PA to Add Anxiety to List of Qualifying Conditions?
Come August, Pennsylvania could see an influx of medical cannabis prescriptions. If the Keystone State approves anxiety as a qualifying condition, many more Pennsylvanians could benefit from access to the plant. Anxiety is a malady that affects many PA residents.
This past February, the medical marijuana advisory board agreed upon adding anxiety to the list of qualifying medical conditions. However, the final decision requires the approval of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who has been conducting research on the condition to see if medical cannabis can be an effective solution. Shalawn James, a patient and spokeswoman, who serves on the advisory board, also refers to herself as a mental health advocate. Last year, the board approved a process that would permit individuals to suggest new conditions on aid basis. James said she expected to see a bigger push to make mental health conditions qualifiers. "There is so much stigma surrounding mental health," James said. "And we ostracize the people who acknowledge their struggles. Instead of putting these people in a box, let's give them the validation they deserve, and their illness deserves. You can't physically see the pain, but that doesn't mean it's not there."
There are currently 21 qualifying medical conditions for which people are eligible to acquire a medical cannabis card. PTSD is the only mental health condition on the list. In terms of treating anxiety, medical cannabis is gaining momentum in states such as New Jersey and West Virginia. Some ailments approved in Pennsylvania are also covered in other medical-cannabis states, such as cancer, Parkinson's disease and Crohn's disease. However, Pennsylvania's law is unique as it covers a condition like opioid use disorder, or addiction. PA was the first to add opioid addiction to the list of qualifying conditions for the medical cannabis program. Since then, New Jersey, Illinois and New York have followed suit.
The fact that Pennsylvania is starting to take mental illnesses into consideration is a big step forward, said PA Cannabis Law attorney Judith Cassel. "Anxiety can be debilitating," Cassel said. "And if you can put people on medical marijuana in lieu of the medications we hear about with so many side effects, it could have an impact parallel to what we saw with the opioid epidemic." The advisory committee plans to reconvene on Aug. 14. Levine said she will decide on anxiety prior to that.
"Medical marijuana is not a cure for anxiety. It's not going to make the anxiety go away. But it could dramatically improve the quality of life for someone," James said. "If it works for just one person, why not make it available?" Not everyone agrees that it’s a good idea though. Sharon Engdahl, executive director of the American Mental Wellness Association, argues that medical cannabis can contribute to anxiety. She worries Pennsylvania could rush the decision. There hasn't been enough research done yet, Engdahl said. "Doctors recommend medical marijuana, but don't monitor their patients after to see what side effects it has on them," Engdahl said. "In some scenarios, medical marijuana has put people in a manic." Some people argue that medical marijuana is a safer alternative than prescribing pills to people suffering from anxiety — "that's a completely bogus argument," she said. "A lot of studies have to be done to have those medications approved by the FDA," Engdahl said. "I'd rather have my loved one be prescribed a pill that we know the possible side effects of, rather than be given a medical marijuana card and never look at it again." Engdahl said she is not against the medical marijuana program, but the rate at which conditions are being approved for it, concerns her. "We made alcohol legal and look what happened," Engdahl said. "This is another nightmare waiting to happen, like the one we're seeing with opioids now. Soon anyone is going to be able to get one of those cards." What we do know about anxiety and medical cannabis is the number of patients: 1 in 5 adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. There is not enough research regarding the effectiveness of cannabis when treating anxiety. Engdahl stated that because of the federal government's scheduling system, cannabis is considered just as dangerous as heroin. The federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug which is in the same category as heroin and it’s considered to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
A 2012 study by California researchers said marijuana has the potential to be effective in treating anxiety, however, more research is needed. The only states to approve this condition are New Jersey and West Virginia.
In the event Levine doesn't sign off on anxiety, there are still over 20 conditions that can qualify a patient for the Pennsylvania medical marijuana program. Under current law, qualifying conditions include:
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
-Cancer, including remission therapy
- Crohn's disease
- Damage to the nervous tissue of the central nervous system (brain-spinal cord) with objective
- neurological indication of intractable spasticity
- Dyskinetic and spastic movement disorders
- HIV / AIDS
- Huntington's disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Intractable seizures
- Multiple sclerosis
- Neurodegenerative diseases
- Opioid use disorder
- Parkinson's disease
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain
- Sickle cell anemia
- Terminal illness