By KAYLA GLEASON

Feeling Fit Correspondent

Since medical marijuana was legalized in 2016, its popularity has grown exponentially among those seeking relief from depression, insomnia, chronic pain and cancer.

In fact, Florida is the second fastest growing state for medical marijuana, according to a study by Marijuana Business Daily.

Just this year, the publication reported the state averages 609 new medical marijuana patients every day, outnumbered only by Oklahoma’s 641 average.

“There are many cancer doctors in the area we work with who refer us, so we do typically see older patients but we also have about 100 pediatric patients — aged 14 to 17,” said Dr. Tucker Greene from Iona Cannabis Clinic in Port Charlotte.

“It’s pretty representative of the area’s demographics.”

The draw toward alternative medicine locally could also be caused, in part, by a higher percentage of those living with disabilities and health problems.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2013 and 2017, 15.6% of Charlotte County citizens under the age of 65 were living with a disability or related health issue — significantly higher than neighboring counties Lee and Sarasota who averaged 8.4% and 8.8%, respectively. Our average is also nearly double that of the state’s average — 8.6% — and these numbers don’t even take into account those 65-plus who make up 40.2% of the county’s population and are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with qualifiable conditions like cancer, glaucoma and Parkinson’s.

Amendment 2 — which legalized medical cannabis — also approved the drug to treat epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s Disease, PTSD, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and “comparable medical conditions,” according to JD Supra.

Still, marijuana is a highly stigmatized alternative with a tumultuous past many doctors and patients struggle to unlearn.

“Pre-1937, marijuana was actually commonly used in medicine but in 1937, the government built this campaign up to vilify it and, since then, it’s had this horrible connotation,” said Greene.

“It was always attached to portions of the population that weren’t mainstream, like back in the 1960s when it was associated with the Hippie stereotype.”

Now, Greene says, those against medical marijuana fall back on calling it a gateway drug, implying marijuana use eventually leads to use of dangerous drugs like heroin and methamphetamines.

However, the gateway theory is not only hotly contested but has been disproven by many clinicians and researchers.

According to The American Addiction Centers, “At the current time, it is unable to specify a causal relationship between early use of any drug and the potential to use or abuse other drugs later.”

“They really made it into a monster it’s not. The gateway theory is like saying if you speed on the highway, next thing you’re onto is armed robbery,” Greene said.

Besides, Greene adds, medical marijuana is typically very different from illegal or street versions of the drug.

For the most part, patients use ingestible forms such as capsules or oils. Smokable and topical products are also available. Marijuana edibles (cannabis-infused foods) such as gummies, tea, chocolate, brownies and cookies are not currently available for purchase at dispensaries in Florida. The state is currently working on the rules for edibles.

“Physicians think that patients come in and leave with a baggie of flower marijuana,” said Greene.

“If it was broken down the way other things are in medical education, they would get past their imagination or the stigma.”

If you’re already on medication, would you switch to marijuana?

According to Greene, the drug allows patients to cut back on many prescriptions that carry severe side effects or are extremely addictive, like antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills and opioids.

“About half the people who come in are able to come completely off the medicines they’re taking. And I would say a majority of patients — about 80% — get better than 50% relief from whatever they’re struggling with,” he said.

“I haven’t had anybody come in and say ‘I don’t want my card anymore, take it away,’” said Greene.

“And unlike a lot of medications, there aren’t any bad effects from people taking too much. If you overdo it, you’ll probably just have a good sleep and you won’t even wake up feeling groggy or hungover.”

The reason marijuana works on such a wide variety of problems is because it’s much more of a generalized medicine than most products and introduces something already present in the body.

“Everyone has cannabinoid receptors all throughout their bodies. We’re just returning the endocannabinoid system to baseline, which indirectly helps or repairs health issues,” said Greene.

“It doesn’t treat one condition, it modulates the neuroendocrine system.”

This leads to what Greene deems the biggest problem with cannabis: everyone is different.

“You can take two people with the same symptoms, same weight, same gender but they respond completely differently to the product,” he said.

“Everyone has to try different products initially until they find the perfect one for them.”

Therefore, the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) to CBD (cannabidiol) ratio is very important when doctors recommend products.

“Some people might have enough THC naturally floating around but need more CBD, while others need the opposite.

The normal ratio is one milligram to one milligram, however high CBD-low THC and low CBD-high THC strains are also available.

High CBD medicines, for instance, are well-suited for treating problems like anxiety, seizures and PTSD, while high THC variants are best for treating insomnia, nausea and appetite loss.

Though Greene notes patients should have some mixture of both as they combine to catalyze each other’s beneficial effects.

He also recommends every patient take an oral version of the medicine as it lasts longer and more easily reaches the baseline of the problem — ultimately providing better treatment.

However, an inhalable method can be used in conjunction with the oral medicine to provide immediate relief or suppress breakthrough symptoms since inhalation has an instant effect while ingestibles can take one to two hours to kick in.

You do not need a referral to visit a medical marijuana clinic like Iona and Greene notes that many physicians and companies alike are coming around to the idea of cannabis as a treatment option.

“I would imagine most physicians would not stop seeing you if you use medical marijuana unless you are in a pain medication treatment program and signed a contract,” he said.

“Business-wise, our recommendation is anyone who is going to apply for medical cannabis should contact their human resources and ask about company policy on use of medical marijuana. Many HR departments have amended their policies overtime – Publix is one big name one.”

He also suggests — whether you are a physician, patient or just interested in the idea of medical marijuana — checking out the literature on the subject.

Since medical marijuana hasn’t been studied until recently, there is always more and more research being released on the topic aiming to provide a fuller, community-wide understanding on the treatment option.

For more information, visit iccportcharlotte.com or visit the Florida Department of Health Office of Medical Marijuana Use at knowthefactsmmj.com.

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