While the State Board of Health is urging Mississippians to vote against medical marijuana in November, a group of physicians has responded by advocating for the ballot initiative.

More than 105,000 Mississippians signed a petition to put the measure on the ballot in November.

Initiative 65 seeks to amend the state Constitution to allow the prescription of medical cannabis.

However, members of the State Board of Health say there are pitfalls that aren’t being considered.

“As members of the State Board of Health, we write to share our concerns about the potential harmful consequences to the people and health of our state if this amendment is approved and urge a ‘no’ vote,” board members wrote in a recent letter. “Don’t be fooled, this proposal is not about medicine, and it’s not about parents with cancer or kids with epilepsy.”

Physicians on the board cited a lack of medical understanding about the effects of medical marijuana on health and wellness, the availability of safe and well-understood substitutes, a lack of specificity in the language of the proposed amendment and probable setbacks on the cessation of smoking in their assessment of the proposition.

Health officials also take issue with how a medical marijuana industry would be set up. The proposition says the Department of Health would oversee the levying and collection of taxes, the regulation of cultivation and commerce, and the eventual use of the resulting tax dollars — all without any oversight, as the board is made up of appointed members.

Meanwhile, a group of physicians has penned a response critical of the Board of Health’s opinion on the issue.

The statement, signed by seven doctors, including Southeast Mississippi Rural Health Initiative Chief Medical Officer Dr. James Griffin and Mississippi Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians President Dr. Philip Levin, accuses the board of misrepresenting facts about medical marijuana and their statement of being “filled with misinformation and outdated arguments.”

Those doctors argue medical marijuana helps 3 million Americans across 34 states in managing their symptoms of chronic pain and that existing substitutes, including Marinol, derived from synthetic marijuana compounds that have apparently made some patients feel sicker, are insufficient.

“The experiences in 34 other states show that it can be effective, and we believe the benefits of medical marijuana make it a viable treatment option for many in our state who are suffering,” the statement reads.

State Board of Health Chairman Dr. Luke Lampton of Magnolia said there isn’t yet sufficient scientific and medical evidence to support the implementation of a system for medical marijuana and that to do so would be counterintuitive to the mission of the board, which is to promote health and wellness.

It isn’t an appropriate ballot measure initiative either, he said.

“I know some of those doctors (who signed the statement)  and admire them,” Lampton said. “But I disagree with many of their assertions in the statement.”

He said he suspects the majority of physicians throughout the state would agree with the opinion of the State Board of Health and that many of the points made in the response letter lack scientific backing.

Lampton said new treatments need to be supported by scientific evidence and that there simply isn’t enough of it yet on marijuana. He said that’s due in part to the substance having been long illegal, but that more research into it’s biochemical effects — not personal anecdotes from medical marijuana patients — are needed in order to make an informed decision on the matter.

Lampton said what doctors do know — that smoking anything can leads to issues including emphysema, lung disease, cancer or heart disease — is enough to prompt the board to withhold support for the initiative.

“There is a significant potential for public health injury,” he said. “We’ve been battling the opioid epidemic — this could create complexity to those attempts and open the door to other addictions.”

He said it’s his personal opinion that marijuana use should be decriminalized, but to promote the initiative without sufficient research having been conducted is not a good idea.

“There needs to be a lot more study and evidence presented before we pass a ballot initiative like this,” Lampton said.

The method by which medical marijuana would be implemented is also cause for concern, he said. The creation of an new industry will take significant coordination and cannot reasonably be handled by the State Board of Health alone.

“This issue requires extraordinary bureaucracy and should be handled by the Legislature,” Lampton said.

 Since board members are appointed, there is no guarantee of legislative oversight. Plus, seeking to open the floodgates through an amendment to the state constitution is unusual, he said.

The introduction of the ballot initiative may serve to prompt the Legislature to address the issue productively, but for now, much research needs to be done, he said.

“There is no significant body of evidence that really tells you much about it at all,” he said.

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