FRIDAY FOCUS: Doctor Says Medical Weed Is Not the Best Medicine

Kenneth Finn urges states to proceed with caution on legalization to avoid unintended health consequences

Dr. Kenneth Finn, a pain medicine specialist in private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the cannabis industry makes claims about the benefits of medical marijuana that, for the most part, are not supported by science. (Courtesy photo from Dr. Kenneth Finn)

By Ernest Beck

Special to the Wyoming Truth

For my recent Word on Drugs column, I spoke with Dr. Kenneth Finn, a pain medicine specialist in private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about the hype behind the growing market for medical marijuana. As a physician and member of a state task force on legalizing recreational marijuana, Finn has strong opinions about the topic—namely, that the cannabis industry makes claims about the benefits of medical marijuana that, for the most part, are not supported by science.

Continuing our discussion, Finn voiced concern about how easy it is to obtain a medical marijuana card in Colorado and its potential harm to patients. He also detailed what states such as Wyoming — where all types of marijuana are still illegal — should consider before going down the path of legalization. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Anyone over 18 who is a resident of Colorado can get a medical marijuana card (compared to 21 for recreational cannabis) for qualifying conditions including muscle spasms, glaucoma and severe nausea and pain, among other illnesses. What was your experience applying for a card?

Finn: I wanted to see what the process involves. This was during COVID, and I was approved within the first 60 seconds of a five-minute call. I spoke with a medical marijuana doctor accredited by the state and told him I was in good health but had knee pain from sports injuries—all true. The doctor never quizzed me about the level of pain or medications I used. He didn’t review an MRI. Still, I was approved for medical marijuana for severe pain. To me, this underscores the weakness of the program.  

With so many bogus claims aimed at convincing consumers to buy the drug, is medical marijuana just a scam?

Finn: Some components of the cannabis plant might have medicinal value, and I support research to determine which might be beneficial. But dispensary marijuana has not met the muster of scientific rigor and study, especially considering the random list of qualifying conditions. These products circumvent the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug approval process. If medical marijuana were a true medicine like others sold in a pharmacy, it would be pulled off the shelves due to the harm it can cause. I’m baffled that it gets a free pass.

But some people say medical marijuana helps them. What do you tell your patients?

Finn: We can have open discussions about this now because the stigma surrounding marijuana is gone. That’s a good thing. If my patients want to smoke a joint or a cigarette or have a glass or two of wine, my response is this: “I won’t judge you or pontificate, but you have to understand and be aware of all the risks” and potential harms like we do with alcohol and tobacco. I tell them there’s mostly anecdotal evidence that pot works in the way the industry says it does, and that there’s no reliable independent research to support most of these claims.

Why is today’s marijuana so dangerous?

Finn: Many products have extremely high levels of THC [the psychoactive component of the plant]—up to 90% compared to around 4% in 1995. This can cause severe side effects such as anxiety, panic and even psychotic episodes. But you won’t hear this from the “bud-tenders” at dispensaries. They are not medically trained. I don’t think they know what dosage to recommend and the possible negative outcomes an individual might experience.

What are the biggest risks?

Finn: First and foremost is cannabis use disorder—basically, that’s a marijuana addiction, which is a real thing. Another problem is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a condition that leads to repeat bouts of vomiting due to daily long-term use of marijuana. Clinical studies show that marijuana — whether medical or recreational — can harm the brain, especially the developing brain of young people. It can also cause fetal abnormalities if taken by pregnant women. Yet a 2018 study fund that 70% of dispensaries in Colorado recommended cannabis products to pregnant women to treat nausea in the first trimester.

With all these downsides of medical marijuana, what is the appeal?

Finn: Some people are looking for a quick fix or a silver bullet to relieve pain or deal with other symptoms. Others might want an alternative to prescriptive medications like opioid painkillers that can also be addictive. In my experience, some patients can taper off opioids by using marijuana, but the pain levels remain the same.

As more states legalize both medical and recreational marijuana, what can be done to safeguard public health?

Finn: I’m not a fan of big government, but we need more rules and regulations. For example, a prescription drug monitoring program at dispensaries like we have for opioid medications. Educational campaigns and warning labels on packaging, and caps on high THC levels in both medical and recreational marijuana products. [Only Vermont and Connecticut have such restrictions.] Close the loopholes that allow an 18-year-old to get a medical marijuana card and then resell the drug to others. Repeal a law in Washington, D.C., that lets people “self-diagnose” to get medical marijuana without a doctor’s recommendation. There should be no programs that get you a medical marijuana card after only a 60-second evaluation.

What would you recommend to states like Wyoming that might someday consider legalizing marijuana?

Finn: Proceed with caution. Don’t go down a dangerous path that has unintended consequences for the health of residents. Learn from other states so you can’t claim ignorance later on. Know the facts about marijuana and improve doctor-patient communications about the drug. Most of all, it’s critical to establish guardrails to keep consumers safe. Because once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no going back.

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