By Sierra Petro
The room overflowed at Dr. Stephen Dahmer’s lecture on medical cannabis on Oct. 16. Dahmer, the Chief Medical Officer of Vireo Health of New York, discussed the benefits of medical marijuana as an alternative to other types of medication. Vireo Health of New York is a physician led company that produces and distributes cannabis-based products for medical use.
Dahmer gave some history about the plant. “The earliest medical use of marijuana dates back to 2900 B.C. with Emperor Fu-hsi [of China].”
“In medicine I’ve never seen so much stigma as there is around medical marijuana. We [medical researchers] are trying to find the truth about it,” said Dahmer.
However, this stigma was not always so strong. “Cannabis was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia from 1850 to 1941 and cannabis extracts were in the top three of prescribed medications,” said Dahmer.
Dahmer's decision to come on board as a physician in the cannabis industry, which is still illegal on a federal level, was described by him as a big leap. One reason he decided to get involved is, “In New York, it’s a very different program.”
In New York, medical cannabis must be extracted through a machine that uses carbon dioxide, which Dahmer said is one of the safest forms of extraction. It’s also very precise.
“When a patient comes into our dispensary in New York and walks out with a product, we know exactly what they’re getting within 10 percent of the milligram of the major cannabinoid stated on that label,” said Dahmer. This 10 percent is the same percentage generic medications have. In New York all medical marijuana products must be third-party tested. The state also requires physician and provider certification, said Dahmer.
There are currently 13 qualifying conditions that someone must have to be eligible to get medical cannabis in New York. In 2017, the condition of chronic pain (pain that is persistent for three or more months) was added to the list, which made medical cannabis more accessible, said Dahmer.
Patients in the New York medical marijuana program cannot take their medication over state lines because it is a schedule one drug, said Dahmer.
The two major cannabinoids in cannabis are THC and CBD. Vireo Health has names for their products that range from red to indigo signifying the levels of THC and CBD. THC is the pain fighter, but can also cause symptoms like euphoria and anxiety. THC is balanced out with CBD, which eases these side effects, said Dahmer.
“When you smoke street marijuana it’s bred to have very high levels of THC and low levels of CBD,” said Dahmer. The medical model says that those under twenty-five should avoid THC, but there are exceptions in medical cannabis, one often found in cases of epilepsy.
Patients work with the physicians at Vireo Health to creep up to a therapeutic range. The physicians also work with patients on a treatment plan so that they don’t develop a dependence, which occurs to nine percent of those that try medical cannabis, said Dahmer.
Dahmer said that the third leading cause of death in the U.S. is prescription overdoses. A benefit to medical cannabis is, “Patients can’t die from this prescription.”
“Most patients don’t want to get a ‘high’ feeling; they just want to be able to work again,” said Dahmer. The population that utilizes medical cannabis the most in New York is elders. At the Vireo Health facility in White Plains the average patient is 53, said Dahmer.
The research of medical cannabis’ benefits are still in their infancy, said Dahmer and he is excited by the prospects of the drug. “I’ve never seen a drug in my career as a physician that can treat inflammatory bowel disease to epilepsy to chronic pain without the possibility of killing the patient. I had never seen a plant go all the way to becoming a medicine in my career,” said Dahmer.