Recreational use of marijuana was legalized on Feb. 24, but many citizens remain concerned about the plant’s short and long term health impacts. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The city of Sitka hosted it’s second town hall meeting on marijuana Monday night (03-30-15). And while the discussion group was smaller – 30 attendees versus the crowd of 75 at the last town hall – the conversation was more personal, dedicated entirely to how cannabis impacts mental and physical health.

Downloadable audio.

All those who attended the meeting drew their chairs into a circle in the middle of Harrigan Centennial Hall. Facilitator Doug Osborne, the prevention director at Sitka Community Hospital, wanted it that way.

Osborne said, “I’m not particular about many things, but the circle I really am. If we can sort of move in here (sound of chairs scooting forward) so we’re all sort of on the same level…”

The crowd was mixed, from medical marijuana users to concerned grandparents to curious citizens. Physician Dr. Ron Fribush kicked things off by listing some of the ways marijuana is used in modern medicine.

“[The medical benefits of marijuana are] for pain, depression, seizure control, possibly glaucoma,” said Fribush. “It’s been used as an antiemetic for people on chemotherapy. There’s also research going on that it may be helpful for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

One attendee talked about the relief it’s provided his father, a Vietnam War veteran with chronic pain in his right arm.

“He went down to Seattle a couple weeks ago. Saw a neurologist. They can’t figure it out. But what does help is marijuana. He went to the store down there, he gave them his ID, he paid 60 bucks. He got a gram. He went back to the hotel, he rolled it up, he smoked it, and then he ate some ice cream, watched a movie, and went to bed.

The meeting took on the shape of a classroom, with individuals sharing their experiences while three – panelists Fribush, Jeff Arndt and Orion Hughes-Knowles presented their findings. Panelist Marita Bailey was not able to attend.

In his presentation, Fribush took pains to distinguish between the various kinds of compounds found in marijuana: particularly CBD (Cannabidiol), which has medical applications, and TCH (tetrahydrocannabinol), which creates the euphoric high.

Fribush said, “I came across a number of… well it’s more than case reports now, it’s a worldwide bank of cases – of children that had intractable seizures. They were given CBD extracts. Seizures in one child that I was reading about today went from 300 a week down to 1 a week. Now the child can learn and function and have a life. Does the child get stoned on it? Well, no it’s the CBD extract. They’re not giving him tetrahydrocannabinol (TCH).”

One of the main questions from the group was: ‘Does marijuana contribute to traffic accidents?’ While the answer is still being researched, Dr. Fribush said that the combination of alcohol and marijuana products can increase the incidence of car accidents.

Another question: ‘Is marijuana a gateway drug for harder substances?’ Jeff Arndt said that in his research, it does not. Arndt stated, “Studies have shown no empirical evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug. So that’s another point that might surprise some people.”

Dr. Fribush made the case that marijuana may even alleviate addiction to opiods, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Fribush said that in two studies he found, deaths from unintentional overdose on opioids were down 25% in the states that have recreational marijuana use.

The subject soon turned to how marijuana affects the brain. Dr. Fribush said, “It does affect memory and short term learning. I don’t know of any study that shows otherwise.”

One comment by Jeff Arndt, a chemical dependency counselor, produced the strongest reaction of the night. He quoted a 2012 Duke University study that found that individuals who began smoking “regularly” (which, by the study’s measure, was 4 times a week) as teens experienced a decline in IQ of up to 8 points as adults.

That study – and especially it’s methodology – has been heavily criticized in the past year, though subsequent studies contesting Duke’s were not brought up at the meeting.

After relaying the 2012 Duke finding, Ardnt said, “I think that’s just kind of sobering to think about. I work with a lot of kids who start pot and other drugs.”

Several others in the meeting latched on to that 8-point IQ figure, particularly parents and educators. One woman, who identified herself as a retired teacher, said, “I do have concerns about the fact that that developing brain is so vulnerable.” She turned to Arndt and said, “That…the statistics that you quoted…really scared me.”

Resident Karen Christner raised another point of concern, commenting, “No one has said anything about the danger of secondhand marijuana smoke on children, on babies, in the home.” Dr. Fribush said those dangers are still unknown, although one study he read suggested that close to 50 percent of the smoke from a joint will be sidestream smoke and enter the surrounding air directly.

Resident Nancy Yaw Davis wasn’t even sure what marijuana looked like and as she told KCAW, made an appointment with Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt to find out.

“[Schmitt] lit a bud and let me have a whiff. And wow! And then he held it back and it was being watched, but it was for my education. I said, ‘This is so helpful. Now I’ll recognize what it smells like because I really care about this town.’ Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, school by school, we can’t pretend like it’s not there.

The state of Alaska is currently drafting rules regarding the taxation and sale of marijuana. Osborne said that will the topic of the next town hall meeting in the coming months.