It is widely known that cannabis can be used for industrial, recreational, and medicinal purposes. I am only going to focus on medicinal and recreational cannabis because industrial hemp is already legalized in the United States. There is mixed legality of cannabis among the states, depending on if it is medicinal and/or recreational:
- Fully legalized (recreational + medical): 12 States (including Washington DC)
- Mixed legality (medical): 28 States
- Completely illegal: 11 States
When combined, the majority of states agree with the legalization of at least medical cannabis (39 out of 50 states). Only a small number of states have made cannabis completely illegal, and after the election that number of illegal states is most likely going to be getting smaller and the number of legal states will get larger. The current status of cannabis legality across the United States has led to a tumultuous market. Businesses are lacking federal banking systems, the federal government cannot collect taxes on cannabis sales, and public education of cannabis is inadequate. There are many misunderstandings surrounding cannabis, and not just on the scientific properties of the plant. As someone with a background in biology and economics, I understand the science of cannabis while also having a slightly different perspective on the legality of medicinal and recreational use of the plant. Just like with everything that has a stigma attached to it, let’s start with the most politically correct type of cannabis: medicinal cannabis.
Should we federally legalize medical cannabis?
I have had the pleasure to meet and speak with many individuals who use medicinal cannabis, and doctors who recommend it to patients of many walks of life. So many different stories all surrounding this one plant. Some may have started using it recreationally and soon realized that they were self-medicating themselves. Some people may experiment with cannabis for the first time after trying dozens of other medications for their conditions. Some may be curious and want to start treating their condition with cannabis because they are hesitant to become addicted or have side effects from pharmaceutical medications. No matter the story of the individual’s I’ve spoken with, they all have one thing in common: they want the products they are using to be safe and easy to dose. No one wants to have a bad reaction from taking too much cannabis, and no one wants to deal with their condition’s symptoms because of taking too little cannabis. Another major struggle for patients is the allowance into work or school while using their medication, and the rights of individuals when getting drug tested.
I wish I could be an optimist and say that I think cannabis will be approved by the FDA, but I think that would mislead many people. The Food and Drug Administration has a purpose in our country, and their purpose when it comes to cannabis is to ensure that it is highly controlled, regulated, safe, and deeply researched before it gets into the hands of the public. That is their job, and I think many would agree that a regulating body is needed in order to ensure that there are safe products on the market. However, with cannabis that situation was flipped upside down. People started using cannabis for medical purposes before the FDA even had the chance to start doing research on it and start clinical trials in their normal orderly fashion. It takes years for the FDA to approve medications for the public use, and that is where I do not want to mislead people. Yes, the FDA will be approving components from cannabis, but it’s not in the way that most would think. The FDA will not approve the whole flower for medicinal use. That is out of the question. It is unregulated and inconsistent. It has a wide variety of strains and concentrations. Patients and researchers are making claims left and right about what conditions it can be used for. The only way the FDA will approve cannabis is by approving pharmaceutical medications that incorporate some of the cannabinoids found in the plant. As an example, Epidiolex by GW Pharmaceuticals is derived from CBD in the cannabis plant, but it is a pharmaceutical medication. This is where I will state that yes, the FDA will approve cannabis derived pharmaceuticals, but the FDA will never approve of the use of the cannabis flower, oil, dabs, etc. for medical use.
This is where we run into problems when legalizing medical cannabis federally. How can the FDA regulate both cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals and non-pharmaceutical cannabis both on the market at the same time? In the long run, this will be impossible, which is why we must focus now on creating a plan to help protect current patients using non-pharmaceutical cannabis products until cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals become more affordable and widespread. Currently Epidiolex for a typical Dravet (epilepsy) patient is approximately $32,000 per year. When comparing this to the cost of non-pharmaceutical CBD oils it is roughly $30,000 per year. Transitioning to a pharmaceutical cannabis industry may seem daunting when looking at the prices, but what we forget is the fact that insurance coverage could be offered to patients using an FDA approved substance. Non-pharmaceutical cannabis will never be insured by insurance companies because it is an unregulated substance and huge risk compared to FDA approved pharmaceuticals. Another topic to note is legality of Epidiolex: since it was approved by the FDA, it can legally be used in all 50 states in the US because it was descheduled by the DEA.
Within the next decade, many more cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals will be approved and descheduled by the FDA, making them legal in all 50 states. Essentially, medical cannabis is going to be legalized federally, but not in the way that many citizens would think. It may seem daunting at first with the drug prices, however, with insurance companies backing them and the DEA and FDA backing them, it will be best for the patients in the long term. However, what does this mean in the short term? It takes years for cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals to become approved, and it takes time for insurance companies to choose to cover these medications for patients. What does that mean for the patients who are currently using CBD oils, smoking/vaping, gummies, edibles, tinctures, etc.? It means that they will be using unregulated products for years until pharmaceuticals derived from cannabis can become approved. This is the main reason why Accugentix is developing the Cannabis Doser, a pen to help patients measure and dose cannabis oils and tinctures. There is so much confusion on what the correct dose is, what the correct strain is, and what the correct combination of products are for specific conditions. Doctors do the best they can with the research they are given, and cannabis technology companies, like Accugentix, are trying to step up and fill in that gap to help patients.
Is it worth it to pursue the federal legalization of medical cannabis?
As stated in the section before, the legalization of medical cannabis will happen as the FDA and DEA work together to regulate the industry themselves. This will be good for patients, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies in the long term, but in the short term we start running into some issues. All the work that small businesses have put into medical cannabis will all be for naught. We are in the “in-between zone” right now where there truly is no regulating body over medical cannabis. One day, the pharmaceutical industry will dominate the ‘medical cannabis’ industry, and it will simply dissolve into the ‘pharmaceutical’ industry. It is an unavoidable future, the inevitable. While cannabis companies currently spend their time and resources on helping patients receive the medication that they need, the pharmaceutical industry and FDA are going to come in and sweep the entire market right from under our feet. This is not necessarily something that should be looked down upon, but it is something that is going to happen at some point in the future. Companies in the medical cannabis space will have to either become a pharmaceutical company, which is a highly expensive and competitive industry, or will have to switch over to the recreational cannabis space. Medical cannabis patients will either have to choose to switch over to purchasing expensive cannabis-derived pharmaceutical medications, or switch to using recreational cannabis products if they are available in their state.
Without predicting any specific timeframe, I think it is well known to most people in the medical cannabis space that cannabis will soon be taken over by big pharmaceutical businesses. Rather than patients going to the medical cannabis dispensary to pick up a bottle of cannabis tincture, they will head down to the local Walgreens and pick up their prescription of Epidiolex. Without any federal oversight, the medical cannabis industry that is now run by small businesses will collapse. Medical cannabis dispensaries must prepare to compete with pharmaceutical companies and popular drug stores. Once this shift happens there is no going back, it will ruin the entire cannabis industry if it is not implemented properly. I am not saying the shift to cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals is a bad path, I am just stating that if it is not guided properly by the federal government then it could be detrimental to a potential booming cannabis market in the next decade.
Federally legalize recreational cannabis with protections for medical patients.
This leads me into my next topic: legalizing cannabis as a whole. Don’t just legalize medical cannabis, don’t just legalize recreational cannabis, legalize cannabis in general. Spending years trying to push through a bill to legalize medical cannabis will be a waste of time in my opinion, because by the time that it becomes legalized federally, there will be no market left. The pharmaceutical industry will have already taken over by that point and all the cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals will be legal in all 50 states through FDA approval and DEA descheduling. The beginning of the end is already here for the current medical cannabis industry, and because of this, we must fight to legalize cannabis as a whole. In that fight, we must also provide protections to current medical cannabis patients and companies. Legalizing cannabis means figuring out a system and properly regulating the use of recreational cannabis.
It is quite depressing to me when I try to explain recreational cannabis to people and they assume that it is a ‘group of pot head teenagers smoking dope in the school parking lot’. This is a gross exaggeration that I do not believe in, but I think many people in this country think of this scenario when listening to the debate about the legalization of recreational cannabis. That is why I proposition that we not call it “recreational cannabis.” Do we call alcohol “recreational”? No we do not. Just as I have talked to many medical cannabis patients, I have also talked to many recreational cannabis users. People use cannabis to relax and chill, to de-stress, to better their appetite, to motivate themselves in work and in life. Just like how alcohol is used by many to settle down after work, celebrate with friends, prepare for watching sports, and relax while reading a book. Just like with alcohol, there is highly concentrated alcohol (spirits/liquor) that can be purchased at stores, and there is low dose alcohol (beer, wine, mixed drinks) that people can enjoy at bars. Alcohol can be abused at home or in public, people can have one drink or people can choose to have eight drinks. It is up to them, it is their freedom to use alcohol as they please as long as they are not a danger to others (drinking while driving). Why couldn’t cannabis be the same? People can go to a dispensary and pick up a high concentrated cannabis oil to take home and bake brownies with or to put directly under your tongue. Or, perhaps people can go to a dispensary or grocery store and pick up low-dose cannabis cookies, and show their ID at the register to show they are over 21 years old. Or maybe, adults can go to a restaurant and choose to order a low-dose cannabis brownie as a desert along with a low-dose cannabis soda. It is no different from public or at home alcohol consumption.
Where cannabis can be viewed differently then alcohol is the medical aspect of it. This is where federal protections would need to be put in place for people who are prescribed or recommended medical cannabis. What if children need it, or what if there is not an FDA approved cannabis-derived pharmaceutical for someone with a specific condition yet? How can these individuals show up to school or show up to work without being drug tested and being accused of using an illegal substance. This is where protections must be put in place. If a person is recommended medical cannabis before there is widespread pharmaceutical availability, there must be protections so these individuals may still receive their medicine to treat their condition at an affordable price. There must also be protections put in place for small businesses in the medical cannabis space. The moment the FDA and DEA announce they are going to go after any business claiming to sell or be associated with medical cannabis, the entire industry will fall. In 2019, medical cannabis made up 71% of legal global cannabis revenue, making all other types of legal cannabis only 29% of the market. This is concerning in the long term, considering the entire legal cannabis market will bring in an anticipated revenue of 73.6 billion dollars by 2027. That is in less than a decade from now. Imagine how much money will be lost by small businesses in the current medical cannabis industry, billions of dollars. This is why protection from the FDA and DEA will be needed for small businesses in this market. Not only protection, but legalization in general will help small businesses. Small businesses will be able to freely switch over to the recreational market from the medical market once the pharmaceutical industry starts to take over. If cannabis is not legalized federally, it makes it difficult for small businesses in medical-only states (28 states) to stay in business. That’s over half of the states in the US. Legalization will make it an easy transition for smaller businesses.
Legalizing recreational cannabis is better than leaving it as is.
The current state of legal recreational cannabis is in shambles compared to what it could be if it was legalized federally in a controlled and regulated manner. The lack of legalization leads to many people turning to illegal cannabis products, such as black market or street drugs. I’ve talked to many individuals who have had to obtain their products on the street because it is illegal in their state. This is a bad situation for the individual purchasing it and to the person who is selling it. The person purchasing it on the streets could potentially purchasing a product with a lower or higher dose than they anticipated, and could also receive product with harmful pesticides or chemicals laced in the plant. The person selling it is involved in criminal activity and this can lead to unrest in a community. The fact that cannabis is federally illegal right now is causing a lot of distress in our nation and our communities. How many people get taken in for possession or illegal dealings? There are 26 States (including Washington DC) that have decriminalized cannabis in some way. That is roughly half of our states that have already agreed to decriminalize cannabis. If it was legalized, those people who purchased the cannabis could be living their normal life right now and using cannabis at home or at a bar. People who were doing the drug dealings could have been focusing on getting a job in the legal cannabis market. However, that is not the case. Cannabis is illegal federally, and it will be until we as a country are able to look ahead and realize what this prohibition is doing to our economy, criminal justice system, local communities, and the health of the individuals purchasing illegal products.
In the previous paragraph I refer to this period as a “prohibition,” and that is exactly what it is. Does anyone remember the 18th amendment and then the 21st amendment? What happened when alcohol became illegal in the United States? People assumed everything would be better, but in reality, it caused unrest. People turned to the black market, or in that time you could say that is when the mafia and bootleggers started to take over. The economy took a huge hit, small businesses started going out of business. No one could sell alcohol in their restaurants and stores. That period of unrest kept getting worse as time went on and they quickly had to ratify that amendment and allow for the legal sale of alcohol again. Why is it that we are still in this “prohibition” period for cannabis? Because it was turned into a political issue. In reality, it should not be a political issue at all in the Unites States. It has nothing to do with the right, the middle, or the left. Democrat, Independent, or Republican. Our country was founded on freedom and liberty, and legalizing the use of cannabis is a great example of how political party should not be a factor in this legalization.
Most people think about the impacts on our community when discussing the legalization of cannabis: How would it be regulated in public spaces? How far away should dispensaries be from schools? How much cannabis can be consumed in public? These are all questions that need to be asked, but these are all questions that can be answered by county and state legislators. What needs to be focused on is the federal and global economic impacts of legalizing cannabis in the US. No matter your political affiliation, you must know that the legalization of cannabis will give the economy a major boost. Higher revenue for small businesses, big businesses, more jobs, increase in tourism, more spending. Legalization would also lead to the ability to have a federal sales tax on cannabis, which leads to more taxes for the government. Legalization would also allow companies to use the banking system to take out loans and to deposit funds. As of right now during this prohibition period, jobs in the industry are limited, revenue is limited, tourism is limited, spending and deposits are limited. Even exports of cannabis could greatly affect the economy as well. The United States is well known for agriculture, and cannabis could be the next big export. When taking in all of these factors we see how much potential the cannabis industry has. North America dominates in current global cannabis sales, taking up almost 88% of the global market. In 2020 there is a global market size of 23 billion dollars, and that is expected to grow to almost 74 billion dollars globally by 2027. That is a percent increase of 220% within the next 7 years. If the US were to legalize cannabis, that number would increase dramatically. Right now there is so much potential in the legal cannabis market and it being hindered by legal battles.
Questions for you to consider:
Obviously, all of the details would need to be worked out. All that should be known now is that there is huge potential in the legal market for recreational cannabis, and protection must be provided to medical cannabis patients. The details for the recreational side of cannabis would be up to legislators and lawmakers from individual states. How much cannabis is too much cannabis? What concentration of THC is considered too high? Should we allow for people to use cannabis while in the workplace? Should cannabis be mixed with alcohol? Will cannabis be allowed to be consumed in public? What will the minimum age be? There are so many what-if’s associated with legalizing cannabis. I am hoping that the federal government, no matter who wins the 2020 election, will look further into legalizing cannabis and getting ahead of the curve to help small businesses currently in the industry. I end this with a question: I’m curious what suggestions or opinions everyone has on how the government may be able to fully legalize cannabis? What details do you think should be implemented to ensure the safety of our communities but also allowing for the safe consumption of cannabis? How can we make it similar (or better) than the current situation with alcohol in this country?