Navigating Cannabis Science and Culture under Prohibition
By Owen Smith
Surfing The High Seas
In the last article I encouraged the medical cannabis community to engage the internet to stay astride with the rapidly emerging innovations in cannabis science worldwide. I urged patients and interested parties to look at the many examples just south of the border where cannabis extractions are being explored with rigor; and implored licensed patients and caregivers in BC to explore alternative cannabis products that may be more appropriate for particular conditions.
The explosion of internet media has hoisted the cannabis debate to the main stage, keeping it there to appear daily in mainstream online news sites like the Huffington Post. Every day there can be found dozens of articles published by mainstream and independent news websites [or blogs] around the world. This greater access to information has helped diminish the kind of media control that led the ‘reefer madness’ campaign that successfully prohibited cannabis in the late 1930’s and bolstered it in the 1980’s.
In this quickly growing public domain, wherever debates erupt, good arguments from professional sources can easily be cited. Each interaction offers greatly needed perspective on this complex debate, assisting the publics’ gradual self-education. The ability to reply to an article in the comment section below has increased the availability of alternative opinions and ideas. This has helped slowly chip away at the prohibitionists’ armour, but as an argument is slain, a new one emerges. Like a vigilant knight, the internet user seeking information about cannabis must face this many-headed dragon.
The rise of social media has given independent sites a better ability to compete by having their stories shared by a large number of social media participants, known as going “viral”. While providing a forum to create and share information, the internet has increased the responsibility put on individuals to employ critical thinking. In my experience with patient forums, like those found all over ‘facebook’, many of which have hundreds of members, I commonly come across articles with exaggerated headlines and dubious conclusions.
Alarming or exciting claims from articles that do not provide a hyperlink to some verifiable scientific source should be considered with caution. Reputable websites will proudly and clearly provide the link to their sources. There are a number of well organized catalogues of cannabis research that have been compiled, updated and reproduced by volunteers all over the web (see the Granny Storm Crow list).
As the debate continues to heat up, I see just as many positive claims of cannabis benefits from supporters as I do negative ones from detractors. Online communities like medpot.net and drugsense.org are websites dedicated to providing all known media reports and scientific findings. This service helps many individuals sort through and analyse all of the available facts to make a well informed decision.
In Sight of Land
Looming in the shadows of our cannabis discussion stalks the spectre of prohibition. Whether we talk about medical research, popular culture or the enormous economic potential of cannabis, the landscape of our discussion is riddled with roadblocks. Politicians have maintained this intensive campaign to eradicate this helpful herb for nearly a century: spending approximately 30 billion dollars enforcing the drug war in the United States this year alone[i]. More than half of the drug arrests in 2013 have been cannabis related.
In the United States, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 substance (alongside heroin and LSD), which maintains it has no medical use and a high risk of abuse. This classification has successfully kept cannabis out of the hands of independent researchers and scientists. The absurdity of this position has become apparent as science elsewhere on the planet unravels the unique role of cannabis alongside our bodies own endocannabinoid system.
Some high profile U.S. doctors, like CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, have openly reversed and/or apologized for misinforming the public about cannabis. Gupta’s CNN special ‘Weed’ followed the story of Charlotte Figi, who with Gervais Syndrome at age 3, suffered from 300 grand mal seizures a week. After exhausting the available medications and before resorting to powerful veterinary drugs, Charlotte was given an edible cannabis extract which reduced her seizures to 1 a day.[ii] Gupta reports that “not because of sound science, but because of its absence, marijuana was classified as a schedule 1 substance”[iii].
Gupta uncovered in his special that to treat such extreme conditions in children, it is important to cultivate cannabis high in CBD. GW Pharmaceuticals of the U.K. are on course to take a liquid carbon dioxide whole-plant extraction made from two cannabis strains, one high in THC and the other high in CBD, to American states that lack any kind of medical marijuana laws.[iv] CBD strains have recently become a staple of medical cannabis dispensaries, distinguishing their services further from recreational users, offering relief to those who do not seek the ‘high’ caused by THC.
Currently, synthetic THC products are the only federally approved form of medical cannabis available to physicians in the U.S. Sativex, which is approximately 1:1 CBD:THC has been approved in 22 countries, including Canada, and is poised to bring cannabis out of its schedule 1 exile in the U.S.A.
But if the product does win FDA approval, it won’t be because of any national trends in the culture, adds Gover of GW Pharmaceuticals, “I actually think it’s in spite of that. The regulatory success of Sativex, and the standing we have with industry is entirely independent of public views about the good or bad of marijuana,” says Gover. “It’s all about looking at cannabinoids as an interesting new source of therapeutics.”[v] While GW Pharmaceuticals wait for FDA approval, some people cannot afford to wait for access to this medicine.
Laying Siege to the Fort
An encounter caught on camera between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and the father of a child who suffers from intense seizures similar to Charlottes, highlighted the urgency of this issue[vi]. Perhaps in part, due to the effort of this loving father, Christie signed a provision in the New Jersey medical marijuana laws to include children. Other parents in similarly dire situations around the country are reaching out to their state representatives to use cannabis as a medicine for their children.
Considering that the pundits of prohibition have been assuring the public that the dangers of medical marijuana to children are too great to allow its use at all, this mainstream revelation has eroded that argument. Showing that regulated forms of cannabis can be well tolerated and effective even for children with extreme medical conditions, serves as an example of the cannabis’ solid safety profile. I believe that similar breakthroughs in the mainstream awareness of cannabis as a medicine can spread with just as much ferocity when confirmed.
After nearly a century of cannabis prohibition, many have succumbed to anger and frustration, turning on mainstream medicine with teeth showing. A recent visit from activist Rick Simpson highlighted this disgruntlement. Billed to speak about ‘phoenix tears’: a cheap and easily produced concentrated cannabis oil, Rick made plenty of space to make his distaste for allopathic medicine and government abundantly clear.
Rick Simpson’s film ‘Run from the Cure’ has become an internet phenomenon with over 2 million views on YouTube. While Rick’s sentiment echoes many suffering from this life threatening condition, some of his followers have taken his crusade to new levels of zeal.
This folk fervour for ‘phoenix tears’ was exemplified this week when a volunteer for the SensibleBC campaign to decriminalize cannabis in BC made a spectacle at a ‘Terry Fox, Run for the Cure’ event. “I ran the whole race screaming that marijuana cures cancer, because it does,” said Skidmore. Although his unverified claims didn’t legally damage the campaign, he was shortly after asked to stop canvassing. Campaign organizer, Dana Larsen responded that cannabis derivatives have been shown in studies to kill cancer cells, but he believes that describing marijuana as a “cure” goes too far.
Dr. Donald Abrams, Chief of Hematology-Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, agrees, “I do integrative oncology,” he says, “So I hear about ‘miracle cures’ all the time. I hear about noni juice and graviola and many products. I think it does a disservice to the cannabis community to make claims that are not supportable. I may be seen as a nay-sayer but I’m not. I say ‘Let’s study it.’”[vii]
Fortunately, cannabis has now been legalized in two U.S. states and Dr. Abrams is part of BOTEC, the team hired to help Washington State implement the I-502 voter initiative. The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced that they will allow these states to proceed with the implementation of their new marijuana laws. These states will serve as examples for others who may seek to follow in their footsteps, crafting legislation, performing research and expanding the economic horizons for this highly useful, heavily oppressed, under-utilized plant.
Sinking roots into the cities
The American Herbal Products Association recently presented recommendations for decentralized medical cannabis cultivation and distribution. “This is the only way to ensure that those who most need it will be able to access it at a reasonable cost and that discovery and innovation can be optimized. There is nothing inherently amiss with cannabis-based pharmaceutical production, but the operation of such industry and its eventual product approval should not be allowed to exclude or impede general medicinal access to the class of organic botanicals from which such preparations are ultimately derived.”[viii] Medical cannabis dispensaries like the VCBC have begun working with medical practitioners to gather information of importance to the medical community.
The VCBC have offered CBD strains of dried cannabis for over a year and have recently introduced edible CBD products. During the past year, the VCBC has conducted a survey into the effects of one CBD strain on their membership. So far, the reported results have varied; but there has been general success among patients who have difficulty with the mental effects of THC. Most found it uplifting, relieved pain, anxiety and stress; others reported improved focus, relief of nausea and reduced muscle spasms; while others found it made them lazy, reported weak effects and one person found it made it difficult to sleep. With feedback processes like these, dispensaries can learn and adjust their products to the needs of their membership.
One of the larger organizations to provide products to U.S. dispensaries is Medical Marijuana Inc. They have developed the Dixie line of medicinal edible cannabis options that include a tincture, a capsule and a topical cream. In Oregon, at the 2013 HempStalk festival, Dixie Elixirs profiled these three product innovations. Gatherings like HempStalk give scientific innovation a moment in the spotlight; but never far away looms the spectre of prohibition. Founder of Dixie Elixirs, Tripp Keber, was arrested at an Alabama Music Festival after being found in the possession of liquid THC with toothpicks in it[ix].
Colorado recently released their complete rules for retail recreational marijuana sales[x] and Washington State will have stores open in the New Year[xi]. Initiatives are being prepared for nearly a dozen more states, not including Alabama, to legalize cannabis in the next few years. With more groups forming to change the laws and advance our collective knowledge of the cannabis plant, our relationship with cannabis culture may continue to transform until it is beyond anything we would recognize.
Offering scientific advances to the local culture
A former U.S. Navy nuclear submarine technician designs and sells supercritical CO2 extraction machines that isolate the cannabinoid oils from the plant material[xii]. While these machines are far more expensive than the rice cooker used by Rick Simpson, they have zero potential for toxic solvent residue.
The supercritical CO2 extraction machine allows the creation of concentrated oils from naturally grown hemp stalk and seed that contain high amounts of CBD. “The hemp oil we use is biologically created in hemp plants and our methodology isolates and extracts it.” asserts Dixie Botanicals science director, Tamar Wise. They make ‘Real Scientific Hemp Oil’, which is an 18% CBD extract of hemp, similar in appearance to the goo produced and administered in syringes by the followers of Rick Simpson. Confusingly Rick Simpson calls his cannabis oil concentrate, ‘hemp oil’, but it isn’t actually made from hemp plants, like RSHO. Unfortunately for now, the price of RSHO, even on a half price sale on Amazon, is so expensive that many people would choose to make their own. 6 ten gram syringes costs $2,300.00 U.S.[xiii]
In Canada, the constitutional challenge that occurred during my voir dire in 2012, that won the right for patients to make and use extracted cannabis products, has been appealed by the federal government and has now been re-scheduled to happen in Vancouver on December 6, 2013. Currently the Judges’ decision to allow patients and caregivers to make cannabis extracts is in effect. All of the recipes and methods used by the V-CBC are available on their website. The VCBC does not make concentrated extracts, like Rick Simpson, because of the risk of contaminants and the danger inherent in the process. Lesser concentrated products make it easier to regulate dosage and can be just as effective, if only in larger doses.
Overgrowing the government
Canada seems to have fallen behind the rest of the world in the last 8 years under the guidance of the Conservative party. Steven Harper when asked about marijuana legalization in a 2010 YouTube Interview drilled, “drugs aren’t bad because they’re illegal, they’re illegal because they’re bad.”[xiv] Implementing mandatory jail sentences for growing 6 cannabis plants and revoking the ability for any federally licensed person to grow their own medicine has created panic and outrage among patients. There are some patient advocacy groups[xv] who are helping to organize the resistance.
With the governments’ new ‘marihuana for medical purposes regulation’, the MMPR, coming into force next April, there is considerable doubt among patients that they will have their needs met. Those who were able to secure a legal supply of medicine through the MMAR will no longer be able to renew their license to grow as of October 1st 2013, meaning many have already cropped out for the last time. Dispensaries like the VCBC in Victoria are already seeing an increase in membership as licenses run out.
Because of the considerable failure of the MMAR to provide adequately to sick Canadians, the straight forward and familiar storefront model appeals to many. Dispensaries offer a clean, safe, reliable place to obtain guidance on a variety of quality controlled cannabis products. In the ruling from one of the VCBC’s earlier trials (then the CBCoC), Judge Chaperon wrote “It is unsettling to contemplate persons with AIDS or who are undergoing cancer treatment being forced to go down to the illegal drug emporium which operates in the downtown core of Victoria to acquire their marijuana from persons who are interested only in selling them drugs of unknown quality for a profit,” she wrote. “But on Jan. 3, 2002, but for compassion clubs such as Mr. Smith’s, that was their only alternative.”
Becoming an accepted member of the community
The Netherlands has long been known as the most progressive country in terms of its cannabis laws. Yet in recent years the Dutch government attempted to restrict the highly popular ‘coffee shops’ to Dutch residents alone, enacting a ‘weed pass’. However with a concurrent increase in street violence among drug dealers, threatening businesses, there has been a city by city return of the ‘coffee shops’[xvi].
With the recent increase in cannabis dispensaries in Canada, there is some uncertainty as to the expectations they are required to meet. Health Canada has repeatedly refused to regulate dispensaries in Canada and even though they have continued to multiply, there are no unified standards or established associations to review them. Their mandates, as well as their services can vary widely. Some will accept proof of a doctor diagnosed permanent physical condition or disease; others will admit patients with mental conditions; and all accept those who have their doctors’ recommendation.
For many years, the ‘pot block’ in Vancouver has been known as Vansterdam, hosting the west coasts’ only ‘vapour lounges’, which allow patrons to use cannabis, but do not distribute it. In the past, clubs like DaKine, “a Dutch-style coffee shop … which openly sold cannabis and pot food for over four months on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive” have eventually been shut down by police. With the lack of distinction between medical dispensaries and recreational ones, some patients are concerned that their dispensary will become victim of a raid through association.
In 2010, the Culture 420 club in Lachine was closed and four other compassion clubs in nearby Quebec and Montreal were raided simultaneously. An investigation found that the Culture 420 club would accept a self-diagnosis for cannabis signed by a commissioner of oaths[xvii]. The other clubs have since re-opened. The Ottawa Health Advocacy center was open less than a month after it was uncovered that they sold cannabis to people without a note from their doctor[xviii]. Recently, just two blocks from my house in Victoria, the Vancouver Island Health Advocacy Centre was raided. A CTV news report revealed that they provided cannabis for recreational purposes as well as to those with medical need. Fortunately no other Victoria clubs were raided.
Do no Harm
In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled against David Malmo-Levine, who ran an East Vancouver storefront called the “Harm Reduction Club”, which intended to reduce the harm associated with marijuana use by educating users and the public about the drug and by providing the drug at cost. Levine argued that there should be a requirement of harm for criminal law. The court ruled that Parliament need not establish harm but only a reasonable apprehension of harm. The criminal law power, they state, includes the protection of vulnerable groups. Thus the government is able to control activities for the protection of drug users and society.[xix]
Many times government commissioned scientists have come under fire for publishing well considered reports that found cannabis was incorrectly outlawed. Professor David Nutt was fired after producing a report for the UK Home Office that found cannabis and LSD were less harmful than alcohol. He calls prohibition “the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Galileo: I’m sure at some point someone’s going to arrest me. There is a sense of repression to the point that most people won’t do it.”[xx] While governments argue that they cannot legalize cannabis because it hasn’t undergone sufficient study, Scientists like Nutt are calling for drugs to be legalized to allow the proper study of their properties.
It is hard for us to imagine today how the members of the Inquisition justified the persecution of Galileo in order to protect their perception that the earth was the center of the universe. It may be equally difficult for the inhabitants of the near future to imagine how the government justifies persecuting patients; raiding honest businesses and stifling medical research in order to protect their perception that this plant is inherently evil. Today we all agree that Galileo’s discovery was as important as it was inevitable, yet the dawn has not yet risen on the cannabis culture as the condemnation continues from many corners of the conversation.
While we stand at the precipice of a greener world, watching the freshly burst torrents of information cascade down a mountainside filled with our fallen friends and their families may we clear the path of persecution, to allow them to nourish one another until the sunrise broken horizon fills with light and we all see the errors of our ways.
[i] Drug War Clock
[ii] Marijuana stops child’s severe seizures
[iii] The 9 Reasons That Sanjay Gupta Changed His Mind About Marijuana
[x] Colorado officials issue retail marijuana rules
[xvi] Haze Clears over Dutch Cannabis Laws http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/benelux/130110/netherlands-amsterdam-cannabis-law-coffee-shops-marijuana
[xx] ‘the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Galileo’