20 Years On, Oregon Still Imposes Strict Limits On Medical Claims For Marijuana

Jun 13, 2017

Tap “Health Benefits of Cannabis” into your search engine and you’re likely to see dozens of uses, including treating autism, regulating diabetes and slowing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

People say it can help you lose weight, gain weight, manage depression and regulate seizures. Scott Matthews, who owns the dispensary 420Ville, says he uses it to protect against cancer.

“I got on preventative maintenance,” he said. “It’s not a smoke — it’s an oil. Put it under your tongue.”

To be clear, there’s no solid evidence marijuana can prevent cancer. There’s also no solid evidence that it can’t. That scientific uncertainty is at the heart of why the future of medical marijuana is unclear.

The plants’ medicinal properties were declared by popular vote in a 1998 ballot measure — not by any FDA science. Back then, some true believers hoped legalization would herald a new era in the scientific research of marijuana.

But that hasn’t happened.

“Where is the concern, where is the effort that goes towards true medical scientific work on cannabinoids?” said Dr. Christian Le, who runs Green Earth Medicine, a Portland clinic.

For casual smokers, it’s cheaper to buy small quantities in the recreational market than to pay $200 for a medical marijuana card. For patients, the health benefits still aren’t clear, so sellers are limited in what they can legally say.

At dispensaries in Washington state for example, “budtenders” are not allowed to address the medical properties of cannabis at all.

“So someone could come to you, with tears in their eyes, and they could say, ‘You know what, nothing’s helping me. What can I do?’ And you have to say, ‘You know, ‘I can’t speak to that,’” says Sarah Lemos, who has sold marijuana in both Washington and Oregon.

Lemos now works at “Herbal Grasslands” in Salem. She’s pleased that Oregon law allows her to deliver anecdotal information: She can’t tell customers marijuana will cure cancer, but she can tell them stories about the experiences of other customers.

“For me, I think the beauty of being a budtender and having heard the stories of people that come in gray from cancer, from chemo treatments, where their hair is falling out, they haven’t eaten. And I’m able to say: ‘My understanding is that you can try this. And this is an opportunity for you to eat tonight’” — that makes Lemos feel like she’s helping, she says.

“So for me, I’m very passionate about that because it gives opportunity. No, I can’t speak to fact. But at least now I can speak to the illness,” she says.

Vince Sliwoski, a professor of cannabis law and policy at Lewis & Clark College, says such anecdotal advice is about the best sales staff can ask for right now — “at least within the confines of the law.”

Sliwoski said perhaps Oregon’s way is not the worst way to sell marijuana.

“You know there’s the placebo concept. If somebody thinks it is helping them, it may be helping them,” he says. “There’s enough anecdotal testimony out there to support the fact that marijuana is fairly helpful to people with a variety of medical conditions, for one reason or another.”

It’s not just marijuana sales staff who are limited in what they can say. Manufacturers are limited, too.

Jamie Dickinson is labeling specialist at the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

“So if somebody wants to say, ‘It puts pep in your step,’ or something like that, those types of things wouldn’t be something that we would prohibit,” she says.

“But if you got into kind of a disease or specific health condition, that’s where we would really want to look at it. If you wanted to say it cures cancer, that would obviously not be allowed.”

If the federal government were to loosen its restrictions on marijuana and allow more research, Oregon’s dispensaries would likely have to operate more like regular pharmacies — with all the attendant FDA regulations.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting