How do you build an industry around a product many folks consider to be illegal and stigmatized? That’s the question a newly-formed Connecticut Medical Cannabis Business Alliance attempted to tackle at an organizational meeting Tuesday.
Connecticut’s medicinal marijuana law went into effect Oct. 1. The law will eventually allow people with certain debilitating illnesses to get a recommendation from a doctor to receive marijuana from a pharmacist. While that system is being developed, patients with a doctor’s certification can apply for a temporary certificate from the Consumer Protection Department to avoid being fined for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
But so far, few of the eligible patients have applied for certification. At the business alliance’s meeting in the Legislative Office Building, Eileen Konieczny, a registered nurse and medical marijuana consultant, said that only 43 people had applied for certification as of last week.
“That’s sad to me,” Konieczny said before ticking off a list of afflictions that make a patient eligible under Connecticut’s new law. “That comes up to really over 100,000 [eligible] patients.”
Erik Williams, Connecticut director for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said part of the problem is that, despite being legal here in Connecticut, medical marijuana is still stigmatized and doctors generally don’t want to be involved in recommending it to patients.
He outlined some of the ways the new alliance could legitimize an industry, which has its roots in a black market drug culture, and make cannabis more acceptable to both doctors and patients. But the industry has challenges ahead of it for reasons as simple as what marijuana strains have come to be called.
“Death Star,” which is the name of a marijuana strain, may not help the drug sell in a medical setting. Williams said people might think “this may be the absolute best medicine for me but I’m just not comfortable buying it with this horrible name.”
Another key factor will be educating physicians about the benefits of cannabis, he said. Williams said advocates focused their efforts on educating lawmakers to get the law passed this year, but now they need to be talking with doctors.
So far, physicians have generally resisted talking with their patients about cannabis, he said. That may be because there is currently no legal way to acquire marijuana and doctors do not want to send their patients to the black market for medication. But Williams said the future of the industry hinges on the support of doctors.
“Frankly the industry does not exist without patients. The patients do not exist without doctor education,” he said.
Education campaigns take resources and the marijuana activist community in Connecticut is already spread thin, Williams said. It will be important for the alliance to reach out to support groups from communities that will benefit from medical marijuana, like multiple sclerosis groups, he said.
However, Connecticut State Medical Society President John A. Foley said many doctors will likely need to see more scientific studies proving medical marijuana is safe and effective before they start recommending it to patients.
“They are skeptical largely because the science behind it is debatable,” Foley said.
That’s part of the reason the medical society entered testimony opposing the medical marijuana bill as it made its way through the legislative process. Now that its state law, Foley said physicians will probably be making the decision whether to recommend cannabis on a case-by-case basis.
Given that the federal government still considers marijuana illegal and there are other, more tested therapies available, some will no doubt chose to stick with more conventional medications, he said.
“It’s easy for the legislature to pass a law, but now we have to grapple with it,” Foley said.
On the other hand, many patients swear by the substance’s ability to allow them to lead a normal life in the face of sometimes crippling illnesses. That was the case for Tracey Gamer-Fanning, a six-year brain tumor survivor and president of the Connecticut Brain Tumor Alliance. She said medical marijuana gave her her life back.
“This is going to be huge. This will change the way people deal with their illnesses. I hope that all of us that are going to be in this business community understand that this a fabulous business opportunity, but there is a heart and soul behind this,” Gamer-Fanning said.
Konieczny said she hoped nurses would play a role in bringing doctors and patients around to the benefits of marijuana and reducing the stigma around it. She became emotional as she talked about caring for a 9/11 responder who died quickly after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“The more people talk about it, the easier it is for people to accept the idea. And that’s really it. We have to get this conversation started,” she said.