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How Cannabis Provides Less Risk, More Relief

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A Utah Therapeutic Center billboard along I-80 in Salt Lake City.

If you’ve driven around the Salt Lake Valley recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a UtahMarijuana.org billboard or two. Our billboards aim to share an idea we’re passionate about: Cannabis is an effective medicine and a safer alternative to many other drugs.

Of course, when we designed the billboard, we had to shorten the message a bit: Less Risk, More Relief.

Let’s look at some of the ways cannabis is less risky than other drugs.

Less Overdose Risk

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that, for the first time, more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses in a 12-month period in the United States.

According to provisional data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, an estimated 100,306 people died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in April 2021.

The CDC’s data show many of the deaths involve synthetic opioids, including illicitly-manufactured fentanyl, which black market drug dealers sometimes mix with other drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine. According to a DEA fact sheet about fentanyl, a person can die from taking as little as two milligrams of the drug.

So how does cannabis compare? In the 1970s, researchers in Massachusetts tried to determine whether or not there is a lethal dose of THC for primates. They administered massive doses, measuring in thousands of milligrams, of THC to rhesus monkeys.

The monkeys showed signs of lethargy, drowsiness, sedation, and a few other negative side effects, but they all survived.

“In practical terms, marijuana cannot induce a lethal response as a result of drug-related toxicity,” administrative law judge Francis L. Young wrote in a 1988 ruling. “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”

According to Judge Young’s ruling, a cannabis smoker would have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about 15 minutes to induce a lethal response.

Numerous Utah Therapeutic Health Center patients and guests on the “Utah in the Weeds” podcast can attest that cannabis has helped them either reduce or completely eliminate their use of opioids. We find it very encouraging to see so many people choosing to improve their lives by saying no to opioids.

Less Risk Than Alcohol

The CDC reports excessive drinking is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States. Between 2011 and 2015, about 95,000 Americans died each year from causes attributable to alcohol.

“This means that an average of 261 Americans die from excessive drinking every day, shortening their lives by an average of 29 years,” a statement on the CDC’s website says.

Deaths attributable to alcohol include deaths by alcohol poisoning (too much alcohol consumed too quickly), fatal motor vehicle crashes in which alcohol was a factor, and deaths linked to cancer, liver disease, or heart disease brought on by long-term drinking.

Statistics on alcohol-related deaths are readily-available on the CDC’s “Alcohol and Public Health” web page. But they don’t seem to have similar statistics to share on their “Marijuana and Public Health” web page.

There is a brief mention of deaths related to the 2019 outbreak of e-cigarette and vaping-related lung injuries (EVALI). The EVALI outbreak resulted in hundreds of hospitalizations and dozens of deaths. Most EVALI cases are linked to the additive Vitamin E acetate, which research suggests could interfere with normal lung functioning.

If cannabis were responsible for any significant number of deaths, the government and the news media would undoubtedly publicize that information in the interest of public health. But the truth is: everyday cannabis use is non-lethal.

OK, So What Are The Risks of Cannabis?

So far, we’ve shown some of the ways cannabis is a safer alternative to drugs like opioids and alcohol. But there are some important potential risks to know about. Some of these include:

  • Development of cannabis dependence or cannabis use disorder (CUD)
  • Decrease in blood pressure
  • Decrease in brain development in teens and young adults
  • Excessive vomiting (Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome)
  • Fetal development issues
  • Increase in impairment
  • Increase in heart rate

Using too much THC can cause some uncomfortable side effects like anxiety, paranoia, and an elevated heart rate. This is what we think of as a “cannabis overdose.” Fortunately, these unpleasant effects are temporary and non-lethal.

See our Medical Cannabis Safety Guide for further details.

What About the Legal Risks of Cannabis?

There are some limitations to your rights as a card-carrying Medical Cannabis patient. Your Medical Cannabis card is not the equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from Monopoly.

While most states have enacted either Medical Cannabis or adult-use (recreational) cannabis programs, the drug remains illegal under federal law.

This means you may not legally bring your cannabis to federal buildings, national parks, military property, and other federal land.

According to NORML, the penalty for possessing cannabis (first offense) on federal property is incarceration for up to one year and a maximum fine of $1,000.

The penalties for selling or cultivating cannabis on federal property are much more severe. First-time offenders could face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for selling or cultivating cannabis in violation of federal law.

Furthermore, transporting cannabis across state lines could, in the worst of circumstances, lead to federal drug trafficking charges. According to the DEA, the penalties for a first drug trafficking offense include up to five years of incarceration and a fine of up to $250,000.

Earlier in Utah’s Medical Cannabis program, out-of-state purchases were OK, at least according to state law. But that changed on July 1, 2021.

“All Utah Medical Cannabis cardholders must purchase their products from a Utah Pharmacy. Out-of-state purchases and possession of Medical Cannabis are no longer permitted.” a bulletin on the state’s Medical Cannabis website says.

Less Risk for Medical Cannabis Cardholders

Utah has its own set of laws surrounding cannabis possession, sale, and cultivation. A first-time conviction for cannabis possession could result in incarceration for up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000.

If you purchase your cannabis from a dispensary or pharmacy in another state, bringing it back to Utah is no longer permitted for Medical Cannabis cardholders, as of July 1, 2021.

The good news is that your Utah Medical Cannabis card provides some degree of protection in a traffic stop, as long as you’re following the rules.

If you have such an encounter, the officer is supposed to verify your status as a Medical Cannabis cardholder by looking you up in the Utah Criminal Justice Information System.

Once the officer verifies you have an active card, the officer may not arrest you or confiscate your medicine for the sole reason that you are in possession of cannabis.

Imagine yourself in that scenario. You’ve been pulled over for speeding (or some similar infraction) and the officer suspects you have cannabis. Would you rather have an active Medical Cannabis card or not have one just then?

Less Risk When You Buy From a Local Pharmacy

Buying your cannabis from a legitimate, state-licensed pharmacy carries a number of benefits and is inherently less risky than buying from an illegal source.

Cannabis products sold at state pharmacies have gone through laboratory testing to confirm they’re safe to use. Black market cannabis, on the other hand, may not have been tested at all. It could contain unsafe levels of pesticides, mold, fertilizer, adulterants, or other contaminants.

When you buy cannabis from a state pharmacy, the budtender will apply labels to your products and give you a receipt.  These provide more proof that you’re in legal possession of your medicine.

How Does Cannabis Provide More Relief?

In Utah, there are 15 qualifying conditions for which a person can seek a recommendation for Medical Cannabis. In practice, we hear from patients with many other types of conditions that cannabis can treat.

Here are a few of the most common qualifying conditions, and some candid, unpaid endorsements for cannabis from real patients.

More Relief for Chronic Pain

“[A friend] gave me an oil pen to try out just to help with the pain and, tell you what, it took things down from a seven or an eight down to a three or a four as far as pain goes,” said Chris Voss, who suffers from pain associated with multiple sclerosis.

“It doesn’t take away your pain completely but it will make it manageable and it dulls the pain. As long as you’re getting the right dosage and you know what’s working for you, it keeps the pain under control to where I wasn’t in agony and tearful chaos all day,” said Vanessa Nielsen, who suffers from residual pain following a bilateral mastectomy operation.

“My migraines will start pounding in my eyes and, even with a hot compress on both sides and pills—I hate pills—it never really did it. But with certain strains of this cannabis, it’s amazing,” said Zac King, who also uses cannabis to treat his PTSD.

More Relief for PTSD

“I have a variety of not only different types of flower, but I have tinctures and edibles and vape pens and stuff like that, so that I can tailor exactly what I need for the symptoms that I’m dealing with. Because with the PTSD/bipolar combo, sometimes you just don’t know what the hell you’re going to find when you wake up. You can be happy and having a good day and you wake up the next day and it’s going to be three or four weeks of pure hell of being miserable and depressed, or even worse getting into a mixed episode where your anxiety is amped up. And the cannabis is essential in calming me down,” said Randyl Nielson, who qualifies for Medical Cannabis because of his PTSD.

“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD three different times over 25 years. The first one was when my husband was killed by a drunk driver. I had a lot of really weird situations. Anyways, neither here nor there, I think that I self-medicated all those years because I couldn’t take antidepressants and I didn’t want to be wiped on Valium or Xanax. I had a full-time job, I had a kid to raise, didn’t have time to mess around. I’ve always paid my own bills, always been super responsible. So, it’s hard to admit back then that I was that heavy of a pot user because people would judge me and be like, ‘Oh.’ But if you didn’t know me and you met me, you’d never guess now, would you?” said Vanessa Nielsen.

More Relief for Nausea

“I was actually really sick, nauseous a couple days ago. I took a couple of puffs from [a Maui Wowie vape cartridge] and I was feeling fine. And the high that I got from it, it wasn’t anything where I felt like I couldn’t function. […] Honestly, I didn’t even feel any different. It was just that the nausea went away and I could focus on what I was trying to get done that day,” said Kenyon Snow, who suffers from ulcerative colitis-related nausea.

Find Out For Yourself

More than 37,000 patients have now joined Utah’s Medical Cannabis program. New survey results from the Utah Department of Health show 98% of patients report experiencing some sort of benefit from using Medical Cannabis to treat their qualifying conditions. Ninety-eight percent might seem like an outrageously-high satisfaction rate for medical treatment, but it’s no surprise at all for many of the more experienced Medical Cannabis users.

If you or someone you love is suffering with a medical condition that cannabis can treat, make an appointment! A Qualified Medical Provider can listen to your needs and help you find new ways to Feel Better.

By David Wells
Content Producer & Analyst at UtahMarijuana.org
Published December 12, 2021
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