From Pills to Pot: The future of medical marijuana in Ohio

(WTOL) - The Ohio Legislature passed a law in 2016 making medical marijuana legal, under a number of restrictions.

Two years later, the program is supposed to be fully operational by September 2018.

With just a few months left to go, we wanted to know if the drug is dangerous or beneficial. It seems there are still a lot of unknowns.

"I believe if it wasn't for cannabis, I don't think I'd be here today," says "Jill," a medical marijuana user whose identity we will protect. She says chronic and severe migraines began to take of hold her life.

"You don't feel like you can do anything 15 to 20 days out of the month sometimes," Jill said.

She says the drugs she was put on initially to combat that pain just made it worse.

"With that came pills, and more pills, and pills to combat the side effects of the pills that were supposed to help me," said Jill. In fact, she says she was once taking 15 prescriptions and actually began abusing those drugs.

Finally, she was done. She was tired of missing out on her kids' lives.

"One day, enough was enough," Jill said. "It was either quit today or don't wake up tomorrow."

Jill said she did wake up, and she says it was because of cannabis.

After a family member provided her with information on how the drug could help her pain, Jill replaced all of her pills with cannabis. She has her medical marijuana card and gets her "prescription" from a dispensary in Michigan.

Jill says not only does it help with her migraines, it also helps with anxiety and depression, and makes a world of difference in her life.

"I'm in a great place. Our marriage is in a much better place. I have a much better relationship with my children. My quality of life is so much better," said Jill.

While Jill says cannabis works for her, we wanted to know, is it really a beneficial drug? Researchers at the University of Michigan say the short answer is yes.

"We found that people reported a decrease in their opioid consumption of 64-percent," said Kevin Boehnke, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan.

In addition, he also found people had an improved quality of life and a decrease in the number of medications they used, along with a decrease in side effects. For those findings, he surveyed 185 people using cannabis from a local Ann Arbor dispensary.

Overall, he found cannabis could be a good alternative to opioids for treating chronic pain.

"It's not to say cannabis is benign, but when you compare the lack of lethal overdose deaths in all the epidemiological literature associated with cannabis, versus tens of thousands that happened last year with opioids, it seems to be a pretty clear comparison," Boehnke said.

Boehnke says some of the negatives to consider with marijuana is that it's proven to be addictive, especially in young people. There are cognitive defects associated with long-term use and it increases the risk of crashes when used while driving.

Boehnke says there's still a lot to learn about the drug. He and an assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan Rebecca Haffajee say because marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, it's hard to do much research on it.

Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states, and recreational use is allowed in nine state and Washington D.C. Boehnke and Haffajee says there is no turning back now, so it's important to do research on the drug.

"We really need science to catch up to the policy," Boehnke said. "It's the lack of knowledge that will prevent us from adequately gauging what's going to happen, and thus preparing for it as we need to."

However, Haffajee says it's unlikely we'll see much of a change as long as Jeff Session is Attorney General.

"Congress is probably the more likely place for that to happen, because I think they're going to get pressure from their constituents that they have to do something," said Haffajee.

Haffajee recommends descheduling the drug or revising the Controlled Substances Act to take exception to marijuana when it's medicalized.

Meanwhile, Jill says she'll continue to treat her pain and anxiety with cannabis and she hopes lawmakers loosen the rules when it comes to a drug that's labeled "dangerous."

"My goal is to help break the stigma of cannabis," said Jill.

Head over to the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program website for more information on the rules for Ohio's medical marijuana program and approved conditions for a medical marijuana card.

WTOL's Tim Miller sat down with Amanda Fay to talk more about legalizing medical marijuana in Ohio and how residents will be affected. Watch the interview here.

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