Pot is becoming big business. Four states—Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia—have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Another 20 states permit the use of so-called medical marijuana, though not all of them have made it available. Its recreational use has been decriminalized in various smaller locales too, sometimes down to the borough level, as in Brooklyn, N.Y.
For a substance that is fast reversing its historical place in Western society, and especially in the United States, not much is known about pot. Most of the hundreds of millions spent annually by the NIH on cannabis research goes towards studying addiction, with only about 20% of funding dedicated to exploring therapeutic uses. There are also considerable regulatory hurdles in getting approval for research, as marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance. Despite progress, it seems that past proscriptions against pot’s use are still tightly held in quite a few important quarters.
Contemporary anecdotal evidence is pretty powerful; medical marijuana and products derived from the plant have had noticeable, even profound, effects in pain management regimens and in relieving symptoms for patients with neurological and digestive diseases and other illnesses, including cancer. Published research has shown that cannabinoids also have therapeutic and preventative qualities. The combination of widespread recreational use and medical potential suggests that more peer-reviewed research is very much needed.
The human brain has cannabis receptors—the endocannabinoid system. There are over 500 chemicals unique to the cannabis plant, including over 80 cannabinoids, about which we know very little. Even less understood is how these chemicals might work in combination, the roles they might play in symptom mitigation and even their potential to cure or prevent disease. Cannabis is not alone—there are many plants in the world whose composition and therapeutic potential is poorly understood—but it has shown too much promise to be ignored.
I asked Dr. Scott Kuzdzal, life science business manager at Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, if the recreational availability of marijuana along the West Coast and in Colorado has started a migration of marijuana users. His impression was that there was an infusion of new people into the region, but that they were mostly relocating to participate in the “green rush”—opportunities for employment include grow operations, dispensaries, testing laboratories and lots of intermediaries providing related supplies and services.
Grow operations do product quality testing, either in-house or with outside labs. While regulations vary, states are requiring testing too. Contaminants include herbicides, pesticides and other industrial chemicals, molds and bacteria. Product quality must be monitored, not just for potency but also for the balance of various compounds within a given plant. Then there is the matter of delivery—what form will the consumer-ready product take? According to Kuzdzal, THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, gets stronger when cannabis flowers or oils are heated and the non-psychoactive, carboxylated THC-A is converted to psychoactive THC. Thus smoking the leaves or eating them in brownies is typical in “recreational” use. Other chemicals in the plant are not dependent on heat for improved efficacy,
and therefore medical products can be found in more consumer-friendly formats, including those with appeal to children. There is a lot of work for chemists, analysts, geneticists and others in both the recreational and medical cannabis businesses.
This chapter in America’s moral battle with intoxicants will likely continue for a long time. There are costs to getting high and legitimate health concerns surrounding the recreational use of marijuana. There are concerns about stoned equipment and vehicle operators and the mental and physical effects of long-term and chronic use. On the other hand, the penalties given out in states where pot is still illegal seem out of proportion relative to the degree of harm done by marijuana use. Of America’s 2.2 million incarcerated, an estimated 1 in 6 are in jail for crimes related to the possession and sale of marijuana.
There are also costs related to marijuana use being a crime, including those related to arrests, prosecutions, detention, parole and the sometimes lifelong marginalization of those with a record. There is also money to be made, both directly from taxes on the sale of cannabis and its derivatives and from related economic activities. States are no doubt enticed enough to be overcoming any moral qualms, which seem to be based more on cultural history (pot is bad because it’s illegal) than on any realistic assessment.
It’s a confusing time. In some jurisdictions marijuana is legal; in others not. It’s part of two economies—one underground, the other above. Research is being done by people seeking to explore its beneficial uses and by people who hope it remains illegal. Researchers and cannabis testing labs are starting to come together at conferences like CANNCON , yet marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug makes it more difficult than need be to do meaningful research. The momentum seems to be behind continued liberalization, widening availability and growth in research. If hundreds of thousands fewer people end up in jail and even one truly efficacious medical advance comes out of it, the effort should prove to be worthwhile.
Steve Ernst is editor and general manager, American Laboratory/Labcompare; [email protected]