Medical marijuana can treat pain, nausea from chemotherapy and muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis, but “it’s not clear it’s better than other options out there,” a health scientist from Iowa told lawmakers at a Capitol forum Tuesday.

Colorado, the first of 10 states to legalize recreational marijuana, banned cartoon images and candy-like names for edible pot products to discourage childhood use. Still, poison-control calls linked to cannabis have increased, though it’s not clear why, a legislative expert said.

“It could be that more people are being honest ... because it is now legal,” said Karmen Hanson, program director for behavioral health at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

As Wisconsin potentially inches closer to joining 34 states in approving medical marijuana, lawmakers got an update on the promises and challenges of such programs at a forum sponsored by UW-Madison’s Evidence-Based Health Policy Project.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers last month called for approving medical marijuana and decriminalizing small amounts of recreational pot. Many Republicans, who control the Legislature, have long opposed both moves. But some, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, say they’re open to medical marijuana.

Wisconsin allows people to use CBD, a non-psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, if they have a doctor’s note — a requirement Evers wants to eliminate. CBD can be obtained from hemp produced through programs authorized by the state, said Mike Queensland, an attorney with the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

Research shows cannabis can ease pain, nausea and muscle spasms, but evidence for other therapeutic benefits is scant, said Dr. Robert Wallace, a University of Iowa epidemiologist who helped write a 2017 national report that summarizes marijuana’s health effects.

The federal government considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug — the most restrictive of federal drug categories — and that makes it difficult to study, Wallace said. In studies involving “street” cannabis, it’s hard to know what kind of pot people are using and rule out other drug use, he said.

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Traffic fatalities increased in Colorado and Washington after those states legalized recreational marijuana, Wallace said. Cannabis use doesn’t increase cancer risk, as tobacco smoking does, but it can make psychosis worse, he said.

“The interaction of mental conditions with cannabis is in fact really a problem,” Wallace said.

Hanson said impaired driving from cannabis has been a challenge for state legislatures because there’s no simple way to test for it, as there is for alcohol.

Despite concerns that medical and recreational pot in Colorado would drive up use among adolescents, youth rates in the state have remained flat, at about 10 percent, Hanson said.

Most state medical marijuana programs require or allow dispensaries and patient registries, and identify specific health conditions for which cannabis can be used, she said.

Possession limits for individuals range from 1 ounce to 8 ounces, and from three to 12 plant seedlings.

Like for other activities, regulations for medical marijuana programs are continually refined, with dozens of bills introduced each year in Colorado, Hanson said.

“This is definitely not a one-and-done issue,” she said. “This is a constantly evolving issue.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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