Last week, Gary Chambers Jr., a Baton Rouge native, launched his political campaign to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana. He took the internet by storm with his first political advertisement, a 37-second-long video where he advocates for cannabis legalization, discussing the disproportionate effects that cannabis prohibition has on communities of color.
But that’s not why he made such a splash on social media; the campaign ad made headlines as possibly the first major party candidate to smoke a cannabis blunt in an advertisement.
The timing of the video is also very intentional, lasting 37 seconds. “Every 37 seconds, someone is arrested for possession of marijuana,” Chambers says in the video. “Since 2010, state and local police have arrested an estimated 7.3 million Americans for violating marijuana laws, over half of all drug arrests. Black people are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people.”
Chambers is running against Sen. John Kennedy, the Republican incumbent with support from Trump and very deep pockets.
According to a press release published on February 8, a number of associations, advocacy organizations and cannabis businesses launched the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), which they claim is the largest coalition of its kind.
The 501(c)4 nonprofit organization goals are to advance social equity and racial justice, and end federal cannabis prohibition, according to their debut press release. The USCC says it will focus on federal reforms that achieve those goals above as well as promoting a safe and fair cannabis market on a national level.
The USCC’s Interim CEO is Steven Hawkins, who is also the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is one of the founding members of the USCC. “USCC is a unified voice advocating for the descheduling and legalization of cannabis,” says Hawkins. “Legalization at both the state and federal level must include provisions ensuring social equity and redress for harms caused to communities impacted by cannabis prohibition.”
In the press release, Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is quoted saying he is looking forward to working with the USCC on Capitol Hill. “As founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, I’ve seen firsthand that our most successful cannabis wins have been secured by a team,” says Rep. Blumenauer. “That’s why I am glad to see this first-of-its-kind alliance. We have a unique opportunity in the 117th Congress to advance cannabis reform, but we must remain united to create the change we know is possible.”
Founding members of the USCC include Acreage Holdings, Akerna Corp, the American Trade Association of Cannabis and Hemp, Canopy Growth, the Cannabis Trade Federation, Cresco Labs, MedMen, Marijuana Policy Project, PharmaCann, Vireo, Wana and much more. For a full list of its founding members, visit their website here.
It was 1996. I was four years old. California Proposition 215 passed and for the first time, legal medical cannabis became available. I don’t remember it honestly, but that moment triggered a reckoning of outdated and ineffective efforts to control cannabis, which continues on November 3rd.
The moment in 1996 created for me and my generation of millennials a new, decriminalized lens for which to view cannabis and its potential. In my lifetime, from first experimenting with cannabis after high school and then earning my PhD in plant biochemistry, advancing cannabis research, to starting an agtech company dedicated to the genetic improvement of cannabis, we continue this march toward legalization. But another march hasn’t started yet.
The cannabis we consume today is still largely the same (albeit more potent today) as the cannabis that was legalized in 1996. There’s been little advancement in our scientific understanding of the plant. This can and should change. I believe the future and legitimacy of the cannabis crop in the medical field and in farmers’ fields is on the ballot this November.
In 33 states, medical cannabis is currently legal and in eleven of those, including my home states of Nevada and Washington, legalized adult-use recreational cannabis is generating millions in tax revenue every month. But compared to every other commercial crop, cannabis is still decades behind.
We are seeing a glacial cadence with cannabis research. As voters in five more states consider this November whether to legalize cannabis, that same tipping point we reached in 1996 comes closer to being triggered for cannabis research.
Here’s what cannabis scientists, like me, face as we work to apply real scientific methods to the long-neglected crop: I published one of the most cited papers on cannabis research last year, titled, Gene Networks Underlying Cannabinoid and Terpenoid Accumulation in Cannabis. But, as per university policy, we were unable to touch the plant during any of our research. We could not study the physical cannabis plant, extracts or any other substantive physical properties from the plant on campus or as a representative of the university. Instead we studied cannabis DNA processed through a third-party. Funding for the research came from private donors who were required to be unassociated with the cannabis industry.
While we were conducting our heavily restricted, bootstrapped cannabis research, the university lab in the next building over was experimenting with less restrictions on mice using other drugs: cocaine, opioids and amphetamines. (Quick note, marijuana is listed as more dangerous than cocaine, which is a Schedule II drug.)
I get it. Due to the federal prohibition on cannabis as a heavily regulated Schedule I drug, universities cannot fund research without the risk of losing all of their federal funding. While the USDA does not support research and SBIR grants are all but impossible, one government agency does allow research, from cannabis grown only in Mississippi. It’s the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and any research conducted using its crop is as ineffective as you’re imagining. Relevant research is likely impossible using the crop which dates back to a 1970’s strain with a potency that’s about 30 percent of today’s commercial cannabis offerings.
To change this anti-research climate, do what those in California did with Prop 215 in 1996. Vote.
Vote for legalization of cannabis if you’re in those five states where legalization is on the ballot; that’s Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi. The more states that align with cannabis legalization, the stronger the case becomes for the federal government to reschedule the drug from a Schedule I controlled substance. Currently cannabis is listed as a Schedule I alongside heroin. The DEA claims cannabis has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Both are not true, just listen to the scientists.
Those outside of the five states putting cannabis on the ballot can still play a role in creating a Congress that is more receptive to cannabis reform. This Congress is the oldest, one of the most conservative and least effective in our country’s history. Younger, more progressive representation will increase our odds of advancing cannabis research.
Cannabis holds far too much possibility for us to allow it to be an unstudied “ditch weed.” THC and CBD are just two of nearly 500 compounds found in cannabis which, when scientifically scrutinized will harvest – I believe – vast medicinal and commercial benefits and the tax windfalls that accompany both. But first you have to vote.
If cannabis and your representatives are not on the ballot, do something millennials have built somewhat of a reputation for failing to do; pick up a phone and call your current representative. Tell them cannabis deserves scientific attention and investment. There’s too much potential in the cannabis plant to wait any longer.
For me, the opioid epidemic was never a theoretical crisis. The mounting lives lost to overdoses weren’t just numbers in news reports to me, but names. A high school lab partner, little league teammates, a cook at my first restaurant job and others in my hometown were lost to the epidemic. By the time I graduated high school, seven people in my life died due to complications arising from opioid use.
What’s not lost on me now, after earning my PhD in plant biochemistry and founding a startup focused on bringing consistency and scientific credibility to the cannabis industry, is how a stigma around medicinal cannabis seems like such a contributing factor in their deaths.
Cannabis, although fully illegal in only eight U.S. states, still qualifies as a Schedule 1 drug on the federal level, legally equivalent to LSD or heroin. Crystal methamphetamine and cocaine as Schedule 2 drugs have lower penalties and even have federally approved medical applications. This is where we’ve failed as a broader scientific community.
The reason is this: Medicinal cannabis produced from the same genetic replicates, but grown in separate locations, or even different seasons, will possess different bioactive compounds. In short, their effect on patients will be different depending on the various bioactive compounds produced by the plant. Prescription medications do not come with that major caveat.
There’s a quality assurance problem, compounded by a lack of science that’s been shackled by the criminalization of cannabis since 1937.
We do know that the primary benefits of cannabis are three-fold: First, there’s pain management, as 28 well conducted randomized clinical trials (RCTs) have documented that cannabinoid agents are effective analgesics for chronic pain. Second, while potentially psychologically addictive, so people may desire the “high” produced by cannabis, THC is not chemically addictive and does not create a biological desire for the drug, much like the craving induced by the absence of, say, cocaine or heroin has on regular users. And finally, patients cannot overdose.
As a scientific community, there are three things we need to start doing today to change the narrative around medicinal cannabis and help bring this safer alternative therapy to more people. We need to provide a larger body of evidence about the benefits. We need to drive increased consistency in cannabis products themselves. And we need to confront stigmas rooted in misinformation. The sooner we can succeed here, the sooner we can hope for a day when we see fewer devastating opioid overdoses and deaths.
I am driven by a vision for a future when people can have access to safe, trusted and consistent cannabis for their medical and recreational uses, and we as a society are able to fully realize the therapeutic benefits of this amazing plant. As scientists, my colleagues and I are committed to doing our part to bring the credibility and advancements that will help this vision become a reality.
Using tools rooted in science–including functional genomics and secondary metabolite pathway expression profiling–cultivators can learn to fully “know” the plants they grow and hone in on producing the same bioactive compounds and in the same ratios that show medicinal promise. Cultivators can learn the genetic effect that their facility has on their genetics and why those genetics lead to a different chemical profile when grown elsewhere. Together, we can identify the driving factors of what makes a variety help with whatever ailment you are trying to treat.
I’m buoyed by data that shows states that have legalized and provided access to recreational cannabis have between 20% and 35% fewer reported opioid deaths, and lower rates of opioid prescriptions. But more needs to be done. I plan to become a more vocal voice, advocate for sound science, consistency in medical cannabis and better access to natural plant-based medicines without the stigma of yesteryear.
The time has come for our policy makers to step up. We cannot afford to just be observers when the cost of remaining on the sideline is measured in lives.
It is not exactly the storming of the Bastille, but cannabis reform appears to finally be not just in the offing, but crystallizing in the land of the Marseillaise. Why? Apart from the inevitable, particularly now that the European Parliament has put medical reform on a continental agenda?
The first reason is that this is an easy way for the increasingly politically beleaguered French Prime Minister Emmanual Macron to show he is a “man of the people.” In the age of the gilets jaunes or “yellow vests” – protesters on the streets pushing for economic and political justice – a reform of the green kind is just the ticket.
Secondly, French drug laws are still ridiculously harsh. Use or possession of “narcotics” that are not specifically prescribed by a doctor carries up to a $4,000 fine and a year in prison.
The third reason is that politicians and policy reformers are finally getting the message because of another reason also familiar to American reformers. Locking people up for even minor drug offenses (and French law makes no distinction between cannabis and harder drugs) is a societal menace. It costs the government a lot of money to put people in prison. And the police, just as they are in other places, notably Germany, are tired of engaging in this kind of activity. Particularly when a large number of those they end up arresting are actually patients.
Here is the next issue: The drug laws on the books in France date from December 31, 1970. Similar to the U.S., cannabis of course was treated just like heroin and cocaine. Since that period, French drug arrests have steadily increased (making 67.5% of all arrests as of 2016). Convictions for drug offenses have also increased over ten-fold in the last generation (since the turn of the century).Last year, the CBD market was allowed a little room to flourish in the new grey laws around reform
In a country where approximately 700,000 people use cannabis daily, and 1.4 million use it regularly, this is clearly not sustainable on any front. Particularly where cannabis reform is such a potent weapon in a country where the “yellow vests” have made such a global impression. Cannabis reform, in other words, is an easy fix for a country now thinking about the impact of popular revolutions of other kinds. Not to mention with a history of them. And even more particularly where reform last year allowed “le weed light” (low THC, high CBD strains) to go on sale (with a popular response).
How fast reform will move here is still obviously uncertain. The current government has been making noise about it for the last two years. Last year, the CBD market was allowed a little room to flourish in the new grey laws around reform (although even here, the first CBD “coffee shops” were shut down last summer almost as soon as they opened).
Given the conservative pace so far, look for France to follow rather than lead. From a CBD perspective, if not a THC one, the country looks very much more like Italy and Germany than Spain or Holland from the cannabis perspective – at least at present.
For such reasons, expect France to follow toute le monde, rather than lead the pack. Decriminalization plus some kind of insurance coverage (similar to Germany) is much more likely to be on the short-term agenda than say a massive rush to embrace the industry (as in Greece). The green revolution may now be in the wings here, but pushed by other unavoidable forces in Europe if not domestically.
That said, to paraphrase the words of the country’s last King, Louis VIX, when France does move on something resembling real reform, it will mean that after that, the “green deluge” will most certainly be on the hoof across the rest of the continent.
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