By Tovin Lapan on 10/07/2011
 
 
SANTA CRUZ -- With the U.S. attorneys in California announcing a crackdown on the state's medical marijuana dispensaries this week, an inevitable question is who are California's medical marijuana patients and what ailments are being treated?
 
According to research by a UC Santa Cruz sociology professor, 73 percent of medical marijuana users in the state are male and 62 percent are white.
 
Compared to U.S. census data for California, medical marijuana patients are "on average somewhat younger, report slightly more years of formal education and are more often employed" than the general population, according to UCSC's Craig Reinarman, who published the paper "Who Are Medical Marijuana Patients?" in the April 2011 issues of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
 
Reinarman, along with research partner Helen Nunberg, a doctor who worked in a medical marijuana clinic at the time, surveyed 1,746 California patients and their doctors.
 
Reinarman, using a conservative estimate, put the total population of California medical marijuana users at 200,000. However marijuana advocacy groups such as NORML and Americans for Safe Access say states with medical marijuana laws typically see 2 percent of the total population seek approval, which would put the number in California close to 800,000.
 
The most common condition for which physicians recommended medical marijuana was back or neck pain, accounting for more than 30 percent of the recommendations.
 
Also in the top five: sleep disorders, anxiety/depression, muscle spasms and arthritis.
 
Half of those surveyed said they were using marijuana as a substitute for prescription medication, and nearly 80 percent said they tried prescription medication before seeking a marijuana recommendation.
 
"Many medical marijuana patients pointed to a desire to reduce their reliance on opiate-based painkillers," Reinarman said. "They found that marijuana had a lighter touch without the side effects and risks of addiction. It was one of the more striking findings. We hadn't anticipated that."
 
Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, said Reinarman's findings matched similar studies.
 
"From our experience the majority of medical marijuana users have chronic pain," Hermes said. "The medical condition may vary, whether it's HIV, multiple sclerosis, back surgery or some other traumatic event that causes chronic pain."
 
Medical marijuana users also reported lower rates of other drug use including alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. About 41 percent of patients said they did not use marijuana recreationally before obtaining a recommendation.
 
However, Reinarman acknowledged that medical marijuana patients may underreport their previous drug use out of fear that it would preclude them from receiving a recommendation.
 
Further research is needed to determine the reasons behind some of the figures, Reinarman said, and he can only speculate as to why women, Latinos and Asian-Americans do not make up the same proportion of medical marijuana users as they do the state population.
 
"Women worry about the social stigma more than men do," Reinarman said. "A great majority of deviant behavior is by men. ... Women of child-bearing age might also worry about the risk of using marijuana during pregnancy, and there have been a number of cases where use of marijuana has been used against people in child custody cases."
 
While African-Americans make up just less than 7 percent of the state population, they are approximately 12 percent of the medical marijuana patient population.
 
"African-Americans, we speculate, make up a larger portion of that population because they are under- treated for pain, a great deal of documentation shows," Reinarman said. "They are much less apt to be given a proper prescription by physicians, and that could push them to look for alternatives. They also tend to be much lower income and have lower insurance coverage."