Medical Marijuana's 'Catch-22': Limits On Research Hinders Patient Relief

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Ann Marie Owen walks with her husband, Bruce, near their home in Port Ewen, N.Y. Owen says the opioids prescribed by doctors made her feel sick and failed to ease her pain. Medical marijuana, she says, saved her life. Allyse Pulliam for Kaiser Health News hide caption

toggle caption Allyse Pulliam for Kaiser Health News

By the time Ann Marie Owen, 61, turned to marijuana to treat her pain, she was struggling to walk and talk. She was also hallucinating.

For four years, her doctor prescribed a wide range of opioids for transverse myelitis, a debilitating disease that caused pain, muscle weakness and paralysis.

The drugs not only failed to ease her symptoms, they hooked her.

When her home state of New York legalized marijuana for the treatment of select medical ailments, Owens decided it was time to swap pills for pot. But her doctors refused to help.

“Even though medical marijuana is legal, none of my doctors were willing to talk to me about it,” she says. “They just kept telling me to take opioids.”

Although 29 states have legalized marijuana to treat pain and other ailments, the growing number of Americans like Owen who use marijuana and the doctors who treat them are caught in the middle of a conflict in federal and state laws — a predicament that is only worsened by thin scientific data.

Because the federal government considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, research on marijuana or its active ingredients is highly restricted and even discouraged in some cases.

Underscoring the federal government’s position, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recently pronounced that there was “no such thing as medical marijuana.”

Scientists say that stance prevents them from conducting the high-quality research required for

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