Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, speaks in Milwaukee during a forum on medical marijuana along with panelists Dr. Cecilia  Hillard, director of the neuroscience research center for the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Dr. Angela Janis, a psychiatrist with the State of Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, speaks in Milwaukee during a forum on medical marijuana along with panelists Dr. Cecilia Hillard, director of the neuroscience research center for the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Dr. Angela Janis, a psychiatrist with the State of Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Panelists caution medical marijuana is not a cure-all, but also not a gateway

Two of Dr. Jim Stoll’s sons had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. They moved to Colorado and were prescribed medical marijuana to treat their symptoms. 

When one of his sons returned to Milwaukee, Stoll, a trauma and reconstructive spinal surgeon, was faced with an ethical dilemma. He could withhold the treatment that had brought his son symptom relief or he could risk losing his medical license by knowingly given him a medicine that is illegal in Wisconsin.

His sons and other “very migratory” patients of his are among Wisconsinites who leave the state to have access to the treatment, which is currently legal in 33 states.

“When they come back, having found things that work, they’re very nervous to utilize them in the state because of the whole legal issue,” Stoll said.

Stoll was one of about two-dozen attendees to a Monday morning panel on medical marijuana hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. The discussion, led by two doctors and state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, spanned potential impacts on state economics, safety and neurological health should the drug be legalized for medical use. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has said for several years that he is in support of legalizing some form of medical marijuana. He was scheduled to attend but dropped out Monday morning due to illness.

The conclusion among the panelists is that medical marijuana certainly has demonstrable benefits and will likely be legalized eventually. However, there is still a great deal of room for scientists to study and verify the benefits. And legalization is far more complicated than simply passing a bill.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’” said Sargent, an ardent supporter of full legalization of marijuana. “The genie’s out of the bottle, folks. This is going to happen. But we need to make sure that we are doing it in a way that brings the right people together — law enforcement, doctors, pharmacists, mental health providers, educators, brain science folks, businesspeople — so that we are addressing all of the facets of this very complicated industry.”

According to an April 2019 Marquette Law School Poll, 83 percent of Wisconsinites support medical marijuana legalization and 59 percent support recreational legalization. 

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study last year found that medical marijuana could provide a $1.1 billion economic boost to the state within five years. Various bills, some with bipartisan support, have failed to have a hearing in the Legislature. 

“The only place where it is a partisan, divisive conversation is in the state Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin,” Sargent said. 

She blamed Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, saying neither had invited her to meet in their offices to discuss marijuana. 

Stoll said Vos’ vocal support for medical marijuana does not go far enough because he has never brought bills for formal discussion. Vos, who replied to a text from UpNorthNews in the morning to confirm he was sick, did not respond to a request for comment on Sargent or Stoll’s statements.

Dr. Cecilia Hillard, director of the neuroscience research center for the Medical College of Wisconsin, was more measured. 

Although she has studied marijuana since 1977, she said she is not even sure she’d consider it a medicine because it only has three medical benefits that have been extensively studied and verified involving placebos and blind studies. 

Those three benefits are the treatment of certain chronic pain, nausea and spasticity for multiple sclerosis sufferers. 

She conceded that she is aware of countless other benefits identified in other studies, but said those studies were not of satisfactory quality. 

She was, however, able to dispel some age-old myths.

She said marijuana does not kill brain cells, it is not a gateway drug and it is not incredibly addictive, although 12 to 13 percent of regular users develop a dependency.

Many medical schools also do not offer courses on medical marijuana, despite widespread legalization and legalization efforts, said Dr. Angela Janis, a psychiatrist with the State of Wisconsin who supports medical marijuana. 

“That unknown piece and lack of control for prescribers is one of the things I think is the biggest fear in the medical community,” Janis said. 

Still, Janis said the pros outweigh the cons for patients.

“I think most of us have come across somebody in our own lives, and if you haven’t yet you probably will, who in some way or another would have benefitted from medical cannabis,” Janis said, going on to cite her own experience with her father, who died of complications with liver cancer two years ago.

She said she had her father move from Illinois to Wisconsin while he was undergoing treatments so he could be close to her.

“At the end of his life, I never felt guiltier taking him out of a state that had medical cannabis available to a state where we didn’t,” she said. “And I still feel guilty about that, because he would have benefited from that as I saw him get medication after medication with serious side effects and serious complications trying to control his nausea and pain.”

Hillard cautioned against blind support of medical marijuana as a cure-all, noting that it has been found to worsen some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“It starts from the scientific evidence just not being there,” Hillard said. “Nature abhors a vacuum and people fill it with their favorite theories. I guess if I had to distill it to anything, what I object to is calling it a medicine, honestly.”

Janis countered that it can help other symptoms, such as nightmares, that many PTSD sufferers struggle with.

In the state Legislature, a Sargent-authored bill to fully legalize marijuana has been sitting in a committee since May 2019. While she said she feels the odds of at least a hearing are better once Fitzgerald leaves office (he is running to represent the Republican stronghold 5th Congressional District this year), Sargent said she doubts lawmakers will hold any sort of discussion during the current legislative session.

“I don’t have a real positive sense that we’re going to have a public hearing on any of these pieces of legislation this time around,” Sargent said. “And I, quite frankly, think that’s a shame, especially with how much support there is from folks out in the community.”