What doctors are saying about medical marijuana

, Posted: Wed, March 5 2014 at 6:27 PM, Updated: Wed, March 5 2014 at 10:15 PM

Medford, Ore. -- It's no secret. Medical marijuana is a controversial issue, despite states across the country starting to legalize or loosen restrictions.

NBC 5 spoke with three doctors to try and get a well-rounded medical opinion on cannabis.

The reason? There have been people arguing on both sides, some  who call medical marijuana users "pot heads," which was on the KOBI-TV NBC 5 News Facebook page, and others who contend the drug's medicinal properties are invaluable.

66-year-old Vickie Pippett said she has been suffering from debilitating back pain for years.

"It's very, very painful," she said.

Pippett has had an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program card since January and she said cannabis has helped her live a normal life.

"I'm just thrilled with the idea that my back isn't bothering me anymore, and that I can sleep better at night. Other symptoms that I have seem to be going away," said Pippett.

However, what do medical professionals think about medical marijuana? Do they think it's an effective treatment for patients with chronic pain problems or on chemotherapy for cancer? 

Some doctors say cannabis has been successful for patients

Dr. Robin Miller with Triune Integrative Medicine said up until 1937, cannabis was a staple in doctor's medical kits. She said the drug has been a success for all of her patients who take it.

"Most of them are over the age of 65 ... I really think it's a much milder pain medicine than what we have now which is a disaster with opioids," said Miller.

"What I use it for are people who have serious nerve pain, people who have cancer where it definitely improves their appetite, calms them down, [and] helps them sleep," she continued.

Mixed reaction from doctors

"Most patients that I've seen that have been on marijuana say they've tried it and it doesn't really help so much with their pain ...  Other patients feel very strongly that it does help them with their pain to the point that they would choose marijuana over opioids," said Dr. Brett Quave who practices at The Haven Pain and Spine Center in Medford.

In Ashland, Dr. Mark Greenberg at Advanced Pain Care said around 10%-15% of the roughly 120 patients he sees every week are using medical marijuana. That's in contrast to between 40%-60% of his patients who use some form of opiate medication.

Side effects for cannabis vs. opiate medication

Greenberg said he treats cannabis as a controlled substance, much the same as a prescription pill. However, he said there is a difference in side effects.

"I think that opiate medications because of their pharmacological action on receptors in the body, create a physiological state of dependence ... I think that cannabis doesn't create the same physiological  dependence but definitely can lead to psychological dependence," Greenberg said.

Both Miller and Quave agree that as with any other drug, there are side effects ranging from lack of motivation, to withdrawal symptoms to weight gain.

Success of cannabis dependent on patient and ailment

"The difficulty with prescribing cannabis for pain is that it's very difficult to predict who is going to benefit and who doesn't," said Greenberg.

However, Miller said according to research, people have receptors sensitive to cannabis.

"It says cannabanoid receptors are among the most widely distributed in the brain," Miller read aloud from a medical publication.

"For medical uses I think it can be really beneficial for some people," she continued.

According to Greenberg he's not aware of any cannabanoid receptor in the body

What studies say about medical marijuana

Greenberg said about 50 studies have been published so far with potentially more on the horizon.

"These studies have been split right now the middle," he began.

"About half have shown effectiveness in terms of pain relief ... the other half of the studies have shown no benefit and have called the results consistent with placebo effect," continued Greenberg.

He said at this point, there's no objective way to measure pain, so all doctors have to go on are subjective reports from their patients.

Quave agreed that while there were some positive results, there is still not enough information to determine how effective cannabis is for patients.

However, for OMMP cardholders like Vickie Pippett, regardless of what those studies say, they're convinced that for them, cannabis works.

"It takes away the pain," said Pippett.

Medical marijuana doesn't have to be smoked. It can be eaten, or applied topically as a cream as well.

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