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Commentary: Marijuana industry welcomes regulation

This commentary was written by Michael Elliott, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group (MMIG), the largest medical marijuana trade association in Colorado, and Norton Arbelaez, MMIG’s board chair.

Staff Sergeant Mary McNeely joined the military, went to Iraq and served her country with honor. While there, she was injured in a car bombing.

Upon returning to Colorado Springs, physicians at the Veteran’s Administration prescribed her narcotic pain medications to treat her various injuries. Nonetheless, her health kept deteriorating. The drugs did not effectively treat her pain, made her irritable, nauseous and unable to function. She grew distant from her daughter and husband.

Through Colorado’s medical marijuana system, she discovered that cannabis controlled her pain and nausea with minimal side-effects. As a result, she was able to stop taking several high-risk prescription drugs including percocet and vicodin. Medical marijuana allowed her to regain a semblance of a normal life.

Colorado’s medical marijuana program is here for Mary and the tens of thousands of patients like her. While neither pariah nor panacea, medical cannabis provides substantial relief to the sick and injured, and is void of many toxic side-effects common to prescription drugs. Regulated and taxed, medical cannabis also improves public safety and provides Colorado with a sorely needed source of revenue and jobs.

Cannabis Indica has been used as medicine for thousands of years. For most of American history, the United States Pharmacopeia recommended it for conditions as diverse as asthma, nervous disorders and insomnia. In 1937, amid propaganda steeped in institutional prejudice, all uses of cannabis were outlawed by the federal government.

In light of failed attempts at national reform, Colorado voters approved a state constitutional amendment allowing for medical marijuana in 2000. Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana, encompassing about one-third of all Americans. Conservative estimates forecast as many as 25 states will have adopted medical marijuana laws by 2014. As reflected by an October 2010 Gallup poll in which 70 percent of Americans favor making medical cannabis legally available, Colorado’s regulated model reflects a national trend.

In 2010 and 2011, the Colorado General Assembly, in a bipartisan effort, codified the licensing, regulation and taxation of medical marijuana businesses. These regulations created a closed-loop system that requires local and state licensing, establishes “good moral character” standards for ownership and employment, and mandates rules for security and surveillance aimed at eliminating illicit activity. Nationwide, Colorado has the most comprehensive and effective medical marijuana regulatory framework.

In Colorado, regulated medical cannabis has provided medicine to 473 HIV/AIDS patients, 9,771 patients suffering from severe nausea, 14,112 patients suffering from muscle spasms, 75,424 patients suffering from severe or chronic pain, and 2,181 patients with cancer. Despite all the accusations of abuse surrounding this issue, less than 2 percent of Colorado’s population are registered patients. According to state statistics, the average age of a medical marijuana patient in Colorado is 42.

As medical marijuana becomes more accepted, its medicinal uses become more apparent. Recent studies have shown the potential of cannabis to treat premenstrual syndrome, insomnia, migraines, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, alcohol abuse, arthritis, asthma, atherosclerosis, depression, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, sickle-cell disease, sleep apnea, anorexia nervosa and many forms of cancer. With so much potential, it’s not surprising that the federally funded National Institute of Health currently holds U.S. Patent 6,630,507 B1 for “Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.”

In addition to providing a mechanism for safe and legal access, regulated medical cannabis is a net positive for the state. It contributes to deferred prosecution and incarceration, as well as providing a source of revenue in hard budgetary times.

In total, Colorado medical marijuana businesses have paid approximately $20 million in local, state and federal taxes, and another $9 million in licensing and application fees. With regard to jobs, some estimates indicate that the medical cannabis industry has created upwards of 20,000 new jobs, as well as a boom in ancillary businesses such as real-estate, accounting, carpentry, engineering, plumbing, law, medicine and security.

With regard to health and safety, a recent University of Colorado study indicates that states which pass medical marijuana laws see on average a 9 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. In addition, a 20-year study documented in the Journal of the American Medical Association (January 2012) indicates that smoking cannabis on an occasional basis does not appear to produce adverse effects on lung function. Moreover, the increase in criminality predicted by opponents of regulated medical marijuana has simply not materialized.

Though much has been made of the supposed link between medical marijuana and teen use, new research by CU professor Daniel Rees finds no evidence that medical marijuana laws are related to the use of marijuana by minors. Other studies show that, on average, teen usage decreases after states pass medical marijuana laws.

Regardless, regulation remains the most effective way to limit unauthorized access and abuse. After all, street dealers do not check IDs. The most comprehensive solution likely involves education and prevention initiatives, restrictions on advertising and increased penalties for illicit diversion to minors.

Though Colorado Attorney General John Suthers opposes the state’s medical marijuana program, consider the alternative – the continuation of a failed policy that criminalizes patients and subsidizes a violent black market operating clandestinely out of homes and public lands. This emboldened black market would pose an immediate threat to public safety and further strain our state’s limited resources.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has issued recommendations to U.S. Attorneys to use their prosecutorial discretion, in light of limited resources, to focus on those individuals and organizations who are not in “unambiguous compliance with state law.”

Meanwhile, in Colorado, the democratic process has made regulated medical cannabis the law of the land, and it is the duty of our state officials and our chief executive to implement the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code.

Patients and providers hold hope that with time the institutional resistance from the federal government and certain state elected officials will be reoriented to conform with the interests of patients, economic realities, and the values of justice, dignity, and tolerance.

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