The pros and cons of medical marijuana use are a major area of contention in the alternative medicine communities and are beginning to appear on the radar of mainstream politics as well. In fact, the very mention of the topic seems to cause controversy and raise strong feelings. Whatever your beliefs, the use of medical marijuana is a topic that deserves examination.
As new studies have shown, medical marijuana may have a place and time in the treatment of many different ailments. This is not an opinion shared by all medical experts. There are increasing debates raging in the medical community about the usefulness and effectiveness of many different iterations of the substance, from smoking the plant to eating marijuana reductions and taking synthetically produced THC medications as Marinol. We have had several clients who have gotten good results and advocated the use of medical marijuana as well as clients who have questions about how the medication may affect their diseases and the corresponding effect on their disability claims. Today I’m going to look at several facets of the argument and let you and your doctor decide on the proper course of treatment for your condition.
Legality of Medical Marijuana
It’s impossible to discuss the medical benefits of marijuana without first discussing the legality of the substance. To put it simply: the Federal government considers marijuana an illegal substance since the Controlled Substance Act was signed into law on October 27, 1970. The only legal cannabinoid is the synthetically produced Marinol. Since Federal law supersedes state and local laws, marijuana is technically illegal in all states, depending on the law enforcement involved. This can clearly affect any Federal benefits or Federal employment opportunities that may be available to any medical marijuana patient. Since Social Security disability payments are paid by the Federal government, they can question or even reject a claimant who tests positive for THC. Use can also lead to arrest and prosecution, even in states where local and state laws have decriminalized the substance.
However, this isn’t the obvious way that such laws have been enforced in recent years. There are 17 states plus the District of Columbia that have legalized the production and use of marijuana in limited quantities for certain medical conditions and diseases. In states where a patient has been prescribed medical marijuana by a licensed physician, Social Security has continued to approve benefits regardless of medical marijuana usage. In addition, the Department of Justice issued a directive in 2009 that Federal prosecutors reign in the investigation and prosecution of marijuana use and production that are in compliance with local and state laws.
Medicinal Benefits vs. Medicinal Risks
After the issue of legality, the next issue to discuss is the benefits of the substance versus the inherent risk potentials of the drug. Medical marijuana has been proven effective in the treatment of nausea, vomiting, premenstrual syndrome, unintentional weight loss, insomnia, and lack of appetite. It has also been linked to relief of eye pressure in glaucoma patients and neurogenic pain relief in conditions such as Fibromyalgia. Recently, medical marijuana has been shown to help sufferers of multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, brain cancer, opioid dependence, and ALS. In many instances, the benefits offered by the medical use of marijuana provide badly needed relief for people suffering from conditions who haven’t been able to find relief from any other treatment.
The U.S. Department of Justice released a statement stating, “nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal effects. But cannabis is not such a substance. There is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality. In practical terms, cannabis cannot induce a lethal response as a result of drug-related toxicity.” In contrast, the prescription drugs prescribed in lieu of medical marijuana were the primary cause of 10,008 deaths from 1997 to 2005.
It’s important to consider the “appropriate care” requirement found in many disability insurance policies. (Discussed in more detail here.) Medicinal marijuana is seen as an alternative treatment and will rarely satisfy a claims examiner to qualify for disability benefits. More commonly accepted medicines and treatments prescribed by a medical doctor are the best ways to ensure you will get the disability benefits you deserve.
Although marijuana may have never caused a known fatality, that does not mean it’s risk-free. One of the most common arguments against the medical use of marijuana is in the actual administration of the prescribed dosage of marijuana. The most common way to intake the cannabinoids is the smoking of the dried buds of the marijuana plant. Similar to tobacco smoke, the tar produced through this method can damage DNA and produce cancer causing chemicals at rates 50% higher than those found in tobacco cigarettes. Smoking three to four joints a day has been associated with the same amount of damage in the airway tissues as more than 20 tobacco cigarettes a day. However, other studies have suggested that over a 20 year period, the lung function and capacity of marijuana users did not deteriorate at the same rate as those of cigarette smokers due to the anti-inflammatory nature of marijuana cannabinoids. There are also many other studies that issue advisories against smoking cannabis for medicinal usage due to the medical, social, and legal risks.
Cannabis has also shown signs of increasing the chances of developing mental disorders, such as schizophrenia. Another study also reinforces the increase in risk factors for mental disorders due to the continued use of marijuana. Clearly, marijuana is like any other drug – it must be closely monitored by an expert medical provider and should be used cautiously.
Increasingly, patients mistakenly request the use of medical marijuana over other courses of treatment that have been proven to be more effective against their condition. Many drugs and medications have been specifically developed to treat and cure many of the same diseases and conditions that medical marijuana only may help. Ignoring or delaying these other treatments in order to focus on medical marijuana is seldom the best medical treatment. For example, Marinol has been proved less effective than the steroid megestrol in helping cancer patients regain lost appetites.
Aside from the legal and medicinal issues associated with medical marijuana use, potential users must also factor in the social aspect of medicinal marijuana usage. Regardless of the legality and use, many people still have a negative impression of marijuana use. This can be a problem if a patient is trying to get a job where drug use is prohibited. Federal statutes are often the basis of hiring regulations and many companies ban the use of marijuana even as a drug for medicinal use. Being unable to find a job because of marijuana use would likely not qualify as a disabling condition by an insurance company or by the ADA or EEOC.
In addition, some of the most common side effects or marijuana are due to the psychoactive properties of several cannabinoids and impair the social abilities and interactions of the patient. Studies have shown that marijuana users can lose an average of 4.1 points on an IQ test. Cannabis has also been linked to negative effects on short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory although these effects may be reversible with the cessation of use. For patients trying to recover from their disability and return to work, such memory losses can lead to difficulties in training for a new job or skill, not to mention in the interview process.
The legal system presents a major social stigma in the use of medical marijuana. Please remember: marijuana is illegal under Federal laws, no matter the laws of your individual state. Being arrested or even cited for marijuana possession can have a detrimental effect on your disability claim as well as your job opportunities in the future. The lack of criminalization is one of the main draws of the use of synthetic cannabinoid medications such as Marinol, which can be legal under Federal law.
Medicinal marijuana use in the United States is still in its infancy, and there is still much to learn. The contrary natures of this drug between medical practitioners and law enforcement has limited the amount of research on the effects and impacts of marijuana. Prolonged scientific studies into the uses and effects of cannabis are continuing and remain to be settled. As time progresses and we learn more about the substance and its uses, we will be ready to make a better informed decision on the cost-to-benefit ratio of this drug. But until these decisions happen, we are making no final decisions on the medicinal use of cannabis. As for many treatment alternatives, the medical use of marijuana is an issue that is left up to a patient and their doctor to consider and decide. The upsides to this drug are well balanced by their downsides, so there is no obvious answer. The biggest issue to remember is that marijuana is illegal, and there is no sign of full legalization or even decriminalization in the immediate future. Its use, regardless of the context and reason, may damage your rights to disability benefits when using marijuana as a medication. Medical marijuana can be helpful, but it is not and cannot be recommended for use until you discuss it with your medical provider, incorporate it into a well thought out treatment plan, and consider how the treatment may affect your personal and occupational life.
Royal Claims Advocates is a consulting firm aimed at helping disabled individuals get the benefits they deserve from their private disability insurer. If you have any questions, or would like to discuss how your current medical regimen may affect your disability insurance, please visit our website for a free consultation our call our firm toll-free at (855) 828-4100.