LITTLE ROCK — A group of Arkansas doctors announced opposition to a ballot proposal to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes Wednesday, saying such use lacks scientific validation and could be addictive.
The group sponsoring the proposed Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act identified two Arkansas doctors, one practicing and one retired, who support the measure and maintained many others support it but are unwilling to do so publicly.
The proposal is Issue 5 on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Early voting began Monday.
Speaking to reporters at Baptist Health Medical Center, the opposing doctors — 10 from Little Rock and one from Rogers — said they have formed a group called the Physician Coalition Against Medical Marijuana to speak out against the measure.
Dr. David E. Smith, a palliative care physician at Baptist Health, said supporters have been promoting the measure by stating "personal preferences and personal anecdotes and not medical observations based on rigorous research."
"Physicians, good physicians, shouldn’t practice medicine based on that," he said.
Smith said that as a palliative care physician, his sole purpose is to care for people dealing with pain, many of them from terminal illnesses. He acknowledged that cannabinoid compounds have the potential to be medically useful, but he said they also have the potential to be addictive.
More research and testing must be done to prove their safety and usefulness, he said.
"My primary message today is that the so-called ‘medical marijuana’ is not a scientifically validated way to relieve pain or suffering," Smith said.
He said more doctors are in the coalition than the 11 who attended the news conference, but he did not know how many.
Gary Fults, president of Arkansans for Compassionate Care, told reporters after the news conference that marijuana has worked for many patients and said it is not addictive. He said he was not surprised to see some doctors opposing medical marijuana.
"Think of the thousands of dollars that they make off of pain medication," he said.
A spokesman for the sponsoring group referred reporters to Dr. David Crittenden, who practices at the Veterans Administration hospital in Fayetteville.
"I think there’s ample evidence that marijuana as a drug helps people with certain chronic pain conditions, and it should be legal for them to use this drug if it helps them," Crittenden said in a phone interview. "It should not be illegal or immoral to use a medication or a drug that helps you. I think the safeguards that are in the proposed act are sufficient. They have worked in other states."
Arkansas for Compassionate Care also issued a news release Wednesday in which Marvin Singleton of Fayetteville, a retired physician and former president of the Missouri State Medical Association, endorsed the proposal.
"Marijuana is well known within the medical community to alleviate the suffering of patients with MS, cancer, Crohn’s Disease and other serious illnesses," Singleton said. "If a doctor believes that a patient could benefit from the use of medical marijuana, neither the doctor nor the patient should face criminal penalties for pursuing that relief."
Fults said 75 Arkansas physicians have told the group they support the measure, but he did not have permission to name them.
"They’re afraid of losing their jobs," he said.
Under the proposed initiated act, up to 30 medical marijuana dispensaries would be allowed in the state, but cities and counties would have the option of banning them. The marijuana would only be available to people with certain health conditions, including chronic pain, glaucoma, hepatitis C and those who are terminally ill, and a doctor’s recommendation would be required.
The proposal would allow limited cultivation of marijuana by a patient, or the patient’s designated caregiver, if the patient lives more than five miles from a dispensary.
The Arkansas Pharmacists Association, Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police and a coalition of faith-based groups called the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Family Values have come out in opposition to Issue 5.
The Arkansas Medical Society has not taken a position on the issue, though its governing body is scheduled to discuss it Friday, according to spokesman David Wroten.