Yesterday, Colorado's board of health considered and then rejected the prospect of formally adding Tourette Syndrome as a condition that can be treated by medical marijuana in this state. It's a decision that incenses Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, who earlier petitioned the health department to allow medical marijuana use for people with post traumatic stress disorder. In his view, the Tourette's verdict proves "the system has failed."
Vicente adds that "it's very frustrating for patient advocates. I think this shows the board of health really does not recognize that marijuana is a legitimate medicine. It's protected in Colorado law, and it should be available for any patients who find relief from using it -- and certainly for individuals with incurable conditions like Tourette's Syndrome."
Tourette's was specifically mentioned by Dr. Ned Calonge, Colorado's chief medical officer, in an August interview following the announcement that he'd be leaving his post in early November to serve as president of The Colorado Trust.
Calonge insisted that he didn't want to impose FDA standards on conditions approved for treatment by medical marijuana. "If we did that, we'd never approve another condition -- and, to be honest, none of the ones in the constitution would be approved, either, because none of them have that robust evidence to prove that they're beneficial," he said. "So we tried to look at another standard -- at least one randomized trial on humans that shows it works. That's a really low standard, but one we think should at least elevate a condition to consideration either in front of the advisory board or the board of health."
Tourette Syndrome would be the first condition to be evaluated in this way, Calonge went on, "because there was a randomized trial of 24 individuals in Germany, and it showed some modest efficacy in terms of reducing tics. The size of the study is really minuscule, because of the 24 people in the trial, only seventeen of them finished. But it's the first petition where I've received any evidence of efficacy in humans -- and we're not going to add a condition on the basis of rat studies. There's no country in the world that approves medication on the basis of animal studies only. We need to have at least some shred of evidence from a good study that it's actually going to help humans -- do more good than harm."
In the end, the Tourette's evidence considered yesterday did nothing to sway the board of health -- and that doesn't surprise Vicente, who sees Calonge's self-imposed standard as contradicting language from Amendment 20, the constitutional measure that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado.
"There's a plethora of data that exists showing that medical marijuana helps people suffering from Tourette's -- anything from case studies to double-blind placebo clinical trials that show individuals with Tourette's can relieve the symptoms of that condition using medical marijuana," says Vicente, pointing doubters to this Norml.org piece.
"But for the past ten years, the health department and now the board of health have ignored the standard that they're supposed to implement regarding whether to add new conditions -- which comes straight out of our state constitution. It says we can add new conditions if an individual 'might' benefit from the use of medical marijuana. 'Might' is the actual language."
There's a dearth of U.S. inquiries about marijuana because the drug is considered a Schedule 1 narcotic -- meaning it has no accepted medical use. With that in mind, Vicente believes the board of health should look at a broader range of information.
"The federal government is not allowing researchers to study marijuana in relation to people's illnesses, so it's very difficult to get human studies," he points out. "Some exist from abroad -- from Germany, from Spain, and Israel has done a lot about post-traumatic-stress disorder and marijuana. But while we're in this void of studies in this country, I think health department officials need to consider everything that's out there, including animal studies, case studies and subjective experiences from patients."
Instead, he believes "the board of health isn't doing their homework,and is allowing political prejudice to influence their decisions about what's best for sick people in Colorado."
Will that situation improve once Calonge has left his current post? Or are the board of health's members locked into the same mentality?
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I think it has the potential to make a giant difference," Vicente maintains. "Ned Calonge, by his own admission, has been an absolute opponent to our medical marijuana law since his first day in this position. I think finding a more open-minded and enlightened chief medical officer will have a massive, top-down effect on the way the health department treats suffering medical marijuana patients.
"If we look back over the past ten years that we've had a medical marijuana law, there's been a number of petitions for new conditions, and none have ever left Ned Calonge's desk. He's essentially vetoed every single one, except for Tourette's Syndrome, which yesterday found its way through the system to the board of health -- who then took a cursory look at it and ignored major studies from overseas before denying it."
Now, the focus turns to PTSD.
"That will be the real test," Vicente says. "How this department treats the suffering Colorado veterans who have applied to have PTSD. And if they turn a blind eye to these individuals, I think we're going to have some serious outrage."