it to finding the right dosage and knowing when it is and isn’t safe to drive.

Panelist Bob Gunther of Holyoke, previously of New York City, said he did have a lot of questions when he first started using medical marijuana. But now, he says the THC-laced coconut cookies he eats have changed his life.

“I’m actually in a good mood, and I have terminal cancer,” said Gunther, who has an incurable type of bone marrow cancer. “I started taking medical marijuana two months ago, and I was resistant — I’m from Wall Street.”

“It helps with sleeping, with anxiety. I was severely depressed a few months ago” when his cancer seemed to be getting worse, he said. For him, the effects of chemotherapy were also diminished. “It helps with nausea — boy, does it help with nausea — it helps with appetite. It gives you a positive attitude to deal with the cancer.”

Wednesday’s event at JFK Middle School focused on the medical and legal issues related to medical marijuana as a dispensary prepares to open on Conz Street. The panelists were Dr. Jill Griffin, who certifies patients for medical marijuana; Michael Cutler, a lawyer who works with applicants for medical marijuana dispensary licenses; Ezra Parzybok, medical marijuana educator and owner of “The Cannibas Consultant”; Jeremy Bucci, assistant Northwestern district attorney; Paul McNeil, coordinator for the Northampton Prevention Coalition; and Gunther.

Panelists mostly answered questions about becoming a medical marijuana patient and the legality of medical marijuana, from prescribing it to growing it. The inquiries came from representatives of the Gazette and WHMP, which sponsored the event with Northampton Community Television, as well as a few of the 30 audience members.

But at times, the discussion turned into a heated debate between advocates for medical marijuana and McNeil, whose Northampton Prevention Coalition works to try to reduce teen drug and alcohol use. He expressed concern about how legalizing medical marijuana normalizes the drug and could make teenagers more likely to start smoking it, but he also questioned the research supporting its use to treat some conditions and about the long-term effects of its use.

“It’s certainly not harmless,” McNeil said. “The normalization around this is a concern ... It trickles down to teenagers pretty quick.”

In terms of finding out if medical marijuana could treat certain symptoms, Griffin said that ideally, a patient could ask his or her primary care physician. “If your doctor says ‘no,’ you can go see a consultant,” she said.

Parzybok is a consultant who can answer questions and advise people — including Gunther — on things like getting a prescription, finding the right dosage, strain and way to take it. He can’t certify people to receive medical marijuana, but he can refer them to Griffin, who can decide whether a prescription for marijuana would help them.

“I think it’s very sad I have to be in business,” she said.

The main reason she is in business is that other doctors are not prescribing marijuana. Some doctors may work for health care companies or hospitals that instruct them not to prescribe it, or they are afraid that writing the prescription could interfere with Medicare reimbursements, Griffin said.

But according to Cutler, doctors don’t need to be afraid of breaking the law by prescribing marijuana. He said a federal appellate court decision 12 years ago prevents the Justice Department from investigating doctors for certifying patients, and Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that the department won’t interfere with state laws that allow medical and recreational marijuana use.

In terms of the legality of growing marijuana for medical use, Cutler said he considered it to be legal now because there is no other legal way to get it until dispensaries open. Starting in 2015, medical marijuana users will have to get the OK from the state to grow their own pot if it is hard for them to get it from a dispensary for financial or travel reasons.

Bucci did not say whether it is currently legal, but he said his office would consider it on a case-by-case basis. He said that even after 2015, if someone was growing marijuana for personal medical use because he or she could not afford to buy it, “I can’t imagine we would find much interest in prosecuting that person.”

Bucci also discussed how police and state prosecutors like himself will likely need to learn more about people being pulled over for driving under the influence of marijuana.

“We don’t see it as frequently as driving under the influence of alcohol,” he said, and there is no standard breathalyzer test for marijuana. “I think it’s going to be a learning curve for law enforcement” in spotting the symptoms of impaired driving.

Griffin said that before she certifies anyone for medical marijuana, they listen to an educational audio recording that warns them not to drive while they are impaired. “It’s up to the person to determine, just like with alcohol, when they are impaired,” she said.

Audience member Newton Bowdan, a psychiatrist from South Hadley, told panelists he was concerned about studies he has seen on the effects of marijuana. And while anecdotes about the medical benefits of marijuana are interesting, he said, “randomized, controlled, double-blind studies are what let us know we’re safe taking any medication.”

Parzybok said there have been controlled, double-blind studies about the effectiveness of medical marijuana, but the public in general does not accept them as true, whether because of stigma or a lack of widely heard anecdotal evidence.

After the event, Kent Walsh of South Hadley said he was not surprised that the school’s community room was only half full for the forum. “People are nervous to talk about it,” he said of medical marijuana. They’re afraid to ask their doctors about it or even attend a forum, he said.

Walsh, who uses medical marijuana to treat chronic pain, is part of the Massachusetts Patients Advocacy Alliance. The group aims to answer questions, guide and offer support to anyone who is curious about or already using medical marijuana. The alliance’s next meeting is Monday at 6 p.m. at the South Hadley Library.

A recording of the forum will be aired Thursday at 8 a.m. on WHMP.