© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As Missouri Voters Weigh Legalizing Medical Pot, Schools Leave To-Be Doctors In The Dark

Alex Smith
KCUR 89.3
Moberly resident Lonnie Kessler hopes doctors in towns like his will soon be able to help patients access medical marijuana. Voters across the state will decide on three ballot medical marijuana measures in November.

It’s late summer, and the drone of insects is a sound that Lonnie Kessler has come to dread. A similar chirping means he’s minutes away from another seizure.

“It sounds like a thousand crickets all at once in my head. And so that really alerts me this is going to happen right now,” Kessler said. “And then I lose consciousness.”

Kessler’s violent seizures, which started after surgery for a brain tumor, last as long as 13 minutes, and he has stopped breathing during some of them.

Marijuana has been found to reduce seizures for some epileptic people, and Kessler’s eager to see what it do could for him, but the Moberly man doesn’t have legal access to it. That could change, as there are three ballot measures on the Nov. 6 ballot in Missouri.

Even if voters go for it, many doctors won’t be ready to offer medical pot to patients in part because few get trained on its use.

Washington University study from November of 2017 found that just 9 percent of medical schools teach about medical marijuana, and 90 percent of med school graduates say they aren’t ready to help patients use it. And that’s with 30 states having legalized the drug for medical use.

“It reminds me of where we learned about sex,” Wash U psychiatry professor Laura Beirut joked, noting that medical marijuana training is haphazard at best.

Cannabis has been used to treat a range of conditions, such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Even at med schools that do teach cannabis, the training is not the same hands-on learning students get with other treatments, according to Karen Lounsbury, a pharmacology professor at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine.

“No! That would be against the law,” Lounsbury said. “We can’t have any cannabis products on campus.”

Vermont legalized medical use in 2004, but since it remains illegal under federal law, it’s hard for researchers get approved to study it, and the supply available is small. That’s created a snag for med schools.

“It’s finding good research and clinical trials that’s the problem,” Lounsbury said. Bierut believes many doctors are learning on the fly. “I think that they’re saying, ‘Why don’t you try it and see if it helps you, and let me know what works and what doesn’t work,’” Bierut said.

Plus, in the states where it is legal, doctors can’t actually prescribe it or advise patients on using it in most cases. They can typically only write recommendations for patients to get it from dispensaries.

But Lounsbury said that even without a doctor’s help, many patients with qualifying conditions seek out marijuana on their own.

“The physicians don’t know anything about how the medical marijuana’s going to affect their other treatment, and so they really want to learn the pharmacology,” Lounsbury said. “Is this something I should really discourage my patients from doing or is this something I should encourage them to do?”

Lonnie Kessler also has a lot of questions about marijuana, including whether it will do anything to reduce seizures.

So far, the only FDA-approved medication he’s found that helps is slowly ruining is kidneys.

“We know that I will enter pre-renal failure sometime and that dialysis is a very definite possibility some time down the road if I have to continue to take these medications,” Kessler said.

Facing the probability that his health will worsen, he said legalizing marijuana would at least be the first step toward the possibility of a better quality of life.

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him through email: alexs@kcur.org

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.