Angela is a freelance journalist, book editor and consultant from all over California and now Portland, Oregon (by way of Salt Lake City, Utah) with 10 years in cannabis media. She is a trained journalist with an MBA who specializes in coverage of cannabis in conservative states, science, medicine, politics, business, culture and media.
Oregon’s legislature has a busy agenda on cannabis this year. The state is trying to deal with a massive oversupply of legal cannabis, a declining medical marijuana program, and deciding on licensing and regulation of social consumption lounges. Often overlooked in legalization regulations, however, are basic protections and employment rights for users. Over 20 years after Oregon legalized medical marijuana, even patients still don’t have these protections for off-the-job or non-impairing medical use. Last week, the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives heard arguments for and against proposed legislation that would grant cannabis users employment protections, H.B 2655 and S.B. 379. So far, no vote has been taken to move the bills out of their respective committees, but the proponents for and against the issue are lining up to support or oppose those bills. Basically, if these bills become law, if the job isn't for the federal government users cannot be discriminated against — i.e., fired from their job — for THC in their urine on a drug test, with some exceptions. Both bills would declare an emergency, meaning they will be enacted into law immediately after passage. Right now, only summary text is online, but this legislation gets at a larger national issue. Despite the majority of states having medical or adult use cannabis programs that allow some forms of access, only a small handful have laws protecting patients or adults who use cannabis “recreationally.” At issue is how to determine “impairment” based on cannabis in a blood sample or urinalysis, and the science isn’t settled on that approach. Legislators around the country have been trying to find a scientifically solid way to determine and regulate cannabis impairment by THC content in the blood. In Oregon, big industries are coming out hard against these employment protection bills specifically because they do not have a scientifically valid impairment test. All are arguing that until such testing is a reality, their employees should be prohibited from off-the-job legal use. The Opposition Although many advocates and pro-cannabis lobbyists were aware there was an employment protection bill in the House of Representatives, many were surprised to find out there was an identical bill in the Senate, which was heard first. During that hearing there was only one proponent, Casey Houlihan of ORCA, to defend the bill against a host of lobbyists that represent industries that mandate drug testing for safety. Pro-cannabis advocates did testify in larger numbers for the house bill. The overwhelming majority of opponents are requesting that the legislature outright oppose the bills. One opponent, Rob Bovett of Association of Oregon Counties did offer to work with the legislature to amend the law in a way that exempted certain high-risk industries. %related-post-1% “I am more than willing to assist in a work group if there is a desire to amend S.B. 379 [and H.B. 2655] in a manner that attempts to comply with constitutional requirements,” Bovett offered. Most cited the lack of a scientific means of determining impairment by THC levels in the body as a reason to uphold the status quo. “Many employees within the trucking industry are still in safety-sensitive positions where impairment of any kind could jeopardize the health and safety of themselves, our drivers, or the motoring public. Instead of creating a two-tiered policy for workplace impairment, most trucking companies rely on and enforce a drug-free workplace for all employees. This is necessary because current drug tests are unable to determine whether an employee is impaired at work or merely has marijuana in their system. If passed, SB 379 would place employers in the untenable position of lowering the bar for safety for all employees in order to accommodate the lawful use of marijuana for some,” testified Waylon Buchan of the Oregon Trucking Association. The Proponents Proponents of employment protections for cannabis use say medical use should be treated the same as prescription medicines and suggest there are better ways to determine impairment from cannabis use than THC content in the body. Sarah Duff, a board member of both Oregon NORML and Compassionate Oregon, suggested using mobile applications like DRUID App to determine impairment. These jobs serve as a punch clock for employees who work jobs with a high potential for danger (such as truck driving) and are already in use in Colorado. Employees are not allowed to clock into work without passing an impairment test based on reaction times. Well-known cannabis researcher and physician Dr. Sunil Aggarwal also agrees with this approach. “A better measure of impairment is something like the DRUID App, a validated application that can be run on a mobile device that can measure one’s reaction time, speed, coordination, balance, and other psychomotor variables, and compare it to an individual’s baseline value,” Aggarwal said. %related-post-2% Duff testified that she believes the industries opposing these protections with valid safety concerns should be exempted from the law, which she says she interprets the law as doing. She added that after learning about the potential danger of impairment on these jobs she would hope “that they do impairment tests daily to ensure that fatigue does not cause employees or contractors to work in dangerous conditions. Those who support this bill want pilots to be alert and not under the influence of any drug or fatigue, but urinalysis does not provide this assurance.” “I would like to mention that some industries have used drug tests to avoid paying out workers compensation claims. The OHA website states that 55 percent of Oregonians admit to having used cannabis at some point in their lives. They state that 16 percent of Oregonians currently use cannabis. It seems that some businesses have figured out that they can save money on worker's compensation insurance if they can use a positive drug test for cannabis as an excuse to not pay out the claim,” Duff added. “We need to pull apart these layers of prohibition.” “Right now, you have a choice between a life-saving medicine and your job, that is a difficult situation,” testified Heather Kell, who added cannabis was a safer alternative to prescription painkillers, especially in light of the opiate epidemic. It seems at least the House Business and Labor Committee was favorable to this take, with Representative Julie Fahey (D-Eugene) adding that she has replaced opiate painkillers with cannabis for her own back pain and “is happy to still have my own job.” “The current dynamic is hindering the ability of otherwise qualified people to find and/or keep jobs — increasing Oregonian’s risk of financial insecurity. This is especially true for lower wage employees, further entrenching legal cannabis as a right only for the wealthy and privileged,” testified Jesse Bontecou, who represents the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association (ORCA). %related-post-3% Further testimony in favor of the employment protections was submitted by Beth Creighton representing the Oregon affiliate of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), which is “an organization of attorneys committed to advancing equality and justice in the workplace.” Creighton has represented Oregon employees for over 20 years and says that ever since the state legalization in 2014, she receives at least one call a month from a citizen who was fired for legally consuming cannabis in their off hours. “Ninety-eight percent of the time I have to tell clients that I am unable to help them because under the current law, an employer can fire an employee for using any substance while off duty, even if it is legal to do so. The only exception is tobacco, which is protected… There is absolutely no business-related reason that an employee who has a beer on Friday night after work should be terminated Monday morning for doing so. Also, it makes little sense to fire employees who take pain medication at night that wears off by morning, but is still in their system. There is no current law preventing employers from doing just that. Allowing employers to terminate employees for something that the voters in this state have decided is perfectly legal infringes upon Oregonians’ fundamental rights to freedom,” Creighton testified. Can impairment be measured by THC content in human blood or urine samples? Read more in part 2.
Five years after Oregon became the third state to legalize cannabis, the legal marketplace is oversaturated, the medical program is dwindling, and, in many ways — not the least of which is federal law — some interactions with cannabis are still criminalized and prosecuted. Sixteen bills introduced to the Oregon Legislature in the 2019 session take varying and sometimes conflicting approaches to solving these problems. There are currently six bills in the House of Representatives and 10 in the Senate that range from legislation that attempts to assist patients in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP), dueling bills to legalize the social consumption of cannabis in cafes and lounges, and two opposing bills that take dramatically different approaches to the massive statewide supply glut. One bill would create interstate compacts for export, and another, requested by Governor Kate Brown, would allow the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), which oversees recreational marijuana, to start denying licenses due to market saturation or other circumstances as they see fit. Medical Bills Patients in Oregon and other legalization states have long complained that with the rise of “recreational use,” medical programs have fallen by the wayside. One thing is for certain, the number of registered patients has been steadily declining since legalization began in 2015. In January 2015, a total of 70,000 patients were registered under the OMMP. As of July 2018, there were just under 40,000 registered patients left in the state. It is an expensive annual process to register as a patient through the OMMP, and many of the benefits of doing so are no longer available post-legalization. Most patients no longer have access to low or no cost medicine through the medical caregiver program, there are very few medical dispensaries left, and the prices are so low on the recreational side the cost of registration may not offset the difference of paying a recreational tax for many qualifying patients, pushing them to the high tax recreational market. Registered patients do not pay the tax, but it currently costs up to $400 a year to become one. It costs $200 a year to register with the OMMP, in addition to paying a private doctor up to $200 to write a recommendation. S.B. 599 would establish a patient committee to make recommendations to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) on ways to fix the program to be more patient-friendly, paving the way for future legislation that addresses cost and availability for people with severe and chronic illnesses. H.B 2722 would expand the types of providers who can sign off on medical recommendations to nurse practitioners and naturopaths, which could also offset the price of paying a private doctor for a recommendation. H.B. 2687 would protect patients from getting kicked off an organ-donor transplant list because of their cannabis use. On Tuesday January 28, this was the first of the 16 bills to get a hearing in a committee, although no vote has yet been taken. %related-post-1% Representatives on the House Health Care Committee heard supportive testimony from Compassionate Oregon’s Anthony Taylor, Oregon NORML’s Sarah Duff, Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association’s Jesse Bontecou, and Robin Socherman, the wife of a terminal kidney patient who was denied transplant of her kidney because of his medical cannabis use. “My husband is not an addict, he has a painful disease. Other states have protected this.... Our family should not have to suffer this, nor should the other 300 or 400 families whose loved ones have been turned away… Our institutions are currently out of step with our state culture at the expense of families like mine,” Socherman testified. Social Consumption The cannabis industry and advocacy groups in Oregon, and other legal states, have long complained that there are few spaces where adults or medical patients can consume cannabis legally. Landlords have the right to ban all renters’ cannabis use, not just smoking, and tourists visiting the region cannot consume it in their hotel rooms. This has pushed cannabis use into the streets and led to disproportionate enforcement of consumption laws against the poor and other marginalized groups. Further, with a massive supply glut, proponents say allowing consumption in cafes could help increase in-state consumption of a product that still can’t legally leave its borders. Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, aim to make cannabis cafes a legalized business in Oregon. Currently private clubs are “bring your own” and operating in a legal gray area in the City of Portland and a handful of other places. While these bills would essentially do the same thing by licensing social consumption and allowing these spaces to co-exist with licenses dispensaries, there is one fundamental difference: The Indoor Clean Air Act (ICAA). All 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of an Indoor Clean Air Act, restricting smoking inside licensed places of business. Oregon’s Indoor Clean Air Act, unlike other states with adult use legalization, was amended to specifically ban social consumption of cannabis. Meanwhile, in nearby California, the first state to pass a version of the ICAA, cannabis smoking and vaping in social consumption lounges is already legal and happening in cities that choose to license them. %related-post-2% Under House BIll 2233, which was initiated at the request of cannabis business attorney and founder of the Oregon Cannabis Association (OCA), Amy Margolis, there is no change to remove cannabis from the ICAA. It does not allow indoor vaping or smoking and requires a sanitation license from the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees medical but not adult use cannabis. Advocates supporting another approach are suggesting this only further codifies existing law and suggest bringing the OHA into the process could be a non-starter. “The Oregon Health Authority is very antagonistic to cannabis, so putting a license requirement [in OHA] for ‘recreational’ use is very risky, in my opinion,” said Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner of Oregon’s 2014 legalization initiative (Measure 91), as well as a founding member of New Revenue Coalition, a PAC formed to push this issue through the Oregon Legislature in 2019 and potentially put it on the ballot in 2020 if not passed. “I’m afraid that legalizing outdoor smoking/vaping and putting two regulatory bodies in charge (OLCC and OHA) will put more pressure on existing cafes that can’t get a license because they don’t have outdoor smoking/vaping areas.” Under Senate Bill 639, the ICAA would be amended to remove “cannabis” and would legalize private cafes, cafes attached to licensed dispensaries, farm tours, tastings, and deliveries to hotels. S.B 639 has broader support for the advocacy community, including from Leia Flynn, an owner of a private club in Portland and board member at Oregon NORML. “It is about social justice for all people. People are smoking in cars and allies, some of us are safe to do that and others still get arrested,” Flynn said, pointing out that marijuana arrests for public consumption are disproportionately happening to African-American consumers, which she sees daily in her work as a legal assistant to Portland-based attorney and advocate, Leland Berger. Bills Addressing the Supply Glut Oregon and California have long supplied national demand for cannabis during full federal prohibition. While processing, production, sale, possession, and use of cannabis are now legal in both states for adults, anything produced legally cannot leave state borders. With a population of just around 4 million, Oregon’s production has always far outweighed its demand, and now thanks to relatively fair free market licensing policies, a 1,ooo,ooo-plus-pound surplus has driven down prices, profit margins, and forced out smaller producers. %related-post-3% Two separate bills take very different approaches to the glut. S.B. 582 would legalize export via interstate compacts, allowing Oregon to serve markets where the supply is needed. S.B. 218 would allow the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), which oversees issuance of adult use licenses, to stop issuing licenses for a variety of reasons, specifically highlighting the oversaturation problem. S.B. 582 will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 7, at 8:30am. Social Justice Post-legalization, social justice issues like expungement of marijuana crimes, employment for cannabis users, amendments to outdated prohibition sentencing guidelines, and Drug War reparations have dominated discussions about whether or not the social justice goals sold along with legalization have been achieved. S.B. 420 directs the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) to find old misdemeanor convictions and ask prosecutors to have those convictions set aside so that they can also be expunged if they are now legal under state law. H.B. 2655 would end employment discrimination (under state law). Despite cannabis use being legal in Oregon for adults over 21, if they work for a company that does random drug testing, they lose the right to consume, even if they are not at work, thanks to how long cannabinoids linger in the body post-consumption. This has prevented or hindered employment not just for adults who consume on their off time, but patients that need employment to live and do not become impaired from their use. Finally, S.B. 578, which was initiated at the urging of Portland attorney Leland Berger, would address flawed post-legalization sentencing guidelines. Berger says that in 2017 he opposed legislation that took cannabis out of being a controlled substance throughout the Oregon Revised Statutes, not because he opposes its removal from the CSA, but because he said the specific legislation "purposefully created new crimes and increased penalties." He says that 578 addresses two of those objections: failure to merge convictions for delivery and possession when the delivery is a possession with intent to deliver and the major issue is expungement. "Section 2 has to do with transferring Commercial Drug Offense from the controlled substance chapter of the code to the cannabis regulation section of the code (ORS c.475->c.475B) where it was renamed Commercial Cannabis Approach. Essentially, when the state pleads and proves three of the 10 listed factors, it increases the presumptive sentence under our Federal Sentencing Guidelines from (for most prior record categories) presumptive probation to presumptive prison,” Berger said.
Will these new bills push at-home cultivation toward normalization or simply create a new version of prohibition? Washington’s Initiative 502 (I502) campaign made it one of the first states to legalize marijuana in 2012, but it was incredibly contentious. Cannabis advocates who came out in opposition to I502 said the way it was written would regulate out most of the state’s existing producers and decimate the state medical system. They also warned that the the lack of personal cultivation (home grow) rights wouldn’t be an easy fix. Six years later, a lot of these points of contention have come to bear, and advocates are still pushing the state legislature for the right to grow at home for personal use. This is the first legislative session in post-legalization Washington State that there is bipartisan and bicameral support to change it before the session even officially begins. On Friday, January 11, Senate Bill 5155 and House Bill 1131 were pre-filed concurrently into the state legislature. Both bills are titled “Allowing residential marijuana agriculture,” and have bipartisan sponsors. H.B. 1131 is sponsored by Rep. Brian Blake (D) — who has championed the issue in years past — along with Rep. Drew MacEwen (R), Rep. Laurie Dolan (D), Rep. Jim Walsh (R), and Rep. Shelley Kloba (D). S.B. 5155 is sponsored by Republican senator Maureen Walsh, along with Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D), Sen. Sam Hunt (D), and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D). %related-post-1% While efforts in previous years have died in committees, last year Gov. Jay Inslee signed an omnibus bill that made a handful of changes to the industry and directed the Liquor Control Board (LCB), which oversees recreational marijuana, to look into regulating home grow. The bill did not actually legalize and regulate the practice, however. While Inslee has not yet commented on whether or not he would sign this specific legislation into law, it is unlikely he would oppose it if it made it to his desk. Both the house bill and senate bill would amend current state law to allow adults over the age of 21 to grow up to six plants at home and “produce or possess” up to 16 ounces of “useable marijuana” (cannabis flower), 16 ounces of “marijuana products in solid form” (topicals and edibles), 72 ounces of liquid, and 7 grams of concentrate. There cannot be more than 15 plants in a single residence regardless of the amount of legal adults. Property owners can still prohibit their tenants from growing it, and any personal supply of homegrown flowers exceeding an ounce will need to be labeled similar to commercially produced product: the name, date of birth, and address of the grower, as well as the planting and harvest dates, must appear on the container. Home extractions must be non-combustible (ie: kief sifting and ice water hash are OK, butane hash oil is not). In years past, some of the biggest opposition to similar legislation has come from some of the biggest licensed cannabis producers supplying the legal market, specifically the Washington CannaBusiness Association (WACA). Not all producers are in opposition, however, and are actually members of an organization supporting homegrow efforts, the Cannabis Alliance. Advocates calling themselves Home Grow Washington (HGW) think they have a good shot at getting this through in 2019. Activist Don Skakie is part of HGW and has advocated for this issue directly in the statehouse in Olympia for the last three years, and says from initial conversations he has had this week with legislators, he is optimistic it can pass. “It’s about making cannabis normal and regular in society. We have legalization in Washington that is just Prohibition 2.0,” Skakie said last year. %related-post-2% Founder and executive director of the Seattle-based Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy (CaSP), Dominic Corva, has previously argued that home cultivation should be considered a right that comes along with ending cannabis prohibition. “The biggest evidence that cannabis legalization does not necessarily mean the end of prohibition, in Washington at least, is the fact that you can only commercially produce cannabis,” Corva said. “You can’t produce it any other way, it has to be commercial. Home grow represents something much bigger than it really is.” Rep. Brian Blake has sponsored similar legislation three years in a row, and says he will continue to re-file home cultivation bills each session until it passes. “I think folks should have the ability to take care of themselves,” Blake said. “I think it just doesn’t seem like folks should be forced into the state market if they want to, have the time, and want to make the effort to produce enough for their own personal use.” Additionally, Blake has been a proponent of issues patients have had with the new medical paradigm, such as children being allowed to use medical cannabis at school. Despite the failure of previous bills, Blake is still working on it. Alongside the home cultivation bills pre-filed last Friday, Blake also prefiled H.B. 1060
“The Latter Day Saints are coming like crazy to my door, it’s like this huge caravan coming back and forth from Utah… The Saints are coming down, these Saints with little broken halos because they are breaking the law,” said Angela Harris. Harris is a Las Vegas-based herbalist, medical cannabis advocate, mother of nine, and lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She discovered cannabis through her work as an herbalist and has dedicated much of the last four years to educating the conservative Mormon community about it. Thanks to her advocacy and experience — as well as the Church’s strong interconnected network — LDS stake presidents and bishops have been sending a steady stream of people to her to help guide them through administering medical cannabis legally in Nevada. Utah patients have continually found her through Church networks and made their way unsolicited to Harris seeking help and guidance. Meanwhile, legislators in Utah are working diligently and quickly to undo a voter-backed medical cannabis ballot initiative that passed earlier this month. Harris understands the hesitancy in the community, she herself was completely anti-cannabis until she started to learn more about it and how it became illegal in the first place. In 2015, she advocated for medical cannabis at the state capital in Salt Lake City with patients who had caravanned to her home in Nevada. She has been watching the debate over medical cannabis in Utah unfold around the Proposition 2 campaign and the legislature’s current attempts to replace the new medical cannabis law with a program so restrictive it might not work. She wants them to take into account all the suffering Utahns currently smuggling or using on trips to nearby states to craft a workable policy. “The [Utah legislature is] misinformed to think that this is not going on. [The patients] are dying. For some people they want to save their life more than they don’t want to break the law. For a Latter-day Saint that is huge, that is a big deal, it is part of who we are — believing that we obey the laws of the land. It is disturbing to watch this. These are medical refugees seeking asylum from the prejudices of their church,” said Harris. “These are all Saints, our own members." %related-post-1% Harris is referring to the 12th article in the LDS Articles of Faith, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Simply put, it is a core belief of the LDS faith to “follow the law of the land,” and so many LDS patients in Utah are either abstaining from getting relief using it, even if they want to, or actively traveling to states where it is legal to use it, or even just try it. In states where medical cannabis is legal, many LDS patients are using cannabis with the blessings of their bishops or other Church leaders. Harris says that it is time for LDS Utah patients to stop being sent to Las Vegas, aka “Sin City,” or other nearby Nevada cities to seek relief from medical cannabis. She says some of the people she has met will leave their homes, families, and work duties to “lock themselves in hotel rooms” for weeks to use legally in attempts to get better. “You have to change these laws so they don’t have to come down here,” she said. “Let them get out of pain! Let them get out of pain! That is the thing, no one has died from it and teen use has gone down. So ok, let’s go!” Harris is referring to the policy currently being created in Salt Lake. After a multi-year struggle, advocates succeeded in putting medical cannabis on the 2018 midterm ballot in Utah, where it passed despite well-funded opposition, including from the Church itself. Now the lame duck Utah legislature plans to replace the medical cannabis bill voters approved, Proposition 2, in a special session with a legislative bill that will restrict access and potentially be non-functioning. Lawsuits are already pending. %related-post-2% On December 3, the Utah legislature will hold the special session amid protests and patient opposition. Among the changes in the replacement bill are quite a few points that butt up against federal law; doctors will “prescribe” (not recommend) specific dosages of cannabis, most private business will be eliminated and cannabis will be distributed through local departments of health via a state-run “central fill pharmacy.” Much of the idea is to treat cannabis like a pharmaceutical drug, although it is not one and cannot legally, under federal law, be treated as such. Patients in Utah are demanding a program in line with the nearby states they are currently smuggling from. As an herbalist, Harris believes cannabis should be left to the realm of herbalism not pharmaceutical medicine. Harris has been following the negotiations and how they have been influenced by big business and is worried the new law will do nothing to stem the tide of patients being sent to her door for legal guidance in Nevada. “The recommendations the Utah Medical Association are making are asinine, to say the least,” she said. Under the proposed replacement legislation, autoimmune diseases and gastrointestinal disorders not diagnosed as Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis were removed. Patients must “fail” two alternate delivery methods (such as orally consumed oils and tinctures) in order to be allowed to access raw flower for vaporization. Raw flower would be sold in blister packs. Further, because of the nature and unaccounted for costs of the state-run central fill pharmacy proposed under the legislation, the program may be non-functional by the 2021 deadline. %related-post-3% Patient groups such as the Epilepsy Association of Utah and Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) were kept out of negotiations and have vocally opposed the replacement legislation. Referring to an analysis done by Americans for Safe Access of the first draft of the replacement legislation that determined the program would be non-functional, these groups have advocated heavily against it. “TRUCE believes that if the legislature’s goal here really is for patients to have proper safe access to medical cannabis, Utah patients deserve at least a passing grade,” said Christine Stenquist, executive director of TRUCE. “My biggest concern is that this replacement bill was born in fear and designed to fail. More concessions were made to the financially incentivized opposition to safe access. Under this replacement legislation Utah’s sick are treated as ‘criminals until proven patients.’ It is important that when crafting a quality program that is patient-centric, we call on experts from the field for guidance. Utah is moving forward with cannabis policy and should create meaningful legislation rather than public messaging stunts.” Harris hopes that better information and compassion for human suffering will inform better policy making in Salt Lake. "I feel like angels are weeping. This is wrong to do to people who are clearly suffering. It's an ugly situation — ugly because because we can't help these suffering Saints up in Utah. We tried to change the law so now the only choice for relief is to break the law and risk losing there Church memberships," Harris concluded.
While little scientific research exists about cannabis' effects on pregnancy, breastfeeding, and babies, one thing is certain: more and more mothers are using it. Why? There is plenty of conjecture about cannabis use during pregnancy but very little fact. Despite women using cannabis for millennia during menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, doctors and government officials have become increasingly wary of the topic. Some cite flawed studies to prove it is dangerous to the development and growth of offspring, but from a truly scientific point of view, medical professionals have very little knowledge on how cannabis use during this critical time affects real human babies. Either way, more and more women are doing it. One doctor has at least set out to understand what can be gleaned from the studies and to highlight the flaws in research available to medical professionals on the topic. Dr. Laura Borgelt, PharmD, FCCP, BCFS recently presented her findings at the third Marijuana for Medical Professionals conference in Denver, which provides continuing medical education credits to doctors nationwide. Borgelt also surveyed how dispensaries responded to calls from pregnant mothers and found major flaws in both the response from the research and medical community as well as the cannabis industry. She says she decided to embark on these studies with the University of Denver because she identified the major gap between medical knowledge and patient practice. One day during a consultation with a pregnant mother and medical resident she says the question of whether it was safe to consume cannabis during pregnancy and breastfeeding clearly highlighted the need for the work. “The resident told the patient that was completely fine. I sat there in my chair thinking to myself, ‘I am pretty sure that is wrong, but I don’t know if it is right,’” Borgelt said. %related-post-1% She points out that while the information on pregnancy and child development is light and inconclusive, there is even less research to work from on breastfeeding and lactation. She also notes a major flaw in the research; almost all of it refers specifically to the cannabinoid THC, leaving yet another gap in the study on CBD, other cannabinoids, and whole plant cannabis. As in most knowledge gaps in cannabis, there is also a large gap between medical research and the practice of how humans actually interact with cannabis and its chemical constituents. Although Dr. Borgelt’s research has left more questions opened than answered, she says for now the safest option is to avoid cannabis use in pregnancy and breastfeeding. “Medical cannabis has this benefit and risk that needs to be considered at all times in every patient, no matter how and when they are using it,” Borgelt said. Despite what the medical profession has to say on the topic, 15 to 28 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers in and out of legal states are using cannabis. With so much uncertainty, why are they risking it? The Information Gap In Borgelt’s literary review, she sorted through hundreds of studies on pregnancy and breastfeeding with the goal of determining if there is an effect on fetal development due to cannabis use. “This migration, development and formation (of a human fetus) is astonishingly complex,” she said. “We know the endocannabinoid system is critical in development and neuroprotection.” She notes that there are higher numbers of CB1 receptors in the fetal brain than the adult brain. CB1 receptors are receptors in the nervous system that interact with cannabis and endogenous cannabinoids produced by the human body. The higher presence of receptors means the effects of cannabinoids would be more potent on a developing fetus or child than an adult. Borgelt says there is a potential that because THC could disrupt and interfere with proper cell signaling during the development of these neurotransmitter systems there could be an effect on fetal development. However, there is still no definitive current research that could prove or disprove this. As far as birth defects – the results of fetal development having been disrupted – there isn’t substantial evidence of this either. Borgelt says this speaks to the types of trials conducted and their limitations and points out that a lack of conclusive evidence is positive. “It is good news to me that this is not a thalidomide tragedy,” Borgelt says. But she says the literature does point, but not prove, to the possibility that cannabis could affect mental development, which would not become apparent until adolescent and teenage years, noting the human brain does not stop developing until the age of 25. Again, however, the studies don’t sufficiently confirm the theory. “We have found there is no substantial evidence, but there is moderate evidence, for attention problems, decreased IQ scores in young children, decreased cognition and growth,” Borgelt said. %related-post-2% But as Dr. Rachel Knox pointed out during a question and answer session with Borgelt at Marijuana for Medical Professionals, none of the research available accounts for other “confounding factors” or potential causes or contributors to the measured condition. All of the potential problems Borgelt mentioned could be attributed to other known causes such as socioeconomic status, other mental health problems, nutrition and access to healthcare and/or education. “We see those confounders as very closely related to all the possible problems you are listing in the teen years. I bring it up because populations who use it [in pregnancy and breastfeeding] are usually from a lower socioeconomic status,” Dr. Knox said. Dr. Borgelt agreed with Dr. Knox and added that these studies were flawed because they didn’t account for these other confounding factors. As for the effects of cannabis use during breastfeeding, Dr. Borgelt acknowledges even less is known with the available studies. Human breastmilk contains endogenous (produced within the body) cannabinoids, which can account for the sleepy “high” babies get after a meal. While these natural cannabinoids in breastmilk are safe, Dr. Borgelt warns that very little is known about phytocannabinoids in breast milk. “We have no information, or very, very little information. What we can say is THC readily passes into the breastmilk and there are numerous studies to confirm that. Chronic users will have up to eight times more THC in the breastmilk than in the plasma,” she said. “It is about the potency and the impact being higher and longer. When I have patients that ask about that, I will fully acknowledge our body makes its own endocannabinoids, but the exogenous are far more potent and last longer on receptor sites than what our body does normally which can influence the way the cell functions and develops. Why Women Use Cannabis During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding “It is hard to convince a mom (not to use cannabis) when she is puking six times a day,” says Borgelt. One of the primary reasons women use cannabis in pregnancy is for immediate relief of nausea. Women who are more comfortable with medical use of cannabis are more likely to view cannabis use as safer than pharmaceutical drugs that could be prescribed to women in pregnancy. There is a historical precedent for cannabis use in pregnancy. Cannabis has been used by midwives and herbalists to treat pain during menstruation and child birth and pain, nausea, anxiety, and insomnia in pregnant women for millennia. American and English doctors as late as the 19th century would recommend cannabis to mothers to induce and hasten childbirth. Although there are thousands of years of human experience with cannabis use during reproduction, very little formal study can point to any absolutes about effects. %related-post-3% In the 1990s, Dr. Melanie Dreher, currently the Dean of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and previously the Dean of Nursing at the University of Iowa College of Nursing, conducted a series of studies that are considered the most thorough studies of cannabis use in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. She followed mothers in rural Jamaica already regularly using real cannabis during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and the development of their children over time. She found in 1994, “the (cannabis) exposed neonates showed better physiological stability and required less examiner facilitation to reach organized states. The neonates of heavy-marijuana-using mothers had better scores on autonomic stability, quality of alertness, irritability, and self-regulation and were judged to be more rewarding for caregivers.” One thing is certain, women have and will continue to use cannabis during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Real longitudinal studies that account for a host of confounding factors like other substance use, nutrition, genetic conditions, wellness and socioeconomic status are necessary to prove if there are negative side effects to development or growth of human offspring. Right now, those studies don’t really exist and no definitive statements can be made. While Borgelt encourages doctors to err on the side of caution, she acknowledges these flaws in research and suggests doctors keep an open mind so that doctors can get honest dialogue with their patients. “I want to encourage you to continue to have the conversations with these women,” she said.
With the spread of cannabis east of the Rockies and into the most conservative parts of America, legislators have worked to cripple the intent of these laws, limit the industry to millionaires and billionaires, and restrict access so much that most patients have largely remained criminals even in legal medical marijuana states. Usually, the people who fight the lawmakers on crippling regulations in these states lose and the legislators mostly always win. But when medical marijuana finally made its way to Oklahoma, the law fought the people, and the people won. If you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed this small conservative state passing and enacting one of the best medical cannabis laws in the country; shortly after its passage citizens were able to see doctors and become patients, grow up to six plants at home, get a production, processor or dispenser license for as little as $2,500 and a lease agreement, and consume their medical cannabis in public wherever tobacco is consumed. After covering cannabis issues nationwide, I was shocked by what I saw on a recent visit to Tulsa. Legal Washington State doesn’t have home cultivation rights. Legal Oregon and Colorado are currently fighting for the right to consume socially. Legal California has added so many layers of bureaucracy to get into the legal market that most producers never moved onto it. Did I mention Oklahoma has reciprocity? This was not lost on me when I lit up and smoked a joint in a cigarette-friendly Tulsa bar thanks to my California physician recommending it for my Crohn’s Disease. As my new Sooner State friends and I socialized around a pool table, I learned that this victory in Oklahoma had little to do with money and everything to do with the hard work and dedication of the on-the-ground activists who fought for the law. The Long Journey to the Ballot Oklahomans for Health (OFH) sponsored the petition to bring State Question 788, Oklahoma’s medical cannabis law, to the 2016 presidential election ballot. Thanks to the obstruction of then-attorney general Scott Pruitt, the initiative was not certified or titled by the state appropriately or on time, leading to a lengthy court battle that kept it off the ballot. On March 27, 2017, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oklahomans for Health, but they had already lost their shot at being on a high voter-turnout presidential ticket. In January 2018, Governor Mary Fallin scheduled the SQ 788 vote to what was expected to be the lowest possible turnout ticket; the June 2018 midterm primary election. The primary election on June 26, 2018 had one of the highest voter turnouts in Oklahoma state history, exceeding the turnouts on both the 2016 presidential primary and the 2014 gubernatorial election. Despite a flood of money that came from big corporations to oppose the bill, just over $1 million to proponents’ measly $30,000, SQ 788 earned 507,582 thousand votes, 57%, and passed into law. %related-post-1% The Oklahoma State Department of Health, tasked with implementing SQ 788, released a draft of proposed rules on July 8, 2018 that would have, essentially, crippled the intent of the law. Under the rules all smokable cannabis would be banned, pharmacists would be required to be present in dispensaries as part of the approval process and dispensaries would be limited to just 50. It would force all women of childbearing age to obtain a pregnancy test before being granted safe access. “The Oklahoma State Department of Health has enacted law that undermines one of the most participated-in elections in state history and silences the voice of Oklahomans across this state,” wrote state representative Jason Lowe in a press release in July. “Today’s decision is an affront to democracy and an insult to the law-abiding citizens that showed up to vote for this initiative.” Proponents sued the governor and state officials saying they were crippling the intent of the legislation, and Gov. Fallin was forced to sign into law rules that upheld the will of the voters-- removing these added provisions-- on August 6, 2018. Getting Out the Vote Since 2015, an all patient and volunteer force of over 800 Oklahomans in over 50 of the states 77 counties registered people to vote and passed out educational literature. They raised money through car washes, or pulled from their own limited funds. A new group, Green the Vote, was formed to support the petitions being run by Oklahomans for Health. Isaac Caviness, former president of Green the Vote and owner of Tulsa’s HempRx low-THC cannabis dispensary, has two cots set up in the back of his store. During the petition drive, he converted it into a 24-hour petition signing and voter registration hub and purchased the cots so volunteers could take breaks to rest. Green the Vote, as well as Oklahomans for Health, were able to register tens of thousands of Oklahomans to vote for SQ 788, some for the very first time. Their all-volunteer efforts played an essential role in the SQ 788 victory. Today, Caviness’s store, like many other “CBD dispensaries” around the state, is making preparations to become a whole plant dispensary and is already selling CBD flower and other medical cannabis goods under 1% THC by weight. %related-post-2% This summer, Green the Vote almost put two additional state questions before voters in the November election, which would have amended the medical program and made Oklahoma an adult-use legalization state. They came close, but just around 7,000 signatures shy of the 124,000 signature requirement to qualify this November. SQ 797 would have legalized marijuana in Oklahoma for adult use and added a tax that would largely fund public education. SQ 796 would have overrode SQ 788 but made it more difficult for the legislature to make changes to the law, capped license fees and added a list of qualifying conditions for medical. Caviness believes that a constitutional amendment for adult use in 2020 is necessary to protect the over 1,500 licenses that have already been issued since the summer. “I believe that is the best route to go to protect all of these commercial businesses that are blooming right now, but it would take all of these commercial businesses to step up and to fund a petition so we can truly hire experts to come in here and get it done and not be having to do it off of the backs of patients and volunteers here in Oklahoma,” he said. “We would be very successful with that and it would be the sledgehammer we need to keep the lawmakers from running amok with the regulations.” The Trail Ahead While most of Oklahoma’s activists aren’t too concerned that the law and safe access will be impeded in the spring when the legislature meets, Dr. Brandon Bailey isn’t as optimistic. “I think it is gonna cause a lot of problems… we are a very conservative state by nature,” Dr. Bailey says. Dr. Bailey is 36 years old and is active duty in the Army National Guard, as well as a husband, father, and MMA fighter. He spent the first five months of this year in Northeastern Afghanistan before returning home to the Tulsa area just prior to the vote on SQ 788. He has a full schedule; in the early mornings he spends time with his hospice patients before working in his private clinic, Evolved Health and Wellness in Broken Arrow, from 9 to 5. Afterwards, he goes straight to the hospital to treat his patients there until after midnight. On the weekends he takes care of his military duties. Still, he is seeing and writing over 50 cannabis recommendations a day and traveling to the farthest and most remote parts of the state to make sure all Oklahomans have access. He does free and discounted recommendations for the severely disabled and military veterans. “My hope is to try and get as many patients into the system now,” he says. He feels that if he can register a large patient population before the legislature meets, he can show how it has worked for so many conditions and prevent them from further limiting access. “I think the biggest issue we are going to run into is the new guidelines that will come into play around February, I suspect they will be limiting conditions,” Dr. Bailey said.
President Trump is giving Americans a lot of mixed signals on cannabis. While the heightened anxieties and ramped up regulation tends to be bad for patients and small businesses in legal states, it is excellent for Wall Street investors. And, with one of these many investors likely being Trump himself, it is time for the cannabis industry and movement to stop running scared and start calling out this for-profit hypocrisy that is benefitting only Wall Street financiers and state governments at the expense of the people who are already the most victimized by the War on Drugs. The anxiety-inducing news of a secret anti-cannabis campaign brewing from within the White House drew out strong statements from both the industry and members of Congress. “President Trump is flailing on marijuana policy, sometimes saying the states should decide, while also allowing the Attorney General and other prohibition supporters in his purview to run amok. If the White House is actually spreading misinformation about marijuana to undercut states’ rights, it’s appalling but not out of the ordinary for President Trump and his gang of prohibition supporters,” U.S. Representative from Colorado Jared Polis said in a statement. And in the midst of all this, there is a storm brewing for the West Coast’s cannabis industry that could result in a lot of growers going back to the illegal market, lots of business closures, lots of cheap acquisitions by Canadian companies and an economic collapse in the traditional cannabis growing regions that relied on these community sustaining businesses. Thanks to a nationally legal medical cannabis market since 2013, Wall Street investors have been lining up through Canada’s stock exchanges to carve up America’s weed market before federal law changes stateside and these companies can get on exchanges in New York. Cannabis Collusion While early West Coast markets were truly “free and fair” in that there was zero regulation and a lot of innovation, in the more conservative parts of America the industry has been so over regulated that only a tiny amount of the wealthiest business owners can get in. Take for example the nation’s second and third most populous states, New York and Florida, which also happen to be the primary residences of President Trump and many of his pot-loving friends like Roger Stone and former campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio (whose son was once a prominent hashmaker for Terra Tech Corp (TRTC). %related-post-1% Both states started with just five vertically-integrated licenses that function more like cartels than a straight up oligopoly. And what is the difference between a cartel and an oligopoly? Simply put, collusion. While the word “monopoly” gets thrown around a lot, true monopolies rarely exist in the United States because most of the time they are illegal. What we have instead are “oligopolies”, where most of our markets are owned and controlled by just a handful of small players who compete against one another. While all oligopolies aren’t cartels, all cartels are oligopolies. The difference is that in an oligopoly the players are true competitors, in a cartel they have the ability to work together to price fix. By making the licenses rare, expensive and complicated, the same large corporate money that profited from prohibition is effectively already divvying up market shares east of the Rocky Mountains before there is a chance for natural competition from small businesses and home cultivators. West of the Rockies, the cottage industry that arose over 20 years of free medical markets is going to find that it is time to sink or swim. With over-regulation and oversupply in post-legalization California and Oregon, illegal market farmers will continue to provide work for law enforcement and small businesses will be forced to take buyouts if they are unable to sell product at below-cost rates. A Non-traditional Profit Maker Today in the nation’s largest cannabis-producing region, Oregon and Northern California, wholesale cannabis prices are bottoming out just as light deprivation and outdoor farmers are preparing to harvest their crops and further balloon the in-state legal supply gluts. Canadian corporations like Canopy Growth, which recently received a $4 billion investment from alcohol giant Constellation Brands financed by Merrill Lynch (one of the culprits of the 2007 economic crash), can afford to undercut small farmers and devour market share through this harvest season, and every year after. The price of bud, for years, has not been priced like a traditional agricultural commodity because it has only been sold on high-risk illegal markets. If national cannabis policy reflected science and reality, the whole plant would be de-scheduled, decriminalized, and the states would be left to regulate commercial markets. But if that were the case, these Wall Street investors wouldn’t be betting so big. %related-post-2% All levels of government and the politicians that comprise them benefit from choosing to regulate out small local business owners in favor of deep-pocketed donors with big investment opportunities. Simultaneously, all levels of government are continuing to pump up anti-cannabis lies and propaganda to maintain the criminal element. A great example of this is U.S. Representative from Orange County, California, Dana Rohrabacher, co-author of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prohibited the federal government from using federal law enforcement funds to go after state-licensed and legal medical cannabis businesses. Rohrabacher is both a staunch ally of President Trump and The Kremlin. He also happens to share a significant campaign finance resource, Dominion Capital, with Terra Tech Corp. (TRTC), a publicly-traded multi-state cannabis company with close ties to President Trump’s campaign. (Dominion also has some bizarre ties to Russian money). A crackdown on California or Oregon’s illegal in-state market — whose producers are constrained by only in-state demand — would certainly benefit investors in a stock like Terra Tech, which operates one of its Blum dispensaries within Rohrabacher’s district. So is President Trump invested? This is as of yet unconfirmed. But, as Trump is the only president in modern history not only to not divest from his business interests while in office but also not to disclose his tax returns, his close ties to people who are clearly invested in the industry point to the strong possibility. More importantly, if Trump were invested in Terra Tech, or other larger publicly-traded Canadian corporations, he would certainly be setting himself up to profit amid the chaos and illegal market crackdowns. Who could blame him? That’s just how business is done in America.
Two new, complementary studies about legalization in Oregon and California paint the picture of just how absurd the conflict between federal prohibition and state laws has become. Oregon has a huge supply glut going into the fall harvest season, which is likely to force out a lot of small businesses that can’t survive the limited demand and low prices. California’s black market is thriving amid a similar supply glut, over-taxation, and complicated layers of regulation and bureaucracy. Both states' illegal markets are likely to be met by law enforcement. “It’s desperately important that we end federal prohibition, that we allow export. Northern California, like Southern Oregon, is deeply dependent on the fact that those small farms have supported thousands of families and whole communities,” Adam Smith of the Craft Cannabis Alliance warned in late 2017. “And there is a very good chance, in California in particular, that [regulations] just wipe that out. If the export market was available right now, those farms would have a chance through branding themselves nationally and internationally as ‘Real California Cannabis,’ which is a product of an authentic, generations-old Northern California cannabis culture.” Informally, cannabis has been keeping small communities between Portland and San Francisco afloat for generations. The impending decline coming for this region exists in stark contrast with the billions of dollars of investment flowing through publicly traded Canadian corporations. If these communities fail, what happens to the state and national economies? Why aren’t American Main Street cannabis farmers being considered as Too Big to Fail? Oregon’s Glut The Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association meets monthly in downtown Portland and is a great place to hear what Oregon’s farmers have on their mind. At the last meeting in late July, there was a lot of anxiety about the nearly 1 million pound surplus in the state supply, only slightly lower than it was when alarm bells started ringing in February. As the fall harvest season approaches, that number could swell, plunging already rock-bottom prices even lower and forcing small businesses to merge, get acquired, or drop out of the market. In some Portland-area dispensaries, mid-grade dabs and hashes are down to anywhere between $10 to $20 a gram retail and down to $3 to $4 a gram for flower. Part of the problem is what Oregon did right. Unlike neighboring Washington and California, Oregon has a system with lower barriers to market entry, no market caps, and comparably low tax rates. According to MJBizDaily, Oregon has one cannabis producer license per 19 consumers and there is so much supply that wholesale rates of indoor flower are now as low as $300 a pound. %related-post-1% With harvest around the corner, the state has imposed new complicated rules in an effort to preempt federal enforcement. “Part of this is optics and that we need to make the system that we regulate as well-regulated as possible so that it withstands the scrutiny of federal authorities who are focused on this issue,” Oregon Liquor Control Commission spokesperson Mark Pettinger told Cannabis Business Times. “It’s our belief that if we focus as much as we can on tightening down and limiting the leaks from the legal market that we regulate, that will enable law enforcement to better concentrate and better focus on illegal activity or diversion.” Of course, the glut is great for Oregon consumers, but the smallest businesses are the most vulnerable to unsustainable prices. In Oregon, other craft agricultural and community based businesses thrive and drive significant tourism to the region annually. Without the opportunity to export product, however, the market could increasingly become oligopolistic. It’s a pretty free market, but not a very fair one. California’s Cannabis Cash Cow California legalization has been seen as the biggest prize on the map for corporate speculators since the narrow failure of Proposition 19 in 2010. And, the market may prove to be incredibly lucrative for international investors who can lose money for a few years, but it may be devastating to communities in the Northern third of the state. The rollout of legalization in California has been anything but smooth, and with layers of costly regulations heaped on the grower, the vast majority of California’s heritage farmers who make it to the legal market could drop out after this year’s harvest. Thanks to a combination of light deprivation farming and large scale outdoor natural light operations, the tsunami of bud that is about to hit the market is just starting to develop offshore. Both state’s situations, of course, perpetuate a criminal element that is profitable to law enforcement and private prisons. Both state’s situations pave the way for small companies to fold into big ones with outside money. Both state’s situations may usher in a national economic crisis as a generations-deep industry is extracted away, legally. %related-post-2% This year, Craft Cannabis Alliance executive director Adam Smith is ramping up the warning and pushing for interstate compacts that allow Oregon and California farmers to export to other states now, before the feds make a move. He sees this as agreements between exporter states and conservative medical states with restrictive cultivation programs that limit the market, and therefore quality medicine to patients. “These states are in real trouble until they can export… It is a huge problem and there is no way any of this will stabilize. Everyone is complaining about overage and diversion [to the illegal market] here. You are not going to deal with that flow into the illicit market unless there is an incentive to get a license. The only thing to do about that is open up markets,” Smith says. Smith, a native New Yorker, points to legislators in New York and New Jersey working to create in-state production industries “larger than Oregon’s, from scratch, next door to each other” to meet the sizable demand in both of these densely populated states. He says that from an industry standpoint, he doesn’t see a point in investing large amounts of money to create more production industries in places where it will not be competitive in a future national market. “The only reason not to allow export between legal states is to maintain the friction of prohibition,” Smith says. He says that maintaining the friction of prohibition could lead to “economic devastation” for in-state investors and small businesses that have “mortgaged houses, spent their life savings, and gone all in for this industry.” %related-post-3% “We are in a position where the whole thing is on the verge of collapse and the only ones who will survive are those with deep pockets from outside the state,” he says. “All these [small Oregon and California] communities will have people suffering economic devastation. In any other industry we would have political leadership yelling and screaming about supporting this in a rational way. We have to address it. We cannot talk about oversupply or illicit markets or the economic potential of this industry or the economic collapse that could happen without talking about export. It changes the dynamics on all sides of this that is positive.” Smith says that the locally owned industry is too big to sit back and watch fail and the solution is in creating market opportunities for farmers who are trying to be legal but can’t survive the in-state prices bottoming out. “[The West Coast cannabis economy] should be too big for our political leaders to allow it to fail,” Smith concludes.
Recreational use of cannabis has been legalized in Canada, but it isn't quite the legalization advocates have long fought for. In November 2017, Parliament passed the Cannabis Act (C-45) to fully legalize cannabis for all uses in the country. When it goes into effect October 17, it will make Canada the second nation in the world to do so, after Uruguay. Legalization coming to Canada is bittersweet (or even just plain bitter) for the small-scale businesses and activists that have worked to pave the way for this moment and are now getting shut out of the legal industry. Because Canada already has had a publicly-traded and federally legal medical marijuana market since 2013, it is on course to dominate the global marijuana trade at the expense of locally owned small businesses everywhere. From Compassionate Use to Capitalist Use In 2001, Canada became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana for medical use. Like similar legislation passed in California five years earlier, patients could grow their own or designate another grower to do it for them. In this way, Canada’s “designated growers,” or “DG’s,” had a similar rise in early medical markets to “collectives” and “caregivers” that were directly serving patients in the U.S. Canada’s road to legalization has mirrored that of its southern neighbors’ in many ways, but with one notable exception; sweeping federal medical legislation paved the way for Canada to corporatize the industry while maintaining a criminal element and securing domination in the global marijuana trade. In 2013, influenced by the momentum generated by the recent passage of legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, the Conservative government under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper passed the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR). The MMPR replaced the smaller-scale DG’s, often criticized as being a front for organized crime, with large-scale corporate Licensed Producers (LPs). Because LPs have been legal cannabis producers nationwide in Canada since 2013, they have been public entities for just as long. When Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau was challenging Harper in the 2015 elections, he vowed to legalize marijuana nationwide “right away” if elected. In 2016, the Liberal government began discussing plans to carry out the campaign promise and, in November 2017, approved C-45, set to go into effect October 17. %related-post-1% Because LP’s will now be serving an adult use market the size of California, there has been a rush of mergers and acquisitions in Canada and the U.S. as global investors seek to stake their claim on these foundational global markets. State-legal companies profiting from the sale of cannabis have been unable to make the leap to Wall Street in the U.S. and many have joined forces or sold out entirely to Canadian LPs with Wall Street ambitions when federal law changes stateside. In February of this year, Toronto-based Cronos Group (CRON) became the first Canadian corporation to be listed on the NASDAQ, marking a milestone for Wall Street. Cronos also has research holdings in Israel and makes pharmaceutical cannabis products, an industry that has been brewing in Canada since the MMPR and the looming FDA approval of GW Pharmaceuticals Epidiolex in the U.S. market. In March, Cronos acquired California-based MedMen, a billion-dollar company with a corner on the Los Angeles market, now the largest adult use marijuana market in the world. Cronos plans to roll out the MedMen brand in Canada when C-45 goes into effect. Until recently, Cronos has boasted that it had the largest marijuana cultivation facility in the world at 315,000 square feet. In February, Canopy Growth Corporation (WEED) announced an over 1 million square foot facility in British Columbia. Other competitors may seek to top that ahead of the October roll out as well. In the meantime, patients have suffered from lack of access to DG’s, and small businesses have been shut out of the legal market, meaning the multi-generation growers in places like British Columbia will remain outlaws after legalization takes effect and will potentially face stiffer penalties than before if caught. Not Legal Enough The grassroots activists who paved the way for the Canada’s C-45 aren’t exactly thrilled. Just as in the United States, medical or adult use cannabis legislation has often come at a big cost to the small businesses and compassion communities that drove the issue into the mainstream. “Cannabis legalization should be about civil liberties, not about making big money on the stock market,” says well-known Canadian activist Jodie Emery. Emery was speaking to Global News Canada from a 420 celebration this year in Vancouver, British Columbia, about why the work isn’t done and they will still be practicing peaceful protest next 420. “420 will definitely be a protest as long as there is still stigma and discrimination against people for cannabis. Even if the federal government legalizes it, their legislation actually introduces tougher penalties, so everything that happens here today will still be illegal next year. That’s why we have to keep protesting,” Emery said. Canadian legalization does not take place until October 17, and not a minute before. In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear that, right now, there is no plan to retroactively remove marijuana offenses and there will be no stop to arrests and prosecutions until legal sales begin this fall. %related-post-2% “We recognize that anyone who is currently purchasing marijuana is participating in illegal activity that is funding criminal organizations and street gangs. Once the law is changed, we will, of course, reflect on fairness in a way that is responsible going forward, and therefore we do not want to encourage in any way people to engage in that behavior until the law is changed,” Trudeau told reporters at a press conference in January. Globe and Mail columnist Andre Picard echos activist Jodie Emery’s sentiments, “Canada is taking a much more convoluted and outdated approach [than some American states].” Picard points out that the current Controlled Drugs and Substances act only lists eight cannabis-related offenses, while C-45 will have 45, “and many penalties will be far stiffer.” But he warns most importantly about the new “illicit cannabis” classification. “The new law will also create something called ‘illicit cannabis’ – covering all products that are not purchased in a provincially-regulated store, or grown legally. If you distribute "illicit cannabis" to a minor, i.e. share a joint with a teenager or sell them a bit of pot, you could face a $15,000 fine and 18 months in prison for a summary offence and up to 14 years in prison for an indictable offence. By comparison, selling liquor to a minor will land you a maximum fine of $10,000 in most provinces,” Picard writes. He says it is especially problematic in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, where “they are creating a state-run monopoly.” And therein lies the rub. Canada isn’t decriminalizing and de-scheduling cannabis, it is regulating a commercial market while retaining the right to arrest people. It’s the same model as adult use legalization in the United States, and while possessing legally produced cannabis will be legal, this isn’t the legalization advocates have fought for.
Could the blatant contradictions of federal drug policies that categorize the cannabis plant as dangerous — but now consider the plant's most active compounds as safe — spur lasting change in federal cannabis policy? Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved GW Pharmaceuticals’s Epidiolex (Cannabidiol), ushering in a new and controversial era of cannabis medicine. Unlike prior pharmaceutical drugs based on synthesized compounds in cannabis, Epidiolex is a standardized plant extract designed to deliver a consistent dose of the sought-after “no-high” cannabinoid CBD. Epidiolex has not yet been scheduled, but has been approved for use in rare treatment-resistant epilepsy diagnoses such as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. In a press release announcing the approval, GW says it expects to be scheduled and available for prescription within 90 days. It is possible that in the future it could be prescribed for off-label use. The cost is still to be determined. “These patients deserve and will soon have access to a cannabinoid medicine that has been thoroughly studied in clinical trials, manufactured to assure quality and consistency, and available by prescription under a physician’s care,” Justin Gover, GW’s Chief Executive Officer said in the press statement. A Long-Awaited Approval This approval has been both anticipated and feared in the cannabis community. The anticipators include the epilepsy community — especially those in states where medical cannabis is illegal — as well as investors and speculators, who have been hyping GW’s stock as the approval has loomed on the horizon. The fearful include activists and West Coast patient communities that see the approval of these drugs as the true end of state compassion programs. The decision also further highlights the federal government’s hypocritical cannabis policy, which views the whole cannabis plant as Schedule I with no accepted medical use yet has now approved a single plant derivative as medically efficacious. While much of the justification to prohibit cannabis has been the presence of the high-inducing THC, synthetic THC has actually been an FDA-approved Schedule III drug since 1985. The blatant contradictions of a policy that categorizes the plant as dangerous and its most active compounds, THC and CBD, as safe is already being used by advocates to push for federal change in cannabis policy. In a pre-emptive statement, the FDA immediately rebutted that claim and used the opportunity instead to stress the importance of clinical trials on isolated compounds saying: “This product approval demonstrates that advancing sound scientific research to investigate ingredients derived from marijuana can lead to important therapies. … This is an important medical advance. But it’s also important to note that this is not an approval of marijuana or all of its components. This is the approval of one specific CBD medication for a specific use. And it was based on well-controlled clinical trials evaluating the use of this compound in the treatment of a specific condition. Moreover, this is a purified form of CBD. It’s being delivered to patients in a reliable dosage form and through reproducible route of delivery to ensure that patients derive the anticipated benefits. This is how sound medical science is advanced. … It’s a path that is available to other product developers who want to bring forth marijuana-derived products through appropriate drug development programs.” The cannabis plant, even when it contains high amounts of THC, is non-toxic and non-lethal. Educated use is incredibly safe and the worst side effect of uneducated or naive use is anxiety and paranoia. As far as deaths or long-term health damage, cannabis is safer than alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, food additives, and most over-the-counter and prescription medications. Further, researchers have already determined that genetically diverse botanical cannabis markets (such as those in Colorado or on the West Coast) provide better options for patients because of “the entourage effect” and how the plant works in the human body. %related-post-1% Some commercial and home growers may be worrying about how this may impact them growing high-CBD varietals. While GW Pharmaceuticals holds a host of controversial patents on cannabinoid medicines, many farmers are not expressing concern, but those worried about plant patenting are saying now is a good time to protect common use genetics. “The more big pharmaceutical companies that we see coming on to the scene and the more patents that they hold, the harder it will be for everyone else,” says Beth Schecter. Schecter is the executive director of the non-profit Open Cannabis Project, which is currently working to open-source cannabis varietal data to prevent predatory patenting that would threaten genetics farmers are already growing. She says the OCP is sequencing botanical varieties, so extracts and pharmaceutical isolates like Epidiolex fall outside the realm of what they are covering, but more of the industry should be working to open source data before the impending wave of drugs that will follow this approval. She also points to the unfair nature of the foreign research that allowed GW Pharmaceuticals to be the first. In the United States, FDA drug approval costs anywhere from $500 million to billions of dollars. Naturally, only the best-financed firms can afford to research, develop, and market new drugs. In the U.S., in order to study cannabis, researchers must obtain the raw bud to study from the government itself. The government’s bud, grown on a single farm on the University of Mississippi, contains less than a third of the THC content found commercially in legal markets and is notoriously bad. Last year, researchers looking to study cannabis for the treatment of PTSD in war veterans were sent moldy samples to work with, stalling the project. GW Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, is located in Great Britain and enjoys government support and the exclusive legal right to grow large warehouses of botanical high quality cannabis to conduct its research and development. “[Epidiolex] was not subject to U.S. regulation in terms of testing and was able to do better testing than people in the U.S.,” Schecter says. What Does This Mean for the Market? Questions are mounting about the ramifications of the approval on the national CBD market. For Realm of Caring, the company that rode the biggest wave of demand for its high-CBD variety “Charlotte’s Web” after it was featured on CNN in 2013, the approval of Epidiolex is a good thing, but they stress that it is not the same as botanical cannabis. “Many of you ask us what we think about this news,” the company wrote on its social media pages. “We are happy that families will have a pharmaceutical option. History has been made with the first cannabinoid-based pharmaceutical in the U.S. The administration of a whole plant botanical extract is very different than the protocols for an isolated CBD. We look forward to continuing to serve the community as we always have! This means more options for families who don’t have any!” %related-post-2% The stories of children with treatment-resistant epilepsy that emerged in 2013 as a result of the CNN special generated an insatiable demand for “no-high medical marijuana” not just for epileptics, but for patients around the country still uncomfortable with the social stigmas of marijuana use but desperate to try it. Because of confusion and loopholes in federal law, international companies and unregulated small producers have capitalized on the demand for CBD medicines by selling “hemp-derived” CBD products. While there is no technical difference between “hemp” and “marijuana” because they refer to different uses of the same cannabis plant, “hemp” is legally classified as less than 0.3% THC allowing these companies to market their products as “legal.” Not all CBD stakeholders are as positive as Realm of Caring, however. Longtime federal hemp lobbyist Ben Droz told HEMP Magazine, “The federal government could increase enforcement against CBD companies not approved by the FDA, which is to say, everyone besides GW Pharmaceuticals.” The generic name of Epidiolex is simply “cannabidiol.” Whether or not having FDA-approved CBD will spur a crackdown on state-legal producers in medical and legal marijuana markets or ramp up crackdowns on underground producers remains to be seen. The DEA has previously reinforced that CBD is, in fact, not legal federally, but so far they have not cracked down on licensed and regulated producers in medical, recreational, and CBD-only states. They have busted up unregulated oil producers, but not to the extent that it has even made a dent in the supplies of oils being marketed as “hemp CBD” still making their way to consumers around the nation. Ideology, Not Science It’s important to note that the federal government’s policies here are ideological, not scientific, in nature. Much of the current approach to drugs and medicine in the U.S. is still rooted in an ideological belief in “good” and “bad” substances, with little regard to science and actual practical use. Richard DeGrandpre labeled this ideology as “pharmacologicalism” in his book, The Cult of Pharmocology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture. “Technically speaking, pharmacologicalism, like racism, is an ideological system rooted in a set of assumptions that, although false and exaggerated, govern a whole range of perceptions, understanding and actions,” DeGrandpre writes. The idea that a single plant compound that has been tested in isolation is safer than a natural plant compound taken in the way other plants are consumed is an unproven theory, but one that remains incredibly profitable for pharmaceutical companies and the greater healthcare-industrial complex at large.
While 94 percent of Americans support access to medical cannabis, it remains a crime for any reason in 31 states and at the federal level. These numbers are beyond baffling considering traditionally conservative states like Utah, Missouri, and Oklahoma actually support in-state medical cannabis programs but are still having to beg for money and mercy to change the law and decriminalize their use. What is holding these states back? Publicly, the influential opposition has maintained its hold on these 31 states by inflaming the culture war between conservative and liberal ideologies. But with 94 percent of Americans actually agreeing on medical cannabis, the endless culture wars are simply “good business” — a distraction from the true incentive the powerful minority opposition to this issue has to suppress it. (Let that be a lesson from the world of cannabis to all American politics!) From late 2013 through mid-2015, I lived in Salt Lake City and commuted to work for a cannabis magazine in Berkeley, in my home state of California. During that time, Utah became the first state in the nation to pass a CBD-only medical cannabis law. I worked with local activists to promote whole-plant legislation, which would eventually make it to the Senate floor in January 2015; former Senator Mark Madsen’s S.B. 259. Despite the Mormon-led movement towards medical cannabis pushing the issue to critical mass, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) worked behind the scenes then to kill the bill and would do it two more times in the state legislature. %related-post-1% Last year, activists took the base of Madsen’s bill and announced they would be running it as a ballot initiative in the 2018 midterms. It qualified for the November ballot on April 20 and support for the issue is now hovering between 70 and 80 percent in most state polls. In May, the Mormon Church declared its opposition in conjunction with a paid campaign led by the Utah Medical Association with support from DEA-affiliated law enforcement groups to approach signers of the initiative petition and ask them to remove their signature. This attempt was unsuccessful. It's About Money What exactly was motivating them to put so much money and energy into preventing the chronic and fatally ill access to non-toxic botanical cannabis plant? As a patient myself, I want to believe they are motivated by ignorance because it excuses the fact that they are pushing for people like me to suffer needlessly. But, for years, I (and others) have hypothesized that the LDS Church may have significant financial holdings in pharmaceutical companies threatened by legalized cannabis and that may be what truly motivates their opposition. It looks like the financial incentive is now fact, not speculation. Late last month the website MormonLeaks.com released documents detailing $32 billion in private stock investments owned by the LDS Church. I combed through this list and made some startling discoveries. Beyond the fact that you couldn’t boycott this tax-exempt church if you tried (they have holdings in everything from World Wrestling Entertainment to Google, Amazon, and Facebook), the major takeaway is that these finances paint a real clear picture about why the Church has worked to block access to botanical cannabis; it’s just business. I found that not only does the Church have nearly $2 billion tied up in pharmaceutical companies and specifically all the major ones producing and profiting from synthetic cannabinoid drugs, which represented about $1.2 billion in total investment, but the Church’s portfolios also rely heavily on these drugs in other ways; they own stock in health insurance companies that are reimbursed by Medicare when they prescribe these drugs, they own stock in companies that make medical equipment that delivers these drugs and they own stock in companies that research and market these drugs. They also own stock in major opiate manufacturers, companies that make opiate addiction treatment drugs and for-profit drug rehabs specializing in opiate addiction. %related-post-2% Here are just a few takeaways about the Church-led opposition in Utah, but this list should serve as a reference for activists and politicians in the rest of the states where cannabis is illegal so that they can also uncover the motivations of their opposition. The main takeaway? None of these shenanigans will end — and therefore no patient or consumer will be safe — until the federal government fully decriminalizes all interactions with the cannabis plant and removes it entirely from the Controlled Substances Act. We, as American citizens, must declare that WE are “too big to fail,” not banks, pharmaceutical companies, and private prisons. 1. Abbot Laboratories and AbbVie, $242,632,247.90 The LDS Church owns 263,553 shares of AbbVie (ABBV) and 3,463,432 shares of Abbott Laboratories (ABT), currently worth $25,717,501.74 and $216,914,746.16, respectively. Amid the “medical marijuana” buzz coming out of the gay community in San Francisco in the 1980s — at the height of the AIDS epidemic — Abbott Laboratories developed a standardized drug made from a synthesized version of what was thought at the time to be the only “active ingredient” in cannabis: delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Dronabinol, aka Marinol. Marinol is pure synthetic THC suspended in sesame oil and was FDA-approved as a Schedule III drug in 1985 that causes side effects that don’t occur with botanical cannabis use and ultimately led to the discovery of the entourage effect. It is regularly prescribed to children and adults and considered safe to drive on after the user develops a tolerance. Of course, the irony in this is that the existence of THC — a Schedule III drug — is what is used to justify the Schedule I status of the cannabis plant as well as the continued over-regulation of high-THC producing cannabis in states where it is legal. Abbott Laboratories currently owns the rights to the drug Dexabinol (originally developed by Solvay Pharmaceuticals), which is also a synthetic cannabinoid drug. AbbVie is a spin-off independent company of Abbott Laboratories and is the current manufacturer of Marinol. AbbVie’s real cash cow, however, is a drug called Humira. Humira is among the most profitable drugs in world history and makes tens of billions a year in net profits. Humira was first prescribed to treat Crohn’s Disease (which I have) but has since (like its sister drug Remicade) been prescribed for a whole host of autoimmune- and inflammation-based chronic conditions, like arthritis. As cannabis and diet therapy continues to show more and more promise for people like me, they become a major threat to the bottom lines of companies like Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie. Oh yeah, and drugs like Humira and Remicade work by suppressing the immune system, meaning users are plagued with infections, their chances of cancer increase over time it, and side effects can become unbearable. (I say this from first-hand experience.) 2. Cara Therapeutics, $1,654,404.36 The LDS Church owns 98,126 shares of Cara Therapeutics (CARA), which at current valuation is worth $1,654,404.36. While $1.6 million is nothing to balk at, it is a drop in the bucket compared to some of the Church’s other more significant holdings. However, Cara is a notable investment because the company focuses on pain medications and specifically medications made of synthetic cannabinoids or those targeting the endocannabinoid system. 3. Celgene, $333,529,156.88 The LDS Church owns 4,310,276 shares of Celgene (CELG), which has partnered with Abide Therapeutics to develop synthetic cannabinoid medicines for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis. The Church is likely one of Celgene’s largest shareholders. 4. CoreCivic Inc, $6,626,308 CoreCivic Inc. is not a pharmaceutical company, but the largest for-profit privately held prison corporation in the world. Formerly known as Corrections Corporations of America, this powerful industry has lobbied the federal government to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and has seen its value soar along with the American population of incarcerated persons. It is a relevant addition to any list like this because it shows a direct profit incentive in lobbying to keep cannabis a crime at the federal level. 5. Endo International plc, Gilead Sciences, Inc., GlaxoSmithKilne plc & Johnson & Johnson, $574,060,653.92 The LDS Church owns 89,400 shares of Endo International (ENDP, worth $793,872), 1,398,859 shares of Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD, worth $99,724,658.11), 45,800 shares of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK, worth $1,884,212) and 3,846,187 shares of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ, worth 471,657,911.81). Notably, Johnson & Johnson has invested in an entire firm to study and develop FDA-approved cannabinoid drugs. All of these companies hold patents to study or develop cannabinoid drugs, many are already in the process. 6. Valeant Pharmaceuticals, $102,068 The LDS Church owns 3,800 shares of Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX) valued at just $102,068. This is a notable inclusion for a couple reasons; this is “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli’s company and they are the producers of Cesamet, a commonly prescribed synthetic cannabinoid med.
Distinct varieties of cannabis do exist. Just not in the way we want to believe. In 2008, the marijuana industry and cannabis movement threw their weight behind Barack Obama in his historic campaign to become president of the United States. “Yes We Cannabis” posters were a prominent sight at industry events that year, and a popular strain called Obama Kush was flying off the shelves in San Francisco Bay Area dispensaries. I couldn’t help myself, I purchased my own bag of Obama Kush, but mostly so I could save the packaging. It was unprecedented: how often do you get to buy a bag of weed that is also a statement of support for a candidate who (we thought at the time) would end federal prohibition? The answer? Any time someone decides to sell it to you. Today, if a grower thinks their Blue Dream could command a higher price, they could simply decide to rename it say, “Trump Troll Trainwreck,” and watch it fly off shelves. (And no, the irony is not lost on me that the Trump administration could be pushed into truly ending prohibition). Trump Troll Trainwreck is about as real as the majority of strains the cannabis plant is marketed as (despite me just making it up) because strain names are not scientific fact. Whatever name is given to the buds in the bag, that’s what they become. Trying to understand strains by their given names confuses the matter more — that would be like trying to understand human populations by using their given names rather than genetics or regional cultures. %related-post-1% It’s not to say distinct varieties don’t exist, just not in the way we want to believe, and a lot of the same stuff goes by a lot of different names. Sometimes, as genetic testing in the Phylos Bioscience galaxy shows, samples by the same strain name are genetically distant from one another. Some “clonal groups” go by a ton of different names in different places for the exact same cut. The names in relation to the genetics themselves are a mess due to decades of underground breeding, illegal markets, and our current Green Rush hype. The human family tree is similarly a mess because we humans also are somewhat all related to one another. First names mean nothing at all, except perhaps as a cultural signifier. Last names are changeable by adoption, marriage or legal will. Names have been changed when immigrants adapt to new cultures, such as almost all of those that resettled to the United States over the last century. Names are a useless way to study populations of humans, plants, or anything else. By studying various populations in relation to their DNA, humans are just starting to translate and understand it. Cannabis genomic sequencing, similarly, has just begun, though various groups are now doing it, and making their data public domain to prevent patenting of common use genetics via the Open Cannabis Project. We are just now beginning to understand cannabis genomic populations, but we will never fully sort this mess out because we will continue to brand our buds with fun names despite maybe never knowing true DNA, thanks to a thriving underground grow culture, prohibition-charged black market, and marketing efficacy. But if strain names mean nothing, how does one predict the effects of a variety before they buy it? Packaging And Experiencing Don’t judge a book by its cover. A ton of people choose their weed at a dispensary by reading the names or by simply choosing whatever has the highest THC content. The most accurate way of understanding the effects is by the bud’s chemotype: or complete profile of naturally occurring compounds including cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids. We don’t even know what all of these compounds are or what they do or how they work synergistically yet, but we do know that all of them taken together are what create the specific effects in that specific plant. This concept of whole-plant versus isolates probably goes beyond cannabis to all plant-derived drugs and is explained by “the entourage effect.” We also know those available plant compounds are altered by processing or method of ingestion and can be different at different times of day or different parts of the grow cycle. Two clones of the same plant experiencing different environments and lifestyles — or different farmers — can produce somewhat different chemotypes. The point being that with plants, and nature in general, there is no such thing as “standard.” %related-post-2% The effects of a plant on the human body are never exactly the same. Plants — like humans and every other biological organism — are never ever standard the way pharmaceutical drugs created by humans in labs are. Every harvested plant is a combination of two highly variable things: nature and nurture. So the best way to choose a variety? While knowing the THC, CBD, and other significant cannabinoid ratios is helpful, let your nose guide you. Cannabinoids act like the fuel, but terpenes (the smell) act like the steering wheel, and have a large influence on what sort of high you can expect. Biology Is Not Chemistry While those smells might tell you what you should expect, other people may feel different from the same exact thing. Just like the cannabis plant, a living biological organism, we are genetically variant, unique, and ever-evolving human beings who respond to different cannabis cultivars in different ways. When something comes from nature, it is designed by DNA. DNA contains the potential for what an embryo (or seed) can become, but it is not fate. Each living thing has its own unique genetic code as well as its unique life experiences that make them what they are at that moment in time (nature vs. nurture). Living organisms are not static things, they change over time and when they reproduce, they make 100 percent unique blends of DNA for the new organism to grow from. This means every seed, like every human baby, is 100 percent genetically unique. %related-post-3% With pharmaceutical drugs, standardization is everything. Pharmaceuticals come in consistent dosages of consistent isolated or combined compounds. For the most part, it is easier to become tolerant to compounds when prescribed in a pharmaceutical format. For instance, when using a pharmaceutical opiate for pain relief, over time the user will become tolerant to their initial dosage and will eventually need increasingly larger doses in order to achieve the same pain relieving effects. With cannabis, using a different variety, or blending varieties, is often more effective than increasing dosage. It at least makes me wonder if natural botanical opium poppies, from which the opiate compound was stolen and isolated, could be less addictive than opiate pharmaceuticals due to their ever-changing array of complete plant compounds? We don’t actually know, because we have never tested the theory. A strain is nothing but a name, a cultivar is the unique harvested bud in front of you that is a combination of its nature and its nurture. Every unique thing must be treated uniquely. The Perfect Strain There are a lot of ways to distinguish the genetic families in this plant other than using the word “strain”. Some people choose to use varieties or varietals, which is a great way of referring to the genetically distinct families within the cannabis genome. Others tend to refer to them as a “cultivar,” taking into account the plant’s genotype (DNA), it’s chemotype (its unique blend of compounds) and its phenotype (what it looks like) and recognizing the bud as the final finished product of both its parents and its caregivers. As far as ascribing too much meaning to any of this, we just don’t have enough information yet. Phylos and other genome mappers have discovered distinct families, such as Haze, that truly exist, but because Haze is such a large family with lots of breeding, inbreeding, cloning, and crossing into other family lines, it's hard to draw too many conclusions that are accurate to the entire Haze family other than their shared DNA — and DNA is a language we humans are just learning how to translate on all living things. %related-post-4% Herbalism is not pharmacologicalism, and there is no right strain, variety, or cultivar for anyone or anything. Humanity is not pharmacologicalism, we all sleep different, eat different, metabolize different, and prefer difference. The only way to find out what works for you is to understand what you can with what science is available and then try it yourself and see what happens. One day, if research is no longer incentivized by the sale of for-profit drugs, we might be able to make some more accurate predictions about the effects of all sorts of plants humans use therapeutically. Until that time, we must stop looking at this plant like a pill. A lot of the hype around cannabis strains is based in the idea of finding “the best” or the perfectly matched cultivar to treat specific diagnoses. Pharmaceutical companies are pouring a ton of money into this concept, as are botanical cannabis companies. What we need is a greater study of herbalism — understanding plant synergies — in order to truly guide educated use by empowered human patients. If we truly wish to understand the cannabis plant, we must let nature guide us, and nature is not standard.
Despite being home to the world’s largest cannabis pharmaceutical manufacturer, or perhaps because of it, efforts in the United Kingdom to provide safe access to botanical cannabis for the chronic and terminally ill are stymied, at least for now. Local activist groups are divided on end goals, but are all closely watching a bill introduced in Parliament last October by Paul Flynn of the Labour Party. Flynn has been leading the charge alone and has faced considerable opposition from within his own party. Flynn has been outspoken about the hypocrisy he sees in the policy as he has struggled to even get his legislation debated in the House of Commons. He has voiced his frustrations about the lack of safe access for suffering citizens to the press, stating publicly, “I would urge them to break the law, because the law, in this case, is an ass.” Flynn’s bill would move the cannabis plant from Schedule I to Schedule II, an acknowledgement that it does, indeed, have medicinal value. “It is a simple matter, the law states that cannabis has no medical advantages, which is an absurdity and very bad science. Whereas, in other parts of the law, the government is actually growing cannabis and promoting its use in some forms, and not the most effective forms in my view,” Flynn said. Formally, No Accepted Medical Value In the UK, cannabis remains federally illegal and a Schedule I controlled drug with no accepted medical use. If this sounds familiar to Americans, that is because it is by design. In 1961, 186 nations (including both the United States and United Kingdom) signed an international treaty, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, that laid out plans to organize drugs by medicinal value, regulate them accordingly, and work together to ensure conformity of international laws. As a result, the U.S. filled its treaty obligations to create agreed-upon drug scheduling through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, in the UK it was the United Kingdom Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. Inevitably, international scheduling and profit-driven research has tended to deem pharmaceutical patented medicines safer than the plants they are derived from. UK citizens caught simply possessing could be punished with fines and up to five years in prison. Producers and distributors face up to 14 years if charged. Even though prohibition is still the law of the land, arrests and incarceration for cannabis have declined by 33 and 48 percent, respectively, since 2010, and some local police jurisdictions have decided not to focus their resources on enforcing cannabis laws at all. There also happens to be a large network of cannabis social clubs that have created a safe access program and distribution scheme that is currently serving the demand for botanical cannabis. %related-post-1% One company, however, has the exclusive ability to produce cannabis medicines in the UK and is about to become the first FDA-approved pharmaceutical manufacturer of such medicines in the United States: GW Pharmaceuticals. GW Pharmaceuticals has two drugs approved for use in the UK and other parts of the world now, Sativex™ (nabiximols) and Epidiolex™ (cannabidiol). Unlike predecessor cannabinoid-drugs, like Marinol™ (dronabinol), a drug consisting solely of synthetic delta 9-THC (which was FDA-approved in the US in 1985), Epidiolex and Sativex are alcohol-based tinctures derived from whole botanical cannabis that utilize “the entourage effect” not found in isolates like Marinol. The impending approval of Epidiolex for treatment in drug-resistant epilepsy has hyped GW’s stock, which some believe could grow nearly 50 percent after the approval. On one hand, when the US starts approving drugs like Epidiolex and Sativex, activists can point to their approval as proof cannabis itself is safe, and that is essentially the argument Flynn is making with his bill now in UK Parliament. On the other hand, getting any drug through the approval processes to market and turning a profit can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and that money doesn’t come cheap. The very nature of proving cannabis is safe is also what may prevent the plant itself from decriminalization: research work is not charity nor is it government sponsored, it is a for-profit endeavor and GW Pharmaceuticals are not the only company looking to profit from the international demand for cannabis medicine. Investment groups in the UK, US and Canada have been clamoring to put their money into competing ventures. Many UK and US activists are distrustful of pharmaceutical-cannabis companies like GW because they feel the profit-incentive is in direct conflict with the social justice and human rights goals at the core of the medical cannabis movement. Flynn describes his goals as getting medicine to patients first, but also calling attention to the failure of cannabis prohibition as a whole and a call to follow the available science and learn from history. Flynn’s Effort Flynn introduced The Legislation of Cannabis for Medical Purposes Act (Bill 108) in October 2017. When the bill finally received a reading in Parliament this February, it was effectively filibustered by members of his own party and the second of three readings in the House of Commons was pushed to this June. Flynn attributes the opposition from within his own party to one thing: “cowardice.” Like the United States, the United Kingdom has a bicameral government. Legislation must be approved by both houses and the head of state before it becomes law. Unlike the US, not all of England’s Parliament are elected. The House of Commons (or, “house of commoners”) is democratically elected and functions much like the U.S. House of Representatives (except the live debates are way better television). Legislation either starts by citizen petition or is brought by a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons. Legislation must then be approved by the royally-appointed House of Lords (like the Senate) before being approved by the Queen. While there are currently about 10 parties represented in Parliament, the majority are either Conservatives (Tories) or Labour Party. %related-post-1% Flynn is a member of the Labour Party and has served as a member of Parliament since 1987 representing the Welsh constituency of Newport West. Flynn has a professional background in science, having worked for nearly 30 years as an industrial chemist, which he says is how he has come to the conclusion cannabis is safe and prohibition is the real problem. He says that beyond “killing people and wasting huge sums of money”, he is motivated to continue pushing cannabis law reform because the UK’s current policies are “especially cruel to those who suffer ailments that cannabis will treat He says that while he has some support among other Labour MPs, leadership has no desire to even give his bill a fair hearing. He doesn’t go as far as suggesting the government (or individual members) have a financial incentive to continue the criminalization of botanical cannabis while giving the green light to GW Pharmaceuticals to supply the world. He does, however, point to the fact that fellow MP Victoria Atkins is married to the general manager of British Sugar, Paul Kenward, who are the exclusive growers of cannabis for GW. Atkins, a Conservative, also happens to be the UK Drugs Minister and works directly under the Home Office (the UK equivalent of the DEA). British Sugar was historically a part of the British government and although they are a private company today, the close ties to Parliament remain. On a side note, here is an enlightening video of Victoria Atkins having a friendly public discussion with the United State’s “quarterback of the anti-legalization movement”, Kevin Sabet: https://youtu.be/xunngQDv9SQ Despite the uphill climb, Flynn, an octogenarian with no other political ambitions, says he will continue pushing forward with this issue because someone must take a stand against “politicians acting in blind denial of the facts and evidence.” In the UK, Parliament will consider for debate issues brought by citizens if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures for the issue. In 2015, a petition to fully legalize cannabis received 203,000 signatures, at the time the second-highest ever for a citizen petition. Parliament refused to debate it. The Elephant in the Room “In the UK, this money, this backing and this manipulation has really split the activist scene and caused a lot of distrust between a lot of people and a lot of organizations,” said Alistar Burrell. Burrell adds that most groups are suspecting the others of being more invested in “money and positioning” rather than simply changing a law together because they think it is wrong. Burrell, an IT professional by trade, also runs the Bristol cannabis social club, organized by the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC). The UKCSC operates similar to early US medical collectives and operate outside of the law. They are an organized network of regional clubs that bring cannabis consumers and growers together to “make sure everyone gets what they need”. For medical patients, they send product to a Spanish testing lab to screen for pesticides and measure potency. (No, he is not worried that Brexit will hinder this). Unlike the UPA, the UKCSC takes both a medical and social justice approach, advocating for decriminalization and a citizen’s right to grow their own. %related-post-3% He says enforcement of cannabis laws in the UK vary by region and police force, but in Bristol, a city of artists and musicians, police are no longer prioritizing cannabis crimes. While Burrell generally supports Flynn’s legislation, he acknowledges that even if it passed, the clubs would remain outside the law. He also feels it doesn’t have support in Parliament largely because of financial interests in companies like GW Pharmaceuticals. “I don’t trust any of of these guys because they are purely looking at the money to be made. The problem with big business is once you start spending money, you want that to come back again,” said Burrell. “It’s utterly fucked,” said Tom Lincoln, a London-based actor, cannabis patient and activist. “How should we wait months and months and months for the government to even decide they are going to hear this, and all the while we labor on under [a law that states cannabis has] no medical benefit and no one is licensed to sell it? Whereas, the big elephant in the room is GW Pharma.” Lincoln recently started volunteering with one of the more prominent cannabis groups, the United Patients Alliance (UPA), though he supports and works with activists across various groups. The UPA have a professionally-branded campaign and media presence, but do not promote the right to grow at home, eschew acts of civil disobedience and have taken a somewhat controversial stance of embracing GW Pharmaceuticals. The UPA is the most organized group supporting patients, but activists outside of it point to big business ties on the group’s board that they feel drive its motivations. In 2017, they added a new trustee and small-time donor, Gavin Sathianathan, CEO of Forma Holdings. Forma has a partnership with Oxford University to study and produce cannabinoid-medicines in much the same way as GW Pharmaceuticals. Forma, which has offices in London and Los Angeles, was formed and financed through partners at Kingsley Capital. Forma also has a separate fund, Anthos Ventures, which includes investments in most of the operations affiliated with California cannabis magnate Steve D’Angelo: Harborside Health Center, FLRish and The Arcview Group. Also under Anthos is Altai Brands, which include Dixie Elixirs and Foria cannabis lube. They maybe best remembered for the meat platter served on a mostly-nude model at an after party for the 2016 MJBizCon in Las Vegas. So, while the UK may be the world’s biggest producer of cannabis pharmaceuticals and among the biggest financiers of the global industry, consumers and patients are stuck outside Parliament begging for mercy. Pharmaceutical Extracts versus Botanical Access Despite being an untested theory, the theory of pharmacologicalism has prevailed in Western medicine. It goes like this: isolated or synthesized patentable plant compounds are safer than the plants they come from. It may sound crazy, but the entire drug scheduling and drug approval system used in the United States, the United Kingdom and hundreds of other countries, is based on this false but profitable premise. As this unproven ideology prevails, patients suffer. In speaking of his inspiration to bring about the schedule change in the UK, Paul Flynn points to the case of Alfie Dingley, an epileptic boy who suffers over 150 seizures daily. The Home Office has said they would consider allowing Dingley legal access to cannabis medicines, but have yet to make a decision. The Home Office has previously denied the Dingleys, and they may have to wait for the legal version, produced by GW, to be approved. Still, Flynn is pushing for the approach to follow the science. “There isn’t any rational reason left to deny cannabis is a medicine,” Flynn said.
Key to the cannabis industry's maturation process is the filtering out of misinformation, replacing it with a science-based, factual appreciation for the plant. Emma Chasen is helping lead that charge. Because of the nature of prohibition, we humans may have had a ton of interactions with the cannabis plant, yet we still know very little about how it works. As more state laws bring regulated commercial cannabis in some form or another to more places, there is a similar proliferation in bogus science-based claims, usually from the sales-end of the market. It is more important than ever that we understand the science behind our interactions with the plant because that understanding has the potential to change American research and healthcare for the better. It is in that spirit that Emma Chasen, a Portland, Oregon-based cannabis educator and consultant takes to her lesson plans: science will save us. And, the key to the saving grace of science is getting people to understand it. Chasen has developed a curriculum for both industry professionals and lay people seeking to understand how cannabis works and how to better predict and advise medical use with different varieties. As a cannabis science geek with ten years of independent science study myself, I was shocked by how much even I had to learn, but excited about how lucky I was to be getting the inside scoop from Chasen. She has a knack for taking complicated, dense scientific concepts and distilling them down into digestible lessons. Sitting in on a recent class she was teaching for the Sativa Science Club, I was in awe of just how informed she had taken her classroom full of newbies in a matter of weeks: they were easily grasping concepts and asking complex questions about topics most of the industry's “experts” still hardly understand. Chasen developed her groundbreaking curriculum last summer, after about two years as the director of education responsible for training budtenders at one of Portland’s most science and research based cannabis dispensaries, Farma. In 2015, about a year after completing her college degree, she moved cross-country from Rhode Island to Portland on a whim and landed at Farma. She had never even been to Oregon before but had found that she arrived at just the right place at the right time; Oregon’s adult use legalization had just gone into effect weeks before and there were plenty of jobs for someone with her background. %related-post-1% Chasen did not originally intend to get into cannabis science. In fact, as a pre-med student at Brown University, she opted to live in “substance-free housing” and considered herself “anti-drug.” After her first interaction with the cannabis plant, she became so fascinated by plant medicine that she ended up designing her own curriculum within Brown’s biology department to create a degree centered on ethnobotany and medicinal plant research. After graduating, she worked on an oncology research team through the university, which she hated because “it was billion dollar pharmaceutical trial after billion pharmaceutical trial.” Now, Chasen is blazing a trail for the mass education of the cannabis industry and movement stakeholders in hopes that it leads to better plant-human interactions, better science and better legislation. I sat down with Chasen over tea and, of course, some fresh cannabis buds, to talk about cannabis science and how to break through all the noise for a better cannabis future. ANGELA BACCA: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about cannabis? EMMA CHASEN: The biggest one, that I have talked about a ton, is this Indica-Sativa myth. [That you can predict effects based on these distinctions, you can’t.] Whenever I teach a workshop I ask the question, “What does Indica and Sativa mean to you?” Without fail, everyone [answers], “Indica is in the couch, Sativa is energizing.” That’s really the biggest misconception around cannabis science. And then, the hemp-derived CBD versus cannabis-derived CBD conversation is also another big one where, although it’s not necessarily a misconception, people just have no idea how to navigate the CBD market and the CBD space given that there is “hemp CBD” and “cannabis CBD.” AB: The CBD market is really controversial — it is wildly unregulated or not regulated by any sort of science. What is your take on this? How should CBD be regulated? EC: The CBD market has huge potential, but with that potential, conniving business people will look at that and say, “Oh great, we could basically just sell hemp seed oil" — which doesn’t have a measurable potency or concentration of CBD — and so they will just sell hemp seed oil as cbd medicine. It is this snake oil elixir kinda thing, which is really unfortunate for people who are looking to buy CBD and have access to CBD medicine to treat seizures. That is the danger there, when companies try to capitalize on this market, which is a medicinal market, by basically just lying to people because there are no testing regulations there, both for potency and pesticides. You could be giving someone with a really compromised immune system or physiology a tincture that is dangerously high in pesticides, which really negates any of the medicinal value of the CBD potency. That is frustrating for me to see. It is also really exciting that the CBD market is growing and that people are becoming interested in that as an option. I feel like that is really the gateway to people feeling comfortable about cannabis, where we can change the conversation that prohibition and the anti-drug campaigns gave us. We need more research on it, definitely, but we have enough at least to be able to speak about it with people. The tricky thing is making sure they don't fall in the trap of “Oh CBD is awesome and I am just going to buy something on Amazon without thoroughly vetting it.” %related-post-2% AB: There are a lot of people on isolated CBD, do you have an opinion about CBD isolates? EC: I have an opinion about isolates, in general. The true medical efficacy that we see and the huge potential we see in cannabis to be able to help people manage their illnesses is because of the level of diversity in that range of secondary compounds that exist in the cannabis plant matrix. All of those compounds are working together synergistically to produce the overall effect. So, when you have an isolate — when you remove just one compound from that matrix — sure you may get some of the benefits, but you will also get side effects, more negative side effects. In the case of a CBD isolate, you may not get negative side effects, per se, (or, at least not as serious as pharmaceuticals, like death or suicide), but it will definitely not be as medically efficacious as it would be in combination with THC, terpenes, flavonoids and all the other compounds. AB: On that note, a lot of people swear by medicines like full extract oil (aka RSO) made from a lot of different varieties of cannabis, a “sausage,” if you will. In your curriculum, you describe how different compounds in cannabis bind to receptors in the human body through a “key and lock” analogy to regulate a variety of cell processes. Each of these compounds binds to different receptors in different ways to perform different functions, based on their shape. Would a multi-variety approach be more efficacious simply because there are so many more different shaped “keys” (medicinal compounds) hitting more “locks” (receptors)? EC: Absolutely. The more you are able to diversify the secondary compounds in your sauce, in your formula, the more efficacious it will be. Sourcing trim from a variety of different cultivars and doing a full extract process where it is lower heat, where you are really extracting out most of those secondary compounds in the [plant] matrix, will create a more medically efficacious experience. AB: You just used the word “cultivar,” and a lot of people tend to use the word “strain” when talking about varieties of cannabis. Do you have any opinions about the correct terminology and the weight we put on the “strain names” varieties are sold under? EC: “Strain” and “strain names” are vernacular that the cannabis industry has adopted, but if we are looking at the scientific definitions, they are not accurate. There are not actually strains of cannabis. What they should be called is “chemovar”... I should say chemovar, that is really where the research community is at right now. But, I think before we jump from “strain” to “chemovar” we need another word that makes sense to people that can be adopted into the vernacular. This is why I use “cultivar” because it is easier for people to understand. [Note: Chemovar refers to the plant’s “chemotype” which is far more accurate in predicting the effect of a bud on a human than the name it is being sold under. There are a few ways we classify the plant here. There is its “genotype”, or its DNA, it’s “chemotype” or the blend of chemical compounds it produces and its “phenotype” or the outward appearance and shape the plant takes as it grows. All of these things together can be referred to as a “cultivar”.] %related-post-3% As far as strain names, they are a great marketing tool. If I see something called, like, “Honey Banana,” I want to smell that because it elicits some type of “yummy” feeling. But, again when we start to prescribe consistency and predictability of an experience attached to a strain name, that is where we can get ourselves in trouble. Right now there is no predictability in strain names. If I gave you something and said “this is Honey Banana” and you took a clone of it and grew it, you might find yours smells a bit more lemony and you might start calling it something different, like “Lemon Pineapple.” You could totally do that and it would be fine. I know a lot of growers, very reputable growers, who will grow something and say, “You know, ‘Dog Shit’ isn’t really going to sell, so we are going to rename it something else that will sell better.” That’s fine, but it’s also why we can’t prescribe an experience or any sort of consistency to these strain names. That is doing yourself a disservice. Even if there was consistency in strain names, where a name actually did correlate to a specific genotype — the specific DNA of the cultivar — it doesn’t necessarily correspond with exact consistent levels of cannabinoids and terpenes. Someone who grows a “true” Blue Dream may come up with different results than another grower growing a clone from the exact same plant. I don’t think strain names should go away entirely, people like them. Instead, [we should identify the compounds, terpenes and cannabinoids that make a person feel a certain way]. Let’s use those details, that data to then go into a dispensary and choose something instead of just the name. AB: We know a lot about cannabinoids and terpenes, but not much about the third most prevalent class of compounds found in cannabis, the flavonoids. Flavonoids are also known to have their own medicinal qualities (they are antioxidants) although we know very little about them. Should we also be testing for flavonoids? EC: Definitely. I don’t know any lab that does though. We should definitely test for flavonoids. It can be done, it’s not being done yet — AB: Well, until we find out they are the “next hot molecule” in cannabis, like CBD. EC: Exactly! I believe there are 23 flavonoids identified in cannabis. All of them are found in other plants as well, except the two [unique to the cannabis plant], the cannaflavins. %related-post-4% AB: Knowing that, that these medicinal compounds are found in basically every other plant we consume, although it is not cost-effective, is there a scientific argument for testing other plants we consume the way we test cannabis? EC: There is an even bigger conversation with the pesticide testing situation [in cannabis] versus food. A lot of people were upset about the pesticide regulations that came out when we transitioned [to legalization]. They said, “Well we don’t test for pesticide this much in our food. These regulations are so much stricter than our food. Why do we have to test for more?” For me, I wonder why we aren’t testing more of our food for more pesticides. When you eat or combust pesticides, they can turn into very toxic compounds and it is just a different way we process it when it goes through our digestive system. A recent study testing cannabis flowers from California under Oregon’s testing regulations found 83 percent failed for a pesticide that turns to cyanide when heated. That’s insanity. AB: So, if through the process of taking a lighter to a contaminated bud to smoke it you ingest cyanide, couldn’t the same thing happen by throwing a pesticide-covered tomato into a hot pan? EC: Yes. Very true. AB: That’s terrifying. EC: Exactly! We really should be looking at cannabis as the model for how we treat everything else that goes into our body. AB: What do you see as the biggest frontier to cross in cannabis science today? EC: I am a big advocate of moving cannabis to a more nutraceutical model [supplements and foods that provide medical support], rather than an allopathic model [pharmaceutical]. The problem with that [allopathic] is the barrier to that kind of research being done. There is hardly any funding for looking at how natural plant compounds work together. Our entire research system is set up to extract one compound from the matrix, run a battery of tests on it and draw conclusions from it. Cannabis doesn't work that way because the efficacy lies in the diversity of compounds all working together synergistically. I would love to see research move in a way where we are able to study the synergistic interactions. That would be so much more beneficial than studying the compounds on their own and instead looking at how they interact together. I hope that is how we move forward in understanding and talking about cannabis, rather than isolates or pharmaceuticals derived from isolates.
Sure, the fact that Americans can purchase some form of cannabis in many states is great. But, the mere legalization of marijuana is not enough. Here’s why. As “legalization” has transformed from concept to reality, more and more pro-marijuana activists and patients are coming out against it. With so many more people having positive interactions with the cannabis plant and such obvious willful ignorance on the part of the U.S. government, why is it so hard for us to agree that it should “just be legal already”? Why are so many stoners voting against legalization? %related-post-1% Because, legalization is not enough. The definition of “legalization” is flexible from state-to-state, yet all of it (including the non-intoxicating hemp crop) remain federally illegal for no good reason. None of the goals of legalization — safe access for the sick, a diminishing black market, social justice, research and innovation, stemming the tide of overdose deaths, personal and public profit — will be truly free and fair until the entire cannabis plant is federally decriminalized and completely de-scheduled. As it stands, the gray area legal businesses operate in today is a complicated landscape with so many legislative holes and backdoors that it creates unchecked opportunities for big business to dominate the financial opportunity at the expense of the small businesses that have traditionally served the demand. The social justice goals that propelled legalization are all but lost when freedom and fairness take a back seat to commercialization and pay-to-play licensing. Or, as attorney and political commentator Angela Rye put it, “Legalizing weed does not go far enough to end the War on Drugs. White folks are making money from the same marijuana that put black and brown people in prison. Even though more than half of the states in the country have legalized weed in some form, the actual victims in the War on Drugs are still being left out.” %related-post-2% Earlier this month, Privateer Holdings completed a $100 million Series C funding round, which is now being called the “single largest raise in the U.S. cannabis industry.” Privateer, whose portfolio includes Leafly.com, Marley Natural and Tilray (a Canadian licensed producer) beat its own record for an earlier funding round that closed at $75 million. Who exactly is behind that money is unknown, except that it was invested via Silicon Valley enigma and one-time Trump supporter Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. A fraction of this money probably could have bought off the entire U.S. Congress by now, whose support comes pretty cheap in comparison to the magnitude of their power. Why is there enough money to fund federally illegal cannabis businesses but not to make cannabis federally legal? This sort of legalization is not enough. Not when prisoners like Luke Scarmazzo are still serving 20-year sentences (the last year of which has been in solitary confinement) for “crimes” — opening a California medical dispensary — that are now further enriching the already wealthy. This sort of legalization doesn’t prevent parents, even in states where it is legal, from losing custody of their children for choosing to use it. This sort of legalization does not increase safe and affordable access for the chronic and terminally ill, although it does tend to usurp state medical programs. %related-post-3% The legalization of marijuana is not enough when the uneducated and willfully ignorant opponents to legislative reform — those who profit off the suffering; the police, legal drug companies, court mandated rehab facilities, alcohol companies — are allowed heavier hands at writing legislation than suffering patients and the disenfranchised victims of a failed and pointless war. When the legalization of marijuana was an intangible concept, there were only a handful of people willing to affiliate themselves with the cannabis plant. None of these investment groups would be profiting today if it had not been for people like the late, great Dennis Peron. Peron, who died in late January, publicly led the drive to put the first medical marijuana law, California’s Proposition 215, on the ballot in 1996. He did so as a gay man in San Francisco’s Castro District in the 1980s, when he started to publicize the concept of “medical marijuana” amid the deadly AIDS epidemic. He didn’t care if it would make him rich or even land him in jail, he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do. %related-post-4% Peron was vehemently opposed to legalization, because as he put it, “All use of marijuana is medical.” He believed that using cannabis to relax in place of alcohol, pharmaceuticals or any other intoxicating and otherwise less-safe substance is a medical choice every American citizen should be free to make. Proposition 215 was criticized for being broad; it provided none of the regulatory framework of today’s medical and adult use legislation. If you asked Dennis, that was by design; all use is medical and the initiative made medical use “legal” without imposing any special interest on what that should mean. Maybe there was something to be desired in that vagueness, it was a declaration of a human right rather than a revenue stream for corporations and governments. Today’s medical and adult use legalization is big business, but as long as average citizens remain criminals in any way, then legalization will not be enough. Science and reality point to the same solution; federal decriminalization and descheduling.
Corn and cannabis: They're both agricultural commodities, but they experience very different market circumstances. What's the difference, and what does that mean for cannabis growers? Take a trip across the United States and you will be bluntly confronted with a major reality: this nation is all cornfields, from sea to shining sea. Understanding the law of supply and demand, and the effects on the cannabis market, one would assume that with such massive production of corn, prices should be rock bottom. They are low, but they aren’t bottoming out and never will, under currently policy. Corn as a commodity provides the perfect insight as to what cannabis should and shouldn’t look like in a future commodity market. %related-post-1% So, what exactly is an agricultural commodity? Let’s break it down. First, a “commodity” is defined as a “raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold; such as copper or coffee.” The markets for copper and coffee are different however. Copper, like oil or gold, is supplied by the earth itself. She isn’t making more of it fast enough for us either, making those resources “finite” or naturally limited by the amount already in existence. Prices for agricultural commodities like coffee fluctuate from harvest to harvest. If coffee prices rise, more farmers joining the market can bring them down. If prices fall too low for coffee, less farmers will be incentivized to grow it. U.S. farmers now produce 32 percent of the world’s corn supply. Corn did not make its way to every corner of America because demand was increasing exponentially, but because the federal government subsidizes production. The reason for this is because governments around the world subsidize the production of agricultural commodities to ensure the stability of food supplies. Farming is tricky business. No matter how dedicated a farmer is or how good his or her produce is, unpredictable weather and uncontrollable external supply production could drop prices so low the farmer goes out of business entirely and stops producing. In order to ensure farmers keep farming their crops year-over-year, despite fluctuating prices, the government pays some farmers of agricultural commodities to ensure they profit enough to keep planting. Corn as a commodity in the United States By definition, however, to be a “commodity” corn needs to be the building block of something else. With Americans growing more corn than they can eat, they have to use it for other purposes. Corn is a food that humans eat as-is, but most of the corn planted in the United States is not meant for eating. According to Scientific American, about 36 percent of U.S. corn harvests are fed to livestock, another 40 percent is converted to ethanol. Much of the rest (about 20 percent) is exported. The remaining few percent are mostly converted straight into high fructose corn syrup and used to sweeten sodas and processed foods (which has a host of negative consequences). According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 95 percent of livestock accustomed to eating grass are being fed with corn (which also has some pretty negative consequences). %related-post-2% How is cannabis different, as a commodity, than corn? Cannabis is not corn. As an agricultural commodity, it is closer to coffee or wine grapes. Why? A diverse market of buyers that demand uniqueness and quality. While the price of cannabis, coffee and grapes are also set by supply and demand, quality and genetics also affect prices. Typical commodity markets rely on standardization, but agriculture isn’t naturally standardized. Like humans, plants and every other living biological organism on the planet, plant genetics vary from seed to seed just like human genetics vary from sibling to sibling. Plants, like humans, are constantly evolving and never standardized. That is, unless you clone them. Cloned plants are standardized and grown en masse, converting them into an easier-to-define commodity. This process is referred to as “monocropping.” Bananas are a great example; every yellow Cavendish banana you eat is a clone of every other yellow banana you have eaten. Most banana consumers know no other bananas and do not demand genetic diversity, allowing producers to tightly control and concentrate the market. Clone me not (as much): Cannabis diversity is prized Cannabis, however, is prized as a raw good, and connoisseurs seek out new and rare varieties. The raw produce can be converted into oils, foods and other byproducts, but there is a large and thriving clientele that has come to prize the crop specifically for its genetic diversity. Grapes, coffee and cannabis can be monocropped, mass-produced and priced like a commodity. There will be a low-priced market for the raw produce, but ultimately the cheap stuff will get converted into byproducts. This low-priced market easily exists side-by-side with a connoisseur’s market that values the unique genetics in different varieties of the plant and will pay a premium for these different varieties when great growers coax out their best qualities. So, while there will always be a market for cheap, bulk, Folger’s coffee, it doesn’t take away from the market for small batch, special blends and roasts, which are purchased at a premium. %related-post-3% If you are a grower, especially one who doesn’t plan to specialize in higher-cost higher-value specialized cannabis flowers, it is time to understand how you fit (or don’t) in the commodity market, or you might find yourself outside of it. In the future, there will be more ways for the cannabis farmer to insulate themselves from commodity pricing, such as cash cropping and forward marketing (that’s how Iowa corn farmers do it). But, as long as cannabis remains federally illegal, it is not possible to utilize these strategies. Unlike other commodities, cannabis isn’t sold on one singular market, because it isn’t exactly legal yet. As we move past state-by-state legalization and towards (hopefully) federal decriminalization, descheduling and a commercially regulated industry, cannabis will increasingly be priced by the laws of supply and demand in a commodity market. Best to prepare now.
Marijuana prices per pound are steadily falling. As cannabis becomes a legally produced and traded crop, it is becoming an agricultural commodity, and like other agricultural commodities, wholesale prices have rippling effects for producers and consumers. So, why are marijuana prices dropping, and what does it all mean? Legalization Drives Down Prices in the Long Run In a typical agricultural commodity market, prices are determined by the simple economic law of “supply and demand.” Prices are set by the total amount all producers make available for sale coupled with the total demand of all buyers. Lower supply and higher demand results in higher prices because the commodity in question is rare and desired. Higher supply and lower demand results in lower prices because there is an overabundance of the commodity. %related-post-1% When the price of a commodity is low, the buyer holds the power over the producers and the market is referred to as “a buyer’s market.” When the price of a commodity is high, the seller holds all the power over the buyers and that market is called “a seller’s market.” Cannabis has traditionally been bought, sold and priced in a “seller’s market. Before the current “Green Rush” the vast majority of would-be growers avoided the market altogether for fear of losing everything and spending their lives in prison if caught. The risk factor involved in setting a farming operation up and selling an illegal substance discouraged farmers from producing and allowed the market to maintain high prices. I am here to tell you it is time to stop basing your revenue projections off those artificially high prices. Those days are slipping away, despite inaction from the federal government. As western states began to pass medical cannabis legislation, bringing more growers out into the open and encouraging more to join in, local prices started to steadily decline. Under current federal policies (the Ogden and Cole Memos), states are allowed to produce and sell cannabis in-state per their state laws but are required to keep that supply within state limits. Of course, that is impossible. Since when have borders prevented suppliers from meeting demand for anything? Well, never. It’s why prohibition never worked in the first place; demand incentivizes supply. %related-post-2% In the medical era, when legal prices in legal states even for top shelf cannabis started to come down, prices in states without robust markets spiked up. A grower growing for the semi-legal “gray markets” out west were presented two markets’ worth of demand to meet; legal and illegal. Shortly before legalization laws started passing, growers who supplied illegal demand could make between $3,000 and $5,000 a pound if they were willing to illegally shuttle their product to the East Coast or Midwest, or sell it to local legal markets for about half that price. Those higher export prices coupled with laws that allowed growing in the open brought even more Green Rush growers out West, drastically increasing supply. Legal sales to customers over the age of 21 in fives states (and counting) has only served to pile onto the supply glut. Now, thanks to legalization, supply has begun to outweigh demand in both markets, and marijuana prices are plunging as a result. So Prices are Plunging — Is That a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? Well, that depends on who you are and where your interests lie. Some state medical and recreational sales schemes have engineered scarcity in the market or levied such high taxes on product that prices remain artificially higher than the law of supply and demand would dictate. California, for example, has set such high tax rates on growers and consumers that prices could spike to up to 70 percent higher than pre-legalization prices in and fuel the already massive black market. In medical states back east, like Florida, Illinois and Ohio, oligopoly markets have the same effect on prices by forcing the power into the seller’s hands. %related-post-3% Attempts to artificially inflate legal prices will have the effect of fueling the black market. Black market suppliers often are providing higher quality marijuana at better prices than state programs, and supplying that illegal demand has forced the prices down even in legal markets. Going into 2018, and the rollout of California’s legal sales, a lot of farmers and investors are worried about the price of pot. Small farmers who relied on raw cannabis buds alone for their livelihoods are being forced to scale up or get out. Investors are increasingly finding out that despite their sky-high projections, farming a semi-legal agricultural commodity is a “boom and bust” business that takes foresight, passion, dedication and the wherewithal to sustain long-term market fluctuations. So are falling marijuana prices a bad thing or a good thing? If you are a seller, it’s absolutely not a good thing. But if you are a buyer, those prices absolutely are. But as cannabis becomes a legal commodity and is being priced as such, pricing will have to radically change to reflect that variations of not just quantity, but quality, in the market.
Yes, botanical marijuana is medicine. Treating it otherwise will harm those who need it most. Northern California and Oregon are home to the vast majority of the nation’s small cannabis farms. These early breeders and cultivators were responsible for the genetically diverse cannabis varieties that have largely re-shaped the public’s view of this incredible plant and forced its slow march towards what it truly needs to thrive as the most useful crop in the 21st century: decriminalization and descheduling. How is medicine defined? If medical marijuana is defined to exist only as extractions in cartel-like markets, whole communities around the nation lose out on the economic benefits a robust and competitive cannabis market with lower barriers to entry for small businesses can provide. Further, because the FDA approval process favors a specific yet unproven drug ideology, pharmacologicalism — which, dictates standardized single compound substances are medical and variable plants are not — patients will suffer the most if farm-to-patient cannabis falls victim to big business. %related-post-1% By the government’s definition, a substance is not “medicine” unless it passes clinical trials and is proven “safe and effective” by the FDA. Plants are likely to never be defined as “medicine” or “medical” by the government’s current standards, which require standardization. Plants grown from seed, like humans and all other living organisms, are not standardized nor do they ever have singular “active ingredients” like synthetic drugs. The human response to genetically diverse cultivars of all plants are a result of many active compounds working in synergy with one another, not in isolation. Many plants are beneficial to human life but they will never be FDA-approved medicines because there is no FDA approval process for food or other agricultural products that vary genetically. The government simply does not define variable agricultural products as medicine. Botanical compound blends and standardization Yet, humans still seek out plants and plant-byproducts to relieve the symptoms of everything from pain to social anxiety. Crops like coffee and tea are grown for their varying flavor and effects but also the caffeine they contain. The alertness that results from drinking a cup of one of these popular and widely variable beverages could also be obtained by taking a caffeine pill, yet people tend to prefer the botanical versions. Why? The varying flavor and effects of coffee varieties are the result of over 1,000 active compounds working in synergy with one another. Teas can contain up to 30,000, chocolate 300 and cannabis nearly 500. Every deliciously different variety of these three crops will, if not grown from clone, be genetically unique and carry its own blend of active compounds, and therefore different flavors and effects. %related-post-2% While industrialized cannabis medicines require standardization, patients derive more of a benefit from genetically diverse cannabis markets. Like other living organisms, the final product after harvest varies by both nature and nurture. Nature is the plant’s genetics, which are unique to every single seed. Nurture are the conditions in which the plant is grown and the care it receives, if any. This plant is different every time a new seed is planted by a new farmer or simply falls from its parent into the dirt and germinates, but that doesn’t change its general safety profile, which is higher than coffee. Further, unlike standardized drugs, the variable compounds in different varieties are much more difficult to grow a tolerance to, meaning patients can try different varieties or methods of ingestion to address their unique problems, rather than increase the dose the way they would have to with opiates and other standardized pharmaceutical drugs. Will past lessons influence the future? When California passed Proposition 215 in 1996, the nation’s first medical marijuana law by voter initiative, it solidified the rights of citizens to use, possess and cultivate this plant should a doctor believe a person’s use is medical. Prop 215 has been widely criticized by legislators and cannabis opponents in other states because it created a “wild west” market full of stoners faking illness to get legal access to cannabis. %related-post-3% The legislation’s co-author, Dennis Peron, who was originally motivated by getting safe access to people dying of AIDS, has famously defended Prop 215 and has continually opposed the regulations of “full legalization” bills because he says they perpetuate government overreach. According to Peron, all use is medical because if a person uses cannabis in place of a more deadly substance for mental or physical relief, like over-the-counter medications, prescriptions drugs, sugar and processed foods or even just to replace alcohol consumption, they are making a choice that is technically safer for their body. He is, of course, correct. Under new legalization schemes, however, states with systems that perpetuate botanical cannabis as medicine are being reshaped. By the end of next year, both California and Oregon will have mostly eliminated their botanical medical cannabis markets in favor of lucrative “recreational” markets and pharmaceutical cannabis products. It’s unfortunate because not only do patients deserve both choice and access to genetically diverse botanical marijuana, but the cannabis industry can provide tremendous opportunities on Main Street if the wealth isn’t entirely concentrated on Wall Street first.
As more states legalize the “recreational” use of cannabis, the definition of medical marijuana is changing, and, as the definition changes, many of the pioneering small farms who started the industry are finding themselves going the way of the dinosaurs. But, is the disappearance of medical marijuana farms really in the best interest of the patient or big business? How is the phrase medical marijuana defined? What exactly makes marijuana “medicine”? That’s a tricky question, one with varying answers depending on who is asked. Ask a sick person and they will tell you that any food or substance that provides relief of symptoms without doing physical harm is therapeutic, a necessity and “medicine.” Unfortunately, sick people don’t get to define “medicine,” the government does, and as pharmaceutical cannabis products like GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex inch closer to FDA-approval, the rush is on to make competitive government approved “medicines” and transition the botanical cannabis market from farm-to-patient to a highly-taxed highly-regulated “recreational” market. %related-post-1% These definitions matter most for small growers and patients, because ultimately they define who can supply cannabis for medical purposes and who can economically benefit as laws continue to change across the United States and abroad. While western states that pioneered the industry have traditionally favored a free-er market of small farms, businesses and collectives, in midwestern and eastern states, medical marijuana markets are becoming highly exclusive clubs for the very wealthy and well-connected. Who gets to grow medical marijuana? Many newer state laws (like Florida and New York) are being shaped from the onset as oligopolies, which are cartel-like markets where there are only a handful of competitors controlling the entire supply. Many of these state laws favor extracted products over raw cannabis flowers and also call for vertical integration, meaning these lucky few license holders have the exclusive right to grow, process and distribute the entire supply. Forced flower extraction into standardized products and a limited market of early producers gives these companies a head start on making their own Epidiolex-like drugs that could potentially become lucrative FDA approved medicines. And, should cannabis be moved from Schedule I to II federally, these oligopoly-market license holders will be in line for some serious cash-ins when they go public and begin to formally merge across state lines to supply the national medical market. %related-post-2% Of course, the exercise wouldn’t be worth the cost of FDA approval if pharmaceuticalized cannabis products must compete with genetically diverse botanical cannabis as medicine, which can be grown at home but never standardized like traditional “medicines.” Unfortunately for the small growers that supplied the earliest medical cannabis markets, they no longer can call their crops “medicine” or “medical marijuana” once the FDA defines it first, and they already are. The first medical marijuana farms In the early days of medical marijuana, most state governments declined to regulate. In California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, legislation passed by citizens through ballot initiative was more rights-based than commerce based, thoroughly acknowledging first that the criminalization of this useful plant was a fallacy to begin with. It was also an unspoken but acknowledged reality that hundreds of thousands of farmers on the west coast have been supplying the demand for this illegal plant since the early days of prohibition, and giving them a path to a legal market was just as important as patients getting product. The result was a highly competitive and diverse cannabis economy that flourished in the gray area between state and federal law. These small medical marijuana farms were allowed to grow anywhere from six to 99 plants per patient, as long as they provided said patients with the medicine they needed, free of cost. Starting with California’s S.B. 420 in 2004, these growers could sell the excess of what they grew for patients to locally-regulated dispensaries at a profit. In this way, the broader market for medical marijuana (whether or not the government deemed their use “medical”) subsidized the heavier use of the chronic and fatally ill. %related-post-3% Just as the botanical medical marijuana markets are being eliminated by the legal definition of “medicine,” they are being shrunk by the legal definition of “patient” too. One of the biggest criticisms of California’s medical marijuana law, Proposition 215, was that it allowed medical cannabis for any condition which a doctor chose to recommend it for, meaning “anybody who wants it can get it.” Not only was that part of the intention of the law, but it is scientifically valid as educated use of cannabis is technically safer than most over-the-counter drugs, processed foods, refined white sugar, tobacco, alcohol or the vast majority of prescription drugs. What happens next to medical marijuana farms? So, what exactly is the difference between medical and recreational marijuana? The plant itself is the same, regardless of the reason a person chooses to interact with it, but as the United States gets closer to nationalized medical marijuana, the answer is shaping up to be the difference between a factory and a farm. And, besides the harm to small growers and patients, if most cannabis production is standardized and concentrated, what effect does that have on the future of the plant itself?