Physicians Push Back on Medical Marijuana Opposition in Mississippi

The Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign collected more than 105,000 signatures from Mississippi residents who support legalized weed for medicinal purposes. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign collected more than 105,000 signatures from Mississippi residents who support legalized weed for medicinal purposes. Photo by Ashton Pittman

A number of state Mississippi physicians are pushing back after the State Board of Health decried a push to legalize medical marijuana. On Jan. 8, the governor-appointed board passed a resolution opposing Ballot Initiative 65, which voters will decide on in November, following up the next day with a press release raising "concerns" that, among other things, the amendment is too "broad" and would legalize the smoking and vaping of marijuana.

On Jan. 15, seven medical professionals, in conjunction with the Medical Marijuana 2020 campaign, wrote to the board, accusing it of spreading "misinformation" and using "outdated arguments."

"The people of Mississippi deserve better," they wrote. "Physicians in 34 states are helping more than 3 million Americans with debilitating medical conditions by certifying the use of medical marijuana. The experience in those states has been very positive, there is nothing in the board's resolution that refutes the benefits obtained by patients in those states."

'This is a Medicine'

The signees include James Griffin, the chief medical officer at the Southeast Mississippi Rural Health Initiative; Claude Harbarger, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Mississippi; Sharon T. LaRose, a psychiatrist; Jule P. Miller, a child and adolescent psychiatrist; Michael L. Sanders, a primary care physician; Matthew B. Wesson, an ophthalmologist; and Philip Levin, the president of the Mississippi chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Levin, an emergency-medicine physician at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, told the Jackson Free Press in July 2018 that his patients who would "definitely" benefit from medical marijuana treatment.

"There are many instances where medical marijuana is shown to be very effective for illnesses that we otherwise do not have adequate treatment for," Levin said. "There are people I see in my role as an emergency-room physician who have intractable nausea and a lot of weight loss from cancer treatments and opiate dependency, and I personally would feel that I could prescribe medical marijuana to help them."

Medical marijuana would also offer numerous benefits for people struggling with PTSD, chronic pain and other mental health-related illnesses, Phyllis Hollenbeck, a primary care provider at the Jackson VA Medical Center and the author of "Sacred Trust: The Ten Rules of Life, Death, and Medicine," told the Jackson Free Press in 2018.

"I think if we have a united voice saying, 'This is a medicine, this can be used as a medicine that is effective, it's not addictive, it's going very well controlled,' then that's the way to get the average person in Mississippi to understand it," Hollenbeck said . "And I think that a lot of people have relatives who could benefit."

Ashley Durval, a Mississippi resident, filed the ballot initiative on July 30, 2018. Afterward, petitioners collected more than 105,000 valid signatures from Mississippi residents—more than enough to get it on the 2020 ballot. Durval told the Jackson Free Press in 2018 that she hopes that her daughter, Harper Grace, will someday be able to access cannabis oil to treat her Dravet syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy.

'They Deserve Better'

The Mississippi State Board of Health claims in its letter, though, that the ballot initiative has more insidious motives.

"Don't be fooled. This proposal is not about medicine, and it's not about parents with kids or epilepsy," the board said, also claiming that the initiative "would allow the use of marijuana for a very broad number of medical indications, including vague reasons as pain management." In their Jan. 15 letter, though, the seven physicians backing Initiative 65 disagreed.

"The medical marijuana initiative is absolutely about medicine and is for Mississippians who have seen a family member suffer from cancer, epilepsy, or one of the other conditions," they wrote.

In an accompanying press release, Jamie Grantham, the communications director for Medical Marijuana 2020, said the campaign was "disappointed with the board's opposition to something that could change so many lives."

"Sick people all across our state have waited for a long time for this option to be made available to them," said Grantham said. "The Board of Health is telling them to keep waiting, but with the medical research that's been published concerning medical marijuana as well as countless patient testimonials across the country in the 34 other states that have medical marijuana programs, there's no reason these patients in Mississippi should suffer any longer. They deserve better."

If Mississippi voters adopt the initiative in its current form, patients would first have to obtain a medical marijuana identification card from the Mississippi State Department of Health, but would not be able to smoke it in a public place or operate a vehicle while using it.

In January 2019, a Millsaps College and Chism Strategies survey found that a large majority of Mississippians, 67%, support legalizing medical marijuana.

Follow Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to ashton@jacksonfreepress.com.


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