Smoking Out Big Pharma: Why We Haven't Legalized

Amanda Molloy

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On Oct. 18, 2006, Matt and Paige Figi had twins named Chase and Charlotte. Born without any medical complications, Charlotte seemed to be a happy and healthy baby. But what the Figis didn’t know about their daughter would alter the course of their lives forever.

At three months old, Charlotte had her first seizure, an intense and unexpected episode that lasted 30 minutes. The Figis rushed her to the hospital, but doctors were unable to determine the cause of the seizure and sent them home.

Her family hoped this would be a one-time ordeal. It wasn’t. Two years of violent seizures, incessant hospital visits and persistent uncertainty finally led to a diagnosis: Charlotte had Dravet Syndrome, a form of childhood epilepsy as severe as it is rare.

By age two, Charlotte began to fall behind her twin brother in cognitive and social development. Taking seven drugs at once — most of them addictive pills, such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines — did nothing to help. She had almost 300 seizures per week when Matt Figi, exhausted and out of options, went on the internet and found that medical marijuana was being used to treat Dravet Syndrome.

According to Medical Marijuana Inc., an advocacy group for the marijuana product industry, cannabidiol — a cannabinoid found in marijuana — is an effective therapeutic treatment for epileptic seizures. Her parents fought to treat their daughter using cannabidiol. They had reservations: it had never once been tested on a patient so young and was, in fact, illegal.

But when Charlotte received a small dose of cannabinoid oil, her seizures disappeared for seven days. Now with use of the oil, they occur once or twice a day.

Because the cannabis used to treat Charlotte was so successful, the strain named, “Charlotte’s Web,” is now used across the country treating children undergoing epileptic seizures.

Despite the many benefits of medical marijuana, many states have not yet legalized it — leaving prescription medication as the only alternative. This may benefit pharmaceutical companies, who make large profits from selling their prescription medications.

According to Business Insider, marijuana use can ease the side effects of numerous disorders, boost treatment effectiveness and even halt cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

Marijuana is not physically addictive and it has never caused a death by overdose. Furthermore, its medical benefits could aid the lives of other kids just like Charlotte, who suffer from diseases and disorders that severely impact their everyday experiences.

In the last few years, recreational and medical marijuana legalization have sparked national conversations and been part of political platforms. Since 2016, 28 states and D.C. have legalized medical marijuana.

The reason why cannabis is still illegal may be hiding in your medicine cabinet: medical marijuana legalization could clash with the interests of pharmaceutical companies and their prescription pills.

Some of the drugs are physically addictive and, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, have accounted for approximately 165,000 deaths since 1999. They could be the reason why more children like Charlotte aren’t receiving the kind of treatment they could get from medical marijuana.

Studies show that prescription drug sales are notably lower in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana. According to a 2014 study led by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, states that legalized marijuana experienced a 25 percent decline in prescription drug overdoses.

According to Students for Sensible Drug Policy Outreach Coordinator Jake Agliata, it’s understandable why the companies would oppose legalization.

“Medical marijuana poses a huge market competitor to many other regulated drugs out there, and instead of trying to compete, the pharmaceutical industry is putting a lot of money into lobbying Congress to prevent medical marijuana from happening,” Agliata said.

The Washington Post reports that approximately 60 percent of Americans use prescription drugs on a daily basis. Marijuana Policy Project Communications Manager, Morgan Fox, says that Insys Therapeutics Inc., a corporation that produces synthetic opioids more potent than heroin, recently made a half-million dollar contribution to Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy.

The organization’s main aim was to defeat Proposition 205, a marijuana legalization bill that appeared on Arizona voters’ ballots in early November. Their efforts bore fruit and the bill was voted down, 52-48, according to the Phoenix New Times. This effort to halt legalization is just one of many examples of pharmaceutical companies pouring profits into their special interests.

Certain corporations have even lobbied against legal marijuana at a federal level. Makers of a synthetic cannabis halted pushes to reschedule the controlled substance on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s scale. Schedule I drugs are considered to have no medical purpose or use, a high potential for addiction, and severe safety concerns, while Schedule III drugs have accepted medical use and lower potential for abuse.

Since marijuana has proven medical benefits, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended marijuana be lifted from Schedule I to Schedule III, allowing the drug to be studied further in depth and acknowledging its medical use. However, it remains a Schedule I drug.

“We’re just dealing with many, many years of misinformation about the substance,” Fox said.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — one of the country’s’ leading biopharmaceutical researchers — declined to comment when asked about their stance on marijuana legalization.

Over 200 million prescriptions for opiates are written each year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Over half of the states currently grant doctors the right to prescribe medical forms of cannabis, and according to The Atlantic, more states are likely to follow suit once they see the public health and economic benefits.

Despite medical benefits, there are repercussions that come with marijuana legalization. Michelle Engert, a professor who teaches Drugs, Crime and Policy at American University, expressed her concern about more people driving under the influence.

“It’s very difficult to tell if someone is driving while impaired,” Engert said. “If you can’t prove that as an element in a criminal case, it concerns me that we’re going to have many people on the road driving while high.”

This is also a concern for Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana (CALM), a political action committee based in California. It is specifically against Prop 64, which made it legal to grow and use marijuana for personal use on Nov. 9, 2016. The proposition did not include a standard that law enforcement could use to detect high drivers, like the .08 blood alcohol level used to detect drunk drivers.

“What constitutes a drugged driver? How much THC is too much? That’s a huge problem now that we’re going to have to deal with,” said Carla Lowe, a representative from CALM. “You’re more likely to be hit by a drugged driver than a drunk driver now. We’re starting to see those stats, predictably, going higher in Colorado, Washington and now California,” Lowe said.

So while medical marijuana has its benefits, there are drawbacks to its widespread legalization. Still Proposition 64, is predicted to generate about $1.4 billion in the first year, according to legislative analysts. Some of the money could go towards law enforcement to help create a standard for drugged drivers.

Today, Charlotte Figi is nine years old and, according to her mother, has an average of just two seizures a month: an improvement her family would have never imagined possible when their daughter was in hospital care just a few years prior.

After witnessing the effects of medical marijuana first hand, Charlotte’s family refuses to give up the fight for legalization. Paige Figi recently founded Coalition for Access Now, a non-profit organization which aims to educate the public and lawmakers on Capitol Hill alike about the therapeutic and medical benefits of cannabis.

Because of medical marijuana, Charlotte now lives contently, and Paige wants all parents with sick children to have access to the substance that reduced the frequency of her daughter’s seizures.

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