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Residents, physicians look to marijuana as medical treatment

Not all health providers are on board

Pat Sechrest of Boulder Hill suffers from spinal stenosis, a painful narrowing of the spine, and she has tried a variety of treatments.

“I’m doing everything I can,” Sechrest said. “I do acupuncture, massage, yoga, tai chi, exercise, stretching. I take Aleve. I’ve been advised by my doctors not to have surgery for different reasons. I keep as active as I can and don’t want to do surgery, and I’m in pain almost all the time.”

That’s the reason she attended a presentation Oct. 24 at the Oswego Senior Center on medical marijuana.

Sechrest said her condition is not one of the 40 conditions listed in the state’s Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, for which the use of marijuana is allowed. Sechrest said she’s “questionable” about the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, but she would like to use marijuana to treat her constant pain as an alternative to opioids.

“I think it’s a great option,” she said.

Rick Niksic of Greenhouse, a small group of dispensaries with a location in Morris, presented information to the group of two dozen or so seniors on the benefits of medical marijuana, the legalities of the drug and other data. The Morris Greenhouse location is one of 53 licensed dispensaries in the state, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Sandy Pastore, executive director of the Oswego Senior Center, said older people especially are susceptible to problems related to opioid use. She said seniors should know about alternatives to opioids, which can be addictive and come with a litany of side effects.

According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, of the 2,278 Illinois statewide drug overdose deaths during 2016, more than 80 percent (1,826) were opioid-related fatalities.

“It’s really important to have alternatives and know what’s available,” Pastore said.

John Earle, 72, of Oswego said he was at the presentation to learn more about the state approval process to use medical marijuana. A one-time cancer survivor, he said he’s concerned that the cancer could come back, and he wants to be ready to use medical marijuana to treat pain.

“Six years ago I was treated for cancer, and I was given, for the pain, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, and it helped tremendously getting me through the pain, but it had some horrible side effects,” Earle said. “If not physically, I was psychologically addicted to some of those drugs. Cancer doesn’t go away; it’ll come again. So for next time, I’m looking for a different approach, a different way of treating the pain.”

During the presentation, some seniors said their doctors either had advised against using medical marijuana to treat their condition or had been told that their physician’s medical group had discouraged them from sending the form to the state that verifies their patient is being treated for a covered condition.

Niksic said his own physician had the same policy. He said the form used only verifies that the patient is being treated, and that form is sent to the state; it is not a prescription for medical marijuana, he said.

Different medical groups have different policies. A spokesman for Advocate Health Care did not return an email seeking information on its policy, but Rush Copley and Edward-Elmhurst Health did.

When asked whether their physicians sign certificates verifying conditions that could be treated with marijuana, Rush Copley Medical Group spokeswoman Courtney Satlak said the group highly discourages the signing of the certificates because of the lack of regulation and research.

“Rush Copley Medical Group has no specific policy prohibiting the signing of medical marijuana certificates; however, we highly discourage signing certificates due to limited and/or poor medical evidence for the effectiveness of marijuana,” she said. “There are also significant concerns for quality and potency of these products, and there is no good regulatory body monitoring quality and potency (like the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]).”

Edward-Elmhurst Health spokesman Keith Hartenberger would not say whether the health system’s physicians are prohibited from signing such certificates, but the group is “studying the issue.”

“Edward-Elmhurst Health is studying the issue and considering development of a policy to ensure consistent practice throughout the system,” he said.

A survey of doctors published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 found that 76 percent of physicians said they would prescribe medical marijuana for their patients.

While the conventional medical community has mixed feelings about the use of marijuana for medical purposes, some local physicians have found that it helps their patients.

Pediatrician Dr. Natalie Lambajian-Drummond and her husband, Dr. Marc Drummond – a counselor – own Whole Child Pediatrics and the adjoining Natural Pharmacy in Yorkville. Both said that they have seen medical marijuana help patients.

The pharmacy carries a variety of medical products for both humans and pets that are derived from hemp or marijuana but are legal, and they are very popular, Drummond said.

The CBD hemp oil they sell, which is made from a compound found in hemp called cannabidiol, for example, is “flying off the shelves,” he said. The oil only has trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol and contains none of the psychoactive properties found in marijuana, Drummond said.

The oil is ingested or applied topically depending on its use. It’s even used by pet owners to calm anxious dogs, Drummond said.

However, Lambajian-Drummond said the use of CBD oil does not require a card from the state like the medical marijuana program does.

“CBD oil is not the same thing as medical marijuana,” she said.

Lambajian-Drummond said CBD oil is in a “gray area” in Illinois when it comes to regulation.

“There are no regulations on CBD oil,” she said. “Because there’s 3 percent THC in it, they’ve kind of not said anything about it.”

Drummond said the oil used to be illegal but now is legal in all 50 states to sell.

Drummond said the pharmacy can’t ship the oil in the mail, and pharmacy staff cannot recommend a dosage. He said pharmacy staff will direct customers to websites that discuss dosage.

Lambajian-Drummond, however, can give a dosage recommendation as a medical provider.

“Even the people who manufacture it aren’t allowed to [recommend a dose], which is crazy,” she said.

One of the brands they sell, Charlotte’s Web, puts dosing instructions on the package, but the other brand does not, Lambajian-Drummond said.

The oil helps those with a variety of conditions, she said.

“It’s a neuro-antioxidant,” she said. “Think of it kind of like nature’s ibuprofen. So it’s great with any type of neuro-inflammatory condition. It does amazing things for migraines, for Tourette’s [syndrome].”

Lambajian-Drummond said she has prescribed medical marijuana to her patients, including children in special circumstances.

“I think medical marijuana has amazing benefits when used wisely,” she said. “It’s been a medicinal plant forever, so it’s not like it’s something that’s new.”

Drummond said post-traumatic stress disorder is approved to be treated with medical marijuana, and it is seen in children.

Drummond said it’s difficult to tell how beneficial marijuana is for certain conditions because medical research on it is hindered in the U.S. According to the FDA, someone who wants to do clinical research on marijuana must go through an “investigational new drug” application process, which involves the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA has categorized marijuana as a Class I schedule drug, which is defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Drugs in this category also include heroin and LSD.

Class II, a step down, includes drugs such as fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine, according to the DEA website.

“We are for it because we think it has potential, but there’s just not enough evidence out there for us to go, ‘Oh, you’ve got epilepsy, go smoke this joint and you’ll be fine,’ ” Drummond said.

Lambajian-Drummond said the information on marijuana is largely anecdotal or historical. Researchers want to find out which strains of the plant will help with certain conditions, she said.

“There’s a whole variety of hybrid plants with different activations at the cannabinoid receptor,” she said. “So, which strain is going to work best for which condition, that’s kind of like this great frontier of medicine right now that is kind of being researched in back laboratories.”

Lambajian-Drummond said a lot of parents of epileptic children have found “hope in Colorado,” referring to one of the states that has fully legalized marijuana.

“The problem is, when they leave Colorado, they’re leaving with an illegal substance in their state,” she said. 

Lambajian-Drummond said opioids are more dangerous than marijuana.

“With the opioid epidemic, they should make opioids illegal and make marijuana legal,” Lambajian-Drummond said. “Opioids have never given anybody any benefit in an outpatient setting. It has a place in hospitals, hospice and for acute pain management, and that’s it.”

Lambajian-Drummond said those who are looking into marijuana in treatment are those who have exhausted conventional medical options.

“You have to remember, the people we are doing this with are people that have failed all other traditional medicine interventions,” she said. “The girl who I helped get her [medical marijuana] card about two months ago, she’s been to see every epilepsy specialist I think in the United States.”

The girl only could get medical marijuana as a special circumstance, since in Illinois one has to be 18 years old to get a card, Lambajian-Drummond said.

Lambajian-Drummond said the dispensaries in Illinois “don’t know what to give kids” because of the regulations and legalities of state and federal law. She said she recommended to her epilepsy patient’s mother to talk to dispensaries in Colorado.

“I was telling her mom, this is a situation where you might need to take a road trip out to Colorado and go talk to one of these well-established dispensaries that work with kids and work with epilepsy, and bring those strains back, and then ask the dispensary here to then carry that strain,” she said.

In Springfield, there are efforts for a potential change in the law to expand it to cover more conditions or to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy said there is too long of a delay for those waiting for medical marijuana cards from the state and that the covered uses are limited.

Cassidy, a Democratic lawmaker from Chicago, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 2353, a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in Illinois, and she also was a sponsor of the 2013 bill that was signed into law as the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, has introduced identical recreational marijuana legislation on the Senate side.

“The delays that we are seeing in folks trying to get their cards are really heartbreaking, quite frankly,” Cassidy said. “To tell a cancer patient that it’s going to take at least six weeks, and in many cases double that, for their applications to be processed. The fact that we fingerprint patients and exclude people with criminal histories. Cancer doesn’t run criminal background checks. So there are some serious limitations to an otherwise excellent regulatory model.”

Cassidy said the current medical marijuana law is “pretty narrow” for covering conditions. She said there are about 20,000 medical marijuana patients registered with the state. Surveys have suggested 750,000 marijuana users in the state, she said.

“What that tells us is how many people are still accessing the black market,” she said.

Cassidy said lawmakers are holding informational hearings on matters surrounding the legalization of recreational marijuana, such as public safety and economic problems, along with stakeholder meetings, and it could be a year or so until there is a full vote on the bill. She said Illinois would be the first state to pass recreational marijuana legislation, as other states have legalized it via referendum.

“What Heather Steans and I are doing is going about this very deliberately and slowly to ensure that we take advantage of the benefits of that process to allow a more thoroughly vetted, more well-thought-out law at the end of the process,” Cassidy said. “We’re a good year away from a full vote, to build the support we need to get this passed and signed. So we’re using this time to slowly and deliberately build support, ensure that we’ve engaged everyone that will be affected by it, and that is inclusive of people who are opposed but may recognize that there’s still an opportunity to convey things that could make it less bad from their perspective.”

In the meantime, another state lawmaker, Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, has announced that he will introduce legislation called the Alternatives to Opioids Act during the second week of this month’s veto session.

Harmon said the law would “allow people who have been prescribed opioids for a medical condition to apply for a temporary medical cannabis card instead.”

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