Medical marijuana is now legally for sale in the Keystone State. On Saturday, Feb. 17, the first medical marijuana dispensaries in Chester and Bucks County were opened, allowing patients with any of seventeen eligible conditions to treat themselves with various forms of medicinal marijuana with a doctor’s approval.

“Keystone Shops” is the name of one of multiple dispensaries that are being opened with more to come across the state. There are currently 4,000 patients who are approved by their physicians to purchase medical marijuana in the state.

Under Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program, patients are able to obtain pills, oils, topical gels, creams or ointments, tinctures, liquids or a form appropriate for vaporization, excluding the dry leaf/plant form. Pennsylvanians will not be able to purchase the type of marijuana that is smoked and commonly known to the public.

Hundreds of people lined up outside of Keystone Shops to make their first purchase to treat their condition. According to CBS Local, people were very enthusiastic for this moment, with patient Jeanne DaSilva reportedly stating, “I am so excited, I’m very excited I want to cry, that’s how happy I am. I’m really looking forward to trying this.”

Diana Briggs of Export, Pennsylvania stated that her $178 purchase of a tincture and some capsules has helped to drastically reduce the number of her son’s daily seizures from over 400 to less than 50, according to LancasterOnline.

Dr. Louis Van De Beek, the Chief Medical Director of Keystone Shops, believes that medical marijuana poses a solution to the current opioid epidemic that this country is facing.

Talking to ABC 6, he stated, “People you see out there are looking for relief from some very serious medical conditions. We know not every one of them are going to be helped by medical marijuana, but we know that many of them will be.”

In Philadelphia alone in 2017, there were approximately 1,200 overdose deaths, with 85 percent of them being opioid-related. This surpasses the total number of homicides as well as the fatalities at the peak of the AIDS crisis in Philadelphia in 1994, according to NBC.

Patients who undergo minor to major surgery are prescribed painkillers post-operation to ease the pain during recovery. These drugs include fentanyl, methadone, Percocet, OxyContin, morphine and Vicodin, among many others. Too often, patients find themselves needing more of the drug even after their prescription runs out due to the intense withdrawal effects they experience. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia, anxiety, agitation and muscle aches. When these drugs become unavailable, patients switch to street drugs such as heroin in order to ease the withdrawal, which results in a cycle of addiction.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Opioid prescribing continues to fuel the epidemic. Today, 40 percent of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid. In 2016, more than 46 people died every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids.” The most common of these opioids are methadone, OxyContin and Vicodin.

According to Dr. Barth Wilsey of the University of California Davis Medical Center, the majority of patients seeking medical marijuana do so for pain relief, which is the same reason patients are prescribed opioids; they can be interchangeable for some conditions. And medical marijuana uniquely treats other ailments such as glaucoma, chronic seizures, nausea from cancer chemotherapy, Crohn’s disease and muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, among others.

So why isn’t medical marijuana already a widely available treatment? The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) currently has marijuana categorized as a Schedule 1 drug. This is the same classification given to heroin, ecstasy and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Schedule 2 drugs include Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, OxyContin, fentanyl, Adderall and Ritalin. Schedule 1 drugs are defined as drugs, substances or chemicals with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the DEA.

The reason for marijuana being a schedule one drug can be attributed to the lack of research on the long-term health effects of the substance. The reason there is limited research on this is due to the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, which makes it nearly impossible for researchers to conduct studies on marijuana. Under this act, the marijuana used in any research must be from a single federal contractor—the University of Mississippi. This is an issue because the cannabis from that university isn’t the same as cannabis anywhere else. According to Daniele Piomelli and Bob Solomon of the LA Times, this creates the conflict of “external validity”—when what researchers are allowed to study in a lab doesn’t reveal much about that research in the context of the real world.

Along with this roadblock, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been working to rescind Obama-era rules which directed the federal government to “look the other way” in regard to states legalizing marijuana, regardless of the DEA’s drug scheduling. This policy was termed the “Cole Memo,” which prioritized federal government law enforcement objectives and allowed states to decide whether or not to enforce federal law.

A memo released by the Department of Justice signaled the end of the Cole Memo. It states that, “It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission. Therefore, today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis and thwart violent crime across our country.”

Despite all of this, the legalization movement has been picking up steam in recent years, with nine states currently having recreational marijuana and 29 with medical marijuana. According to a Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans are in favor of legalization, and according to a poll conducted by Franklin and Marshall College, 59 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalization, so it’s likely that this momentum will continue regardless of oppositional efforts.

Alex Shakhazizian is a fourth-year student majoring in political science with a minor in journalism. ✉ AS823512@wcupa.edu.

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