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Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin May 29, 2014

Less than 5 percent of medical marijuana users have cancer or AIDS, opposition group says

One of the biggest question marks over Florida’s proposed medical marijuana amendment is over who will use it. According to an opposition group, it’s not who you may think.

Don’t Let Florida Go To Pot, a campaign run by a coalition of more than 40 organizations opposing Amendment 2, says on its website that most patients don’t suffer from the life-threatening diseases often associated with medical marijuana use.

"Less than 5 percent of registered users in states allowing medical marijuana have cancer or AIDS," it says. The site ramped up earlier in May, and is run by St. Petersburg lobbyist group Save Our Society From Drugs. They use information from the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Cancer and AIDS are often cited by proponents of medical marijuana as the diseases that marijuana can help. We were curious to know if it’s true that only 5 percent of patients who use the drug have those two diseases. Let’s check the registries and find out.

Playing percentages

Florida’s Amendment 2 specifically names cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, hepatitis C, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis as eligible for treatment. It also allows for "other conditions for which a physician believes that medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient." That provides doctors plenty of latitude to make recommendations for things not on the list, like chronic pain or muscle spasms.

Marijuana is typically recommended to cancer patients to treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy treatments. AIDS patients often use it to treat nausea, pain and loss of appetite.

The big problem with tracking why medical marijuana patients use the drug is that the rules and record-keeping vary widely among the 21 states that allow it.

Eric Pounders, spokesman for the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the 5 percent figure comes from an average Save Our Society From Drugs calculated from data from 15 states, which all report things in different ways.

For example, statistics from Rhode Island say 4 percent of users there have cancer, and 1 percent have HIV/AIDS. New Jersey says 2.3 percent use marijuana for a terminal illness. Vermont allows conditions to remain confidential. Washington has no database of users or their conditions. California has no mandatory patient registration.

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The Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that tracks state regulations and favors the Florida amendment, says only six states routinely update comprehensive user data, so Don’t Let Florida Go To Pot’s list of 15 states is suspect. Karen O’Keefe, the project’s director of state policies, says a state like Alaska (which Pounders cited) doesn’t keep very accurate records on patients at all.

At any rate, the numbers reflect a trend among the states that report conditions: A very small number of medical marijuana patients have cancer or AIDS. Opponents think that’s a big problem.

"We want to show Floridians that the disease groups they are constantly hearing about, are not the ones that marijuana is primarily treating," Pounders said. He said pro-marijuana groups often use those two diseases to appeal to people’s sympathies.

Dr. Gary Reisfield, from the University of Florida’s psychiatry department, agreed. While he said the 5 percent was comparable to research he’d seen, the outsized use of the two diseases as an example was a smokescreen by advocates.

"Cancer and HIV are the camel's nose under the tent," he told PolitiFact Florida. "Physicians, most of whom favor medical cannabis legislation, will acquiesce to their patients' demands for cannabis for other ‘debilitating conditions,’ like pain, muscle spasm, headaches, insomnia and anxiety."

Those are the kinds of conditions for which most patients are treated, said Dr. Barth Wilsey of the University of California Davis Medical Center. He pointed to a University of Michigan study last year that found 87 percent of sample patients from a Michigan clinic sought medical marijuana for pain relief, either on its own or in conjunction with other conditions. Cancer was cited as 3.4 percent of the sample and people with AIDS were combined with hepatitis C under "chronic infection," and totaled 2.3 percent.

Wilsey added that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with patients wanting to relieve pain, especially because most medical marijuana patients turn to the drug only after exhausting other options. He said he thought Don’t Let Florida Go To Pot was "trivializing" patients suffering from very real medical issues.

"The significance of this statement is tempered by the fact that millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain. One type, neuropathic pain, is particularly difficult to treat," Wilsey said. "One thing is certain, we need more research on medical marijuana and less decision-making by legislatures and referendums."

Our ruling

Don’t Let Florida Go To Pot said "less than 5 percent of registered users in states allowing medical marijuana have cancer or AIDS."

The medical marijuana opponents that run the website said they estimated their total using figures from states with current laws allowing the drug. Not all states report figures the same way, however, or may not report them at all. Patients who don’t have cancer or AIDS still may have legitimate reasons to use medical marijuana, including for pain relief.

So the statistic Don't Let Florida Go to Pot cites isn't perfect. But the available evidence does suggest fairly strongly that the people who use medical marijuana for cancer or AIDS is a small percentage of all users. We rate the statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Don’t Let Florida Go To Pot, "Facts vs. Myths," accessed May 20, 2014

HealthDay News, "Most Docs OK With Medical Marijuana: Survey," May 29, 2013

National Institutes of Health, "Characteristics of adults seeking medical marijuana certification," Oct. 1, 2013 (full report)

PolitiFact Florida, "Medical marijuana easy to get under proposed Florida law, sheriff says," Nov. 25, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "Pam Bondi says amendment would make Florida one of the most lenient medical marijuana states," Dec. 17, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "Pam Bondi says medical marijuana is illegal under federal law, with or without amendment," Dec. 17, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "Medical marijuana ballot initiative requires doctors' input but not a prescription for 'debilitating' conditions," Feb. 21, 2014

Save Our Society From Drugs, "Who is REALLY smoking marijuana under the guise of medicine?," April 2014

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, "Medical Marijuana Statistics," accessed May 27, 2014, "How Many People in the United States Use Medical Marijuana?," accessed May 27, 2014

Interview with Dr. Gary Reisfield, University of Florida’s psychiatry department, May 27, 2014

Interview with  Dr. Barth Wilsey, University of California Davis Medical Center, May 27, 2014

Interview with Eric Pounders, Florida Sheriffs Association spokesman, May 27-28, 2014 

Interview with Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project director of state policies, May 27-28, 2014

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Less than 5 percent of medical marijuana users have cancer or AIDS, opposition group says

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