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.
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.
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.
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.