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Could Medical Cannabis Legalization Lead To More Marijuana Addiction? One U Researcher Says Yes

Photo of prop 2 sign.
Nicole Nixon / KUER
A sign in support of proposition 2 in Salt Lake City.

Much of the opposition to Proposition 2, the medical cannabis ballot initiative before Utah voters, has focused on what critics warn are the “unintended consequences” of broader legalization.

But few have seen what those effects might be as up close as Dr. Adam Gordon.

Photo of Dr. Adam Gordon.
Credit Courtesy Dr. Adam Gordon
Dr. Adam Gordon, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Utah.

Gordon, a University of Utah professor of medicine and psychiatry, treats patients with cannabis addiction disorder at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City.

“Most patients see it as not harmful,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “It's something that helps them. It makes them feel distracted from the stress of day-to-day life and certainly that is what marijuana does. Marijuana does cause a distancing from reality — and many people associate that with being good.”

The problem, Gordon said, is that if a person begins using marijuana in a habitual manner over a long period of time, addiction can become a reality.

“[T]he research shows that about 10 percent of people who use marijuana over time will have an addiction to marijuana, and that can have a lot of consequences,” he said.

That could include issues with employment, family life and withdrawal symptoms.

Though much attention has been paid to the social and moral objections to the legalization of marijuana, there’s been less focus on what Gordon said are the consequences for health care providers.

“States that have recreationalized use of marijuana, or even medical marijuana, we’re seeing an influx of patients going to addiction treatment programs for marijuana addiction disorder, and that’s a concern,” he said.

Gordon is not a member of the Utah Medical Association, which opposes Prop 2, and would only speak for himself and the research he’s published on marijuana use.

Complicating matters is that most academic research on the applications of medical marijuana has been severely restricted due to the drug’s Schedule 1 classification, which makes it illegal on the federal level.

So much of their research that we have is observational,” said Gordon. “There are practically no prospective, randomized clinical controlled trials, in a very scientific way, that is comparing marijuana to something else or a placebo.”

Although supporters and some nascent research suggest the drug could be a safer alternative to opioids, Gordon worries that marijuana could be abused in the same way.

“Will it be in the next epidemic?” he said.

That question remains to be answered, but public opinion in support of the proposition remains strong. The most recent Deseret News poll shows 64 percent of Utah voters are in favor of the ballot initiative.

Between public support and draft legislation in the works, Utahns will likely see some expansion of medical cannabis in the very near future.

Medical marijuana ballot initiative.
Credit KUER News
For One Utah Patient, Proposition 2 Would End A Years-Long Fight For Legalized CannabisUtahns will begin voting on three citizen-led initiatives when ballots start hitting mailboxes soon. This week, we're bringing you stories of voices behind the initiatives-people who could be directly affected if they pass. ​The following story focuses on one person in support of Proposition 2, which would broaden access to medical marijuana in Utah.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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