Dr. Doris C. Gundersen lives, works and studies in what has become a social experiment of sorts. She flew from Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, and issued a warning for Georgia: Learn from us.
Dozens of medical professionals from across the state gathered at Mercer University on Friday to discuss the medical implications of marijuana.
State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, and Gundersen, a forensic psychiatrist in Denver, were among the featured speakers.
After Colorado’s legalization of medical marijuana in 2012, the state became what Gundersen called “the canary in the coal mine,” with legalization of recreational use last year.
Peake opposes recreational marijuana and said he has abstained from drugs his whole life.
In January, Peake championed the Haleigh’s Hope Act, a proposal that would have allowed Georgians with severe seizures to obtain treatment in the form of a non-hallucinogenic oil derived from the marijuana plant.
The bill failed for political reasons, but Peake plans to bring it up again in January.
Though she supports Peake’s bill, Gundersen warned that legalizing marijuana in any form is a slippery slope.
“Looking across the nation, this is very much a Trojan horse. In every state, marijuana has been legalized first for medicinal purposes, and then secondly for recreational purposes,” Gundersen said.
Peake said he doesn’t think it will come to that.
“What we’re looking to do in Georgia for medical cannabis,” he said, “is as far from Colorado as we can get.”
When asked about marijuana legalization before this past legislative session, Peake said this: “There is no way there will be any marijuana discussion in Georgia General Assembly in 2014. It will not happen.”
Then he met Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old who lived in Monroe County. Cox had up to 200 seizures per day. After the Haleigh’s Hope Act failed, she and her mother became medical refugees in Colorado along with 15 other Georgia families who hoped to reduce seizures using cannabis oil.
Now Haleigh has only three or four seizures on a bad day, Peake said.
“We can debate the science of it all day long, (and) we can debate having research done,” Peake said. “It works.”
While Peake said the oil he wants decriminalized doesn’t cause people to get “high,” Gundersen raised a caution flag. She said there has been a lot of debate in Colorado about what it means to be impaired.
“Unlike alcohol, with marijuana, we really haven’t established a cut-off,” Gundersen said. “Levels as low as 3 nanograms per milliliter can be associated with cognitive changes ... Levels needed for therapeutic benefit run around 10 nanograms per milliliter.”
Colorado adopted a 5 nanogram per milliliter cut-off for drivers, Gundersen said. She expects the roadside sobriety test will become more important than any kind of toxicology test.
Gundersen mentioned a 1985 study of pilots which showed that people may be impaired and not even realize it.
“If you or I were to leave a bar after a few drinks and know that we’re not safe to drive, at least we can say, ‘I’m going to take a cab,’ or, ‘I’m going to wait.’ But if you don’t know and you’re impaired and you get in your car ... it creates a serious hazard for the public.”
For Dr. Barry Lubin, national marketing and sales manager for Affinity eHealth.com, a company that handles toxicology needs, marijuana hurts more as a recreational drug than it helps as a medicine.
If Peake’s bill passes, Lubin said, the worst outcome for Georgia could be widespread abuse by doctors who prescribe marijuana and abuse by patients who aren’t actually ill.
As a grandfather himself, Lubin said he understands Peake’s compassion, but this is a matter of helping the few versus the many.
“I’m a recovering drug addict myself,” Lubin said. “If my drug of choice were dispensable, I would do whatever I could to get it dispensed when I was using. Now that I’m sober, it’s a different story.”
However, Peake said the ability to prescribe the drug would only be given to five or six doctors and that the security and regulation will be “tighter than prison.”
Peake asked those in the auditorium: “Should we not implement positive impacts of cannabis because of ... fear of addiction?”