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Legal pot: Pa. needs to see the science

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Saturday, April 5, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

DENVER — You can't walk more than 10 feet in this town without getting a whiff of marijuana. Or so it seemed when I visited the Mile High City to attend a conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Call me crazy, but as I walked around, I could've sworn every other person had bloodshot eyes and appeared to be having way too much fun.

Mind you, even though recreational pot for adults became legal in January, lighting up in public is prohibited. Colorado legalized marijuana 14 years ago for medical use, something some Pennsylvania lawmakers want to do. Believe me, there's a lot to consider if Pennsylvania wants to go the weed route.

So-called dispensaries that sell marijuana have popped up on street corners. I found LoDo Wellness Center on the western edge of Downtown. An overly friendly receptionist named Liz asked for my ID. She didn't give me her last name because, “I have a nana who would have a heart attack if she knew where I worked.”

The store had the feel of a cozy living room with stuffed couches, lounging chairs and colorful area rugs. In one room, glass cases displayed paraphernalia and marijuana gummy bears and chocolate — with hefty taxes of around 36 percent, Liz told me.

She pointed to another room reserved for sales of medical marijuana, which retails with lower taxes of less than 10 percent. Tyler Wolfley, a 20-year-old with a skateboard and a broad smile, emerged from the room. We sat down on one of the couches and chatted for a half-hour.

“Constantly,” he replied when I asked how often he smoked. He works as a baggage attendant at the airport and spends about $120 a month on a concentrated form of pot known as wax. “I think it is bad. I understand it is bad. But it makes me happy. It makes me more social.”

Wolfley obtained a medical certificate to buy weed by paying $50 to a doctor advertising on the back of a magazine. He told the doctor he needed the drug to control anxiety. I asked if he was worried about the drug's long-term effect on his health and he acknowledged the daily use is taking a physical toll.

“It slows me down. I have phlegm in my lungs. I can't run like I used to. But I think I'll be OK. I have confidence.”

It struck me that Wolfley was a sensible man, worried about keeping his addiction hidden from his 13-year-old brother. He seemed conflicted about his choices, saying he had no plans to kick the habit, while revealing a desire to enroll in flight school.

“I don't want a marijuana shirt,” he told me, his way of saying he doesn't want to be seen as a stoner.

The shifting attitudes about marijuana should be a lesson to states looking to join this revolution. If Pennsylvania lawmakers approve medical marijuana, could they eventually say yes to recreational pot? Whether for medical or recreational purposes, marijuana should be carefully regulated and its use supported by science.

“Be wary of the medical cure label,” Dr. Larry Wolk, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health, told journalists at the conference. If marijuana indeed helps control seizures and treat other conditions, he said, he'd like to see evidence. So far, he hasn't seen it.

In the end, marijuana might help some but we can't lose sight that it might slowly destroy the Tyler Wolfleys of the world.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor.




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