Palmetto Pot War: A look at the science behind medical marijuana and obstacles researchers face

Palmetto Pot War

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — As South Carolina lawmakers debate whether to legalize medical marijuana, it’s been studied at the University of South Carolina for 15 years, just a few miles from the state capitol.

Michael Harvey is an Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield veteran and he’s also been a nurse for more than 30 years. Harvey is now a cannabis nurse educating physicians, nurses, and the public about the pros and cons of medical marijuana.

“Having seen patients that have had multiple medical conditions, pain, depression, PTSD, just to name a few, seen that cannabis, if used correctly can help to alleviate some of those signs and symptoms,” said Michael Harvey.

Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, the Vice President of research at the University of South Carolina, has been researching medical cannabis for more than 20 years.

“Our research has shown the cannabinoids that are found in the marijuana plant are highly effective in preventing inflammation as well as certain types of cancers,” said Dr. Nagarkatti.

Dr. Nagarkatti said inflammation is the underlying cause of clinical disorders and leads to autoimmune diseases.

“Your immune system goes haywire and starts destroying your organs and tissue. There is no cure for autoimmune diseases and we have found that both THC and CBD, or in combination, are effective in preventing these autoimmune disorders,” said Dr. Nagarkatti.

Both CBD and THC are found in the cannabis plant. The difference is THC has the psychoactive component that can make a person feel high. Both are cannabinoids and Dr. Nagarkatti said our bodies naturally produce something similar called endocannabinoids.

“When we don’t produce enough endocannabinoids, then we naturally, we get relief from taking the marijuana cannabinoids. It’s almost like, when you have certain vitamin deficiencies, your body doesn’t function very well and when you try to supplement, by taking some additional vitamins, then you, you become perfectly fine. It’s somewhat of a similar situation with the marijuana,” said Dr. Nagarkatti.

Some doctors disagree, like Dr. Jonathan Halford, a neurology professor at MUSC.

“I’m not aware of any substantial scientific evidence for medical marijuana being beneficial for epilepsy,” said Dr. Halford.

Dr. Halford does said CBD is effective when it comes to epilepsy but not THC.

“I am not in favor of it. I think that just approving something when there’s not good scientific evidence is not the way to go,” said Dr. Halford.

Dr. Halford is a member of the South Carolina Medical Association who opposes medical marijuana legislation, but is calling for more research and wants FDA approval.

“Because THC is considered a schedule one drug it’s extremely challenging to do clinical trials,” said Dr. Nagarkatti.

Clinical trials are an integral part of FDA approval, but the FDA has already approved drugs for cancer and HIV patients that contain a synthetic form of THC.

The other issue is funding. Researchers said you can get funding from groups like the National Institute of Drug Abuse to show negative effects of marijuana and other drugs.

“I think there needs to be more federal funding for research in this area,” said Dr. Halford.

If medical marijuana legislation passes, one condition on the list is PTSD, which impacts a large number of veterans. While marijuana remains a schedule one drug there’s little Veteran Affairs can do.

“Unfortunately, the VA healthcare providers are not able to assist in veterans receiving any type of state supported medical cannabis. All they can do is document. They can’t even teach the pros or cons of medical cannabis, which is probably one of the biggest, potential injuries to our veterans is not getting the proper education from their healthcare provider,” said Harvey.

“It’s not fair for society and for normal individuals to say that no, these patients who are suffering from all these critical diseases should not have access to a natural product,” said Dr. Nagarkatti.

Dr. Nagarkatti also says he discovered that THC could help treat severe COVID-19 patients.

He said THC can prevent a cytokine storm which causes a persons immune system to destroy the lungs and other organs which can lead to death. Doctors are trying to get clinical trials to see if it can help their patients.

To read Dr. Nagarkatti’s research click here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7436585/

For all of our Palmetto Pot War series stories, click here.

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