A Nurse’s Perspective on Cannabis (Marijuana), Legalization, and Safety.


I am a Registered Nurse with 22 years of experience, and I have had an anti-prohibition stance in regards to marijuana (cannabis) for 30 years. I was fortunate that when I moved from California to Maine 6 years ago, I was introduced to Maine’s amazing medical cannabis program. I have also been able to study and learn more about the medicinal benefits of this sacred herb through my involvement with the American Cannabis Nurses Association (I now sit on ACNA’s board of directors) and by going to cannabis clinician conferences, such as Patients Out of Time.

th-1.jpg

Cannabis is on the ballot in 9 states this November, for either legalization for adult use or medicinal consideration. As nurses, we are often concerned with safety, so the following are my thoughts on safety issues and the end of prohibition of cannabis. If you are unfamiliar with how cannabis works in the body and why it such a safe herbal medicine, I suggest you first visit my blog posting on what nurses need to know about cannabis: https://nursemanifest.com/2015/07/14/the-endocannabinoid-system-what-nurses-need-to-know-an-introduction/.

Let’s consider the following issues:

Access: The idea of increased access for adults over age 21 is compelling on many levels. As many have stated before me, all cannabis use is medicinal due to the way the herb interacts with the body’s own endocannabinoid system. (http://thejointblog.com/all-marijuana-use-is-medicinal/;  https://halcyonorganics.com/all-cannabis-use-is-medical/). Patients who cannot access cannabis legally to support their healing because they did not have a documented qualifying condition may now have access to this safe effective herbal medicine. Sites like http://www.drugguardians.com are being created with impunity and are helping the population become informed by third parties, decentralizing the source of knowledge about drugs. As legal access increases, black market issues will likely dissipate which creates a safer environment for all citizens. Meanwhile, we know that in legalized states, teen cannabis use drops significantly, effectively decreasing access for younger folks, which is often a concern for those who are considering legalization or medicinal programs (http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/08/07/pot-use-among-colorado-teens-appears-to-drop-after-legalization).th-2.jpg

Quality: In Maine, our ballot calls for testing and proper labeling of cannabis products sold at both recreational stores and recreational cafes. This is a major step forward to ensuring safe use of quality cannabis products for both patients and recreational users. Many patients now are being encouraged to start low and go slow with their dosing of their medication, and proper labeling will help to ensure that people can use cannabis with comfort knowing the relative psychoactive effects increase as THC levels of the cannabis products increase. Additionally, products will be tested for pesticides and contaminants, further ensuring the medicine and products people are accessing is safe.

Smoking: I often hear that medical providers are very concerned with the idea that smoking cannabis may be harmful to the person. While there may be some minimal changes to lung structures, there is no strong correlation with COPD and lung cancer in cannabis smokers (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23802821; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21859273). However, there are many ways to ingest cannabis, and vaporizing cannabis is a way to inhale the medicine without having contact with some of the combustive byproducts that are related to any perceived risk of smoking cannabis. For more therapeutic effects, regular users of cannabis and those seeking its healing properties are generally encouraged to use edibles and tinctures, as they target whole body homeostasis more effectively.

OUI/ DUI: Driving under the influence of any psychoactive medication is obviously an issue. However, levels of THC in the body do not directly equate to impaired driving in the same way that alcohol does, secondary to the way THC is metabolized in the body and how it remains in the body due to it being a fat soluble substance (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3456923/). “Stoned drivers” do not pose the same risk to the public’s well-being as “drunken drivers” do; indeed “stoned” drivers tend to drive more slowly. Researchers from UCLA have called for more efforts to be made around lowering acceptable blood alcohol levels to truly curb issues around impaired driving (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/health/driving-under-the-influence-of-marijuana.html?_r=0), as being at .08 BAL leads to an eleven fold increase in the risk for being in a car accident, while driving under the influence of cannabis leads to a two-fold increase of being in an accident (texting while driving has a two fold increase and talking on the phone while driving has a 3 fold increase in risk for car accidents) (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-tracy/putting-marijuana-dui-in-_b_6023136.html). Driving or operating machinery while under the influence of cannabis is unacceptable and indicates a risk, however in Colorado since legalization of recreational use of cannabis was initiated, DUI fatalities have decreased (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/08/05/since-marijuana-legalization-highway-fatalities-in-colorado-are-at-near-historic-lows/?utm_term=.64fa02a0cc5e). It should be noted that Colorado made a concerted effort to promote safer driving conditions and decreasing driving while intoxicated once they ended cannabis prohibition. all states should be making efforts to combat intoxicated and unsafe driving practices.

Children: When cannabis was made recreationally available in Colorado, it appeared that more children were being accidentally exposed to cannabis (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/02/marijuana-pot-edibles-colorado/7154651/). I would posit however that once the plant became legal, more parents were willing to seek medical attention if their child had accidentally ingested cannabis infused edibles or other cannabis products. Additionally, the relative number of cannabis ingestion issues versus other toxic substances truly remains quite low in Colorado at 6.4% of all “poisoning” cases treated within the pediatric population (http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/27/health/colorado-marijuana-children/index.html). There has not been a single reported death from a child (or any person) ingesting cannabis (unlike other ingested toxins, such as laundry pods: http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/10/health/laundry-pod-poisonings/index.html). So while we will need to educate consumers about the risks of pediatric access and ingestion of cannabis, the risks remain relatively low. In most cases, children recover quickly from cannabis intoxication, with hospitalization for supportive care only, which generally lasts 1-2 days and generally leads to no lasting side effects (http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2013/05/27/kids-poisoned-by-medical-marijuana-study-finds
). Both the states and the individual companies who will be selling cannabis should be responsible for educating the public around ensuring pediatric safety should a state chose to legalize. Ideally some of the tax dollars generated from cannabis sales would be geared toward education of the public on safe cannabis consumption and storage.

Teen Use: Teen cannabis use has actually declined as more states legalize or become medicinal cannabis states (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/12/16/teen-marijuana-use-falls-as-more-states-legalize/). This in part may be due to tougher regulations making it harder for teens to access cannabis, and a decrease in black market availability of cannabis.

Pregnancy: Dr. Melanie Dreher, the Former Dean of Rush University school of nursing, is a nurse who researched the Ganga culture in Jamaica for over ten years, and determined that there were no adverse outcomes to the fetuses who were exposed to cannabis (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9WorIM0RhA; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDV5HhmP4UI). A recent study also reported that cannabis use is safe during pregnancy (though caution may still be advised)(http://www.scienceworldreport.com/articles/47194/20160910/marijuana-safe-during-pregnancy-experts-encourage.htm) and breast feeding while using cannabis also appears to have minimal risks (http://cannabisclinicians.org/breastfeeding-and-cannabis/).

Harm Reduction: Cannabis has been studied as a harm reduction tool, particularly when it comes to addiction and treating folks for pain related issues. Physicians have called for neuropathic pain to be treated with cannabis instead of opioids (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3295721/). We also know that cannabis can decrease the need for escalating doses of opioids, and assist people who are opioid dependent in either decreasing thier doses of opiates or completely overcoming their addiction (http://nationalaccesscannabis.com/press-release/opiate-study-press-release/).
For an overview of the body’s endocannabinoid system and the issue of biological harm reduction, please see here: http://harmreductionjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1477-7517-2-17

th-3.jpg

Overdoses with opioids have fallen in states where medicinal and legal cannabis are available (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/04/26/is-marijuana-a-gateway-drug/overdoses-fell-with-medical-marijuana-legalization; and https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2016/05/study-links-medical-marijuana-dispensaries-to-reduced-mortality-opioid-overdose). With high rates of opioid addiction plaguing our country, it makes sense to legalize cannabis now to help address this issue.

Self-Medicating: People self-medicate with substances on a daily basis; from alcohol to caffeine to tobacco. People self-medicate with herbs as well from turmeric to Echinacea, to vitamins and natural thyroid supplements. With legalization and regulation, people have a better chance of using safe, monitored, quality herbal cannabis medicine. For most of our recorded human history, cannabis was used as a healing herb. This came to a halt when cannabis prohibition became a global stance. Additionally, legalization opens the door for more open discussions between healthcare providers and patients. Healthcare providers such as nurses and doctors must become educated around the body’s endocannabinoid system and the therapeutic use of cannabis to create homeostasis and support healing.

Pathways for New Healing Products: Currently, many new cannabis products that are available in legal states are not available to medicinal patients in states where only medicinal cannabis is legal. For instance, various teas, salves, edibles and patches that are available in Colorado, Washington, or Oregon are not yet always available for medicinal patients in other states. Once states have a legalized cannabis regulation processes in place, it may be that people can access items such as a topical sub-dermal patches to deliver cannabis medicine or specific cannabinoids. A person may be able to use a CBD (a non-psychoactive cannabinoid) only patch during the day to help with issues like, pain, anxiety, nausea, and depression, and a CBN patch (another non-psychoactive cannabinoid) at night to help with sleep. In this example, the person would have minimal if any exposure to the psychoactive effects of THC in cannabis, and yet they may experience a greater quality of life. From a justice perspective, people deserve to make choice around the medicines they would like to utilize for their own healing, particularly when the medicines are safe.

Social Justice Issues and Policing: Recently, the chiefs of police in Maine came out against the yes on 1 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Maine. It is interesting to me that this organization stated they are “unprepared to address legalization issues,” when certainly looking at the legalization issues in Colorado and Washington should provide plenty of data and solutions to common issues. I would posit that there would be fewer marijuana trafficking issues and convictions, and the police could turn greater attention to bigger and more harmful issues in Maine, such as the opioid crisis and OUI related to alcohol ingestion. Additionally, cannabis legalization is a step toward social justice given the illogical, irrational, and unsuccessful war on drugs (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Marijuana-legalization-a-step-toward-social-5848468.php, http://theweek.com/articles/542678/why-pot-legalization-also-fight-social-justice). Legalizing cannabis should free up our law enforcement agencies to fight crimes that cause greater damage, even as it lowers the need for them to be addressing black market cannabis issues.

I would like to close with my final thought:

All cannabis is medicinal. Our bodies have our own endocannabinoid systems; we make our own endogenous cannabinoids. However when we become deficient in these cannabinoids, we may become ill and need to seek exogenous sources of cannabinoids, or support our own bodies in creating more endocannabinoids. Cannabis is a safe effective medicine with a low rate of addiction and minimal if any withdrawal symptoms, similar to caffeine. Ingestion of cannabis itself has never lead to a death (unlike many prescription and OTC drugs, alcohol, and nicotine products), and it is time we begin to move beyond the government’s ineffective “prohibition of marijuana” stance and take steps toward effective access for all adults.

In the states where cannabis is a ballot initiative, I urge us as nurses and other healthcare providers to explore the data around cannabis as a medicine and consider our roles as  advocates for patient access to the healing support this medicine can provide.

 

th-5.jpg

The Endocannabinoid System: What Nurses Need to Know, An Introduction


Medical cannabis is now legal in 23 states and Washington DC, along with recreational cannabis also being legal in several states. Many patients and families are now relocating to Colorado and Washington State as “marijuana refugees” (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/marijuana-refugees-looking-new-homes-pot-legal-states-n22781), knowing they can freely and safely access cannabis as medicine in these recreational cannabis states. Nurses may still wonder, how is cannabis “medicine”?

images-1

As nurses we have a lot to learn about cannabis, including how it works in the mind-body-spirit system, and how we can best advocate for and support patients who could or do benefit from this medicine. Last spring, I witnessed a brief presentation being given to nurses around medical cannabis use, and it was obvious from the questions asked by many of the nurses that the social stigma around “marijuana” was alive and well. Would these nurses be so reluctant to accept and support medical cannabis use if they truly understood the endocannabinoid system (ECS)?

The ECS was discovered some time ago, with  Dr. Ralph Mechoulam (Faukner, 2015) being a pioneer in this area in the mid-1990’s. There are 20,000+ scientific articles written about the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Though it has been many years since the discovery of this body regulatory system, most nurses likely know very little, if anything, about the ECS. Truly, this is a problem, nurses are more likely to know the xarelto lawsuit phone number by heart over the benefits of ECS.

A functioning ECS is essential to our health and well being. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body; in the brain, organs (pancreas and liver), connective tissue, bones, adipose tissues, nervous system, and immune system. We share this system in common with all other vertebrate animals, and some invertebrate animals (Sulak, 2015). Cannabinoids support homeostasis within the body’s system; the ECS is a central regulatory system, cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body, and they are believed to be the largest receptor system in our bodies. Cell membrane cannabinoid receptors send information backwards, from the post-synaptic to the pre- synaptic nerve. CB1 (found primarily in the brain) and CB2 (mostly in the immune system and in the bones) are the main ECS receptors (Former, 2015), though several more are currently being studied. The exogenous phytocannabinoid THC, or the psychoactive compound in cannabis, works primarily on CB1 receptors (hence the “high feeling” in the brain), while the cannabinoid CBD works primarily with the immune system and creating homeostasis around the inflammatory response through CB2 receptors and does not have psychoactive effects. Other cannabinoids and their actions are still being studied, such as the non-psychoactive cannabinoids CBN and CBG, also found in cannabis.  Our bodies react to both our own production of endogenous cannabinoids and to the ingestion of phyto-cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, and other non-pyschoactive plants such as Echinacea. To read more about the science behind the ECS and endocannabinoid receptors, the following are excellent resources:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2241751/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16596770

Endogenous Cannabinoids: Endocannabinoids are the chemicals our own bodies make to naturally stimulate the cannabinoid receptors;  anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) are two well known endocannabinoids (Sulak, 2015) that are produced by the body as needed, though not stored int he body. The body produces these endocannabinoids in a similar fashion to how it produces endorphins (Pfrommer, 2015), and activities such as exercise support the endogenous production of cannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are also found in breast milk and in our skin. Alcohol interferes with endogenous cannabinoid production.

Phytocannabinoids: In general, we think of the cannabis plant as the generator of exogenous cannabinoids that we can ingest in a variety of ways, namely psychoactive THC (works with the CB1 receptors in the brain- and also in the gut) and non-psychoactive CBD (works with the CB2 receptors in the immune system and the gut). Other plants such as Echinacea also produce non-psychoactive cannabinoids and work with the ECS to support health and well being through homeostasis (Sulak, 2015).

Cannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome: It should be clear that everybody makes cannabinoids and everybody needs cannabinoids to function. People who do not make enough cannabinoids need to supplement with exogenous cannabinoids through cannabis ingestion, in much the same way that an diabetic needs insulin supplementation making it a “Natural Energy Powder,” in which it is good for your health. Dr. Ethan Russel’s (2004) publication on Clinical Endocannbinoid Deficiency explains this particularly well: http://www.nel.edu/pdf_/25_12/NEL251204R02_Russo_.pdf

images-2

Homeostasis:

Cancer: “Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life, from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond. Here’s one example: autophagy, a process in which a cell sequesters part of its contents to be self-digested and recycled, is mediated by the cannabinoid system. While this process keeps normal cells alive, allowing them to maintain a balance between the synthesis, degradation, and subsequent recycling of cellular products, it has a deadly effect on malignant tumor cells, causing them to consume themselves in a programmed cellular suicide. The death of cancer cells, of course, promotes homeostasis and survival at the level of the entire organism” (Sulak, 2015, paragraph #7). Cannabinoids support apoptosis and suppress cancer tumor angiogenesis (McPartland, 2008).

Heart disease: Additionally, it has been stated that the ECS plays an important function in protecting the heart from myocardial infarction and cannabinoids can have anti-hypertensive effects (Lamontagne et al, 2006).

Inflammation: When inflammation occurs, the ECS helps to stop the process, similar to applying the brakes on a car. This is why cannabis is proving to be good medicine for inflammatory related illness. “Activation of CB2 suppresses proinflammatory cytokines such as IL-1β and TNF-α while increasing anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-4 and IL-10. Although THC has well-known anti-inflammatory properties, cannabidiol also provides clinical improvement in arthritis via a cannabinoid receptor–independent mechanism” (McPartland, 2008).

PTSD: “This review shows that recent studies provided supporting evidence that PTSD patients may be able to cope with their symptoms by using cannabis products. Cannabis may dampen the strength or emotional impact of traumatic memories through synergistic mechanisms that might make it easier for people with PTSD to rest or sleep and to feel less anxious and less involved with flashback memories. The presence of endocannabinoid signalling systems within stress-sensitive nuclei of the hypothalamus, as well as upstream limbic structures (amygdala), point to the significance of this system for the regulation of neuroendocrine and behavioural responses to stress. Evidence is increasingly accumulating that cannabinoids might play a role in fear extinction and antidepressive effects. It is concluded that further studies are warranted in order to evaluate the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in PTSD.” (Passie et al, 2012).

Seizures: Most hopeful, cannabis has been used to support pediatric treatment-resistant epilepsy, and while more research needs to be done in this area, many parents are becoming medical marijuana refugees by moving to states where they can procure cannabis for their children who suffer from seizures.

Co-agonists:Cannabis increases the pain relieving effects of morphine, as discovered by researchers at UCSF. The two medications are synergistic, and this provides great hope for patients suffering intractable pain at end of life, chronic pain suffers, and opiate addicts. (http://www.maps.org/research-archive/mmj/Abrams_2011_Cannabinoid_Opioid.pdf)

For Nurses: So as nurses, what do we need to know to support patients who use cannabis?

Legal issues: If you live or work in a state that has legalized medical or recreational use of cannabis, familiarize yourself with the laws in that state, as well as your own workplace policies around supporting patient’s use of medical cannabis. Patients may have questions and as a patient advocate, your responsibility is to support patients with their knowledge and use of this medicine within the confines of your practice setting and state laws. You should also be aware of constraints around your role as a nurse in supporting patient use of medical cannabis. For instance, Kaiser patients in some states are likely to be removed from chronic pain patient programs if they test positive for cannabis. Nurses with knowledge around the benefits of medical cannabis can also advocate to support shifts in such policies will no longer align with the emerging ECS science.

Safety: This goes along with the legal aspects; medical cannabis patients should be supported in how to manage and store their medications with safety. While cannabis is known to be extremely safe (far safer than opiates and alcohol), cannabis consumers still need to store medication out of reach of children and pets. They should be supported in knowing the safety of driving or operating machinery if they consumer THC- based cannabis medicines. They also may need information on cannabis testing for both THC: CBD ratios, pesticides and/or other hazardous materials. Many patients need assistance with the basics around medical cannabis use, such as dosage, ratios of THC: CBD, strain information, and ingestion methods.

Overcoming Stigma: Unfortunately, a stigma was created around around cannabis during the process of prohibition in the 1930’s, which was largely financially and racially driven. Contradictory state and federal laws, and the stigma around smoking cannabis (though many cannabis patients can now get relief from vaporizing using the best vape pen for oil, drinkable tinctures, topicals, wearable patches, and edibles), along with a clear ignorance around the body’s ECS, serve to further the stigma associated with medical cannabis. Educate yourself on the roots of the prohibition of the medicine:

http://origins.osu.edu/article/illegalization-marijuana-brief-history

And other issues around stigma and cannabis myths:

http://alibi.com/feature/48426/Erasing-Stigma.html

http://sandiegofreepress.org/2014/05/12-of-the-biggest-myths-about-marijuana-debunked/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-hall/weed-the-people-movie-loo_b_5501864.html

American Cannabis Nurses Association: There are many nurses actively involved in supporting the use of medical cannabis and the defining the nurse’s role in this process. The ACNA has a mission to advance excellence in cannabis nursing practice through advocacy, collaboration, education, research, and policy development. http://americancannabisnursesassociation.org/

In Israel, nurses actively support patients in cannabis consumption from the process to the dosage.

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/137423/medical-marijuana-kibbutz

Nurses’ supporting patients healing process through cannabis medications may someday be common place in the USA as well.

References:

Lamontagne, D., Lepicier, P., Lagneux, C. & Bochard, J.F. (2006). The endogenous cardiac endocannabinoid system: A new protective mechanism against myocardial ischemia. Arch Mal Coeur Vaiss.,99(3), 242-6.

McPartland, J.M. (2008). The endocannabinoid system: An osteopathic perspective. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 108, 586-600. Retrieved from http://jaoa.org/article.aspx?articleid=2093607

Passie, T, Emrich, H.M., Karst, M., Brandt, S.D., & Halpern, J.H. (2012).Mitigation of post traumatic stress symptoms by cannabis resin: A review of the clinical and neurobiological evidence. Drug Test Anal. 2012 Jul-Aug;4(7-8):649-59. doi: 10.1002/dta.1377. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22736575.

Pfrommer, R. (2015). A beginner’s guide to the endocannabinoid system: The reason our bodies so easily process cannabis. Retrieved from http://reset.me/story/beginners-guide-to-the-endocannabinoid-system/.

Russel, E. (2004). Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CED): Can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other treatment resistant conditions? Neuroendocrinology Letters(25), 1-2, 31-40.

Sulak, D. (2015). Introduction to the endocannabinoid system. Retrieved from http://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system.