The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Thursday added anxiety disorders and Tourette’s syndrome to the list of health conditions that qualify for treatment using medical marijuana.
The conditions were approved following a recommendation by the state Medical Marijuana Advisory Board and a review of research by Health Secretary Rachel Levine. Anxiety and Tourette’s will join the state’s list of 21 serious ailments on July 21. Other qualifying illnesses include terminal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis.
"I did not take this decision lightly,” Levine said in a statement. "For both conditions, medical marijuana is not first-line treatment and should not replace traditional therapies, but should be used in conjunction with them, when recommended by a physician.”
Levine’s announcement came before a marijuana “summit” she had called Thursday to discuss the marijuana medical research with representatives of eight Pennsylvania universities and recently approved cannabis producers who will partner with the schools.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting more than 18 percent of the population every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. By that measure, about 1.73 million Pennsylvanians might qualify to participate in the state’s two-year-old marijuana program that has seen more than 137,000 residents sign up.
Patients with anxiety disorders should continue to pursue counseling and therapy to manage their illness, Levine said, adding that medical marijuana strains with low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and greater cannabidiol (CBD) content seem to be more effective for the treatment of anxiety. THC is the compound in cannabis that produces the feeling of being high, but can also trigger anxiety. CBD is thought to moderate the effects of THC, though there is insufficient scientific evidence.
Levine said medical marijuana is not recommended to treat children and adolescents with anxiety disorders, as their brains are still developing.
Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive involuntary movements and vocalizations known as tics. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 200,000 Americans have the most severe form of Tourette’s.
To participate in the program, patients must apply to the Department of Health for a medical marijuana card and receive a doctor’s recommendation — similar to a prescription. The doctor must have taken a four-hour course on marijuana and been approved by the state.
For information about the program, go to pa.gov/guides/pennsylvania-medical-marijuana-program.