By Dr. Mercola
On July 1, 2015, Oregon became the fourth state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. In Colorado, recreational pot has been legal since 2012 and medical marijuana since 2001. About half the states in the country now permit the use of medical marijuana.
With state laws changing almost monthly, America's appetite for marijuana is growing — leaving the weed business booming. An estimated 33 million Americans used pot in 2013, up nearly one-third from a decade ago.
In the midst of this "marijuana gold rush," growers eagerly struggle to meet demand, while facing the challenges of operating a legal drug business in a world where overriding laws still regard pot as illegal, and the changes haven't trickled up.
The CNBC special "Marijuana Country: The Cannabis Boom" takes a look at the challenges the new pot industry has caused in Colorado, as well as the legal quagmire related to marijuana crossing state lines.
What happens in Colorado won't stay in Colorado — they are paving the way for the rest of us in this brave new world of legal weed. It's just a matter of time before other states run into the same legal, ethical, and public health concerns.
Marijuana Bud May Be Colorado's Unofficial State Flower
Colorado is now home to more than 500 marijuana stores. One of the largest, Medicine Man, turns out more than 120 pounds per week and has dubbed itself "The Costco of the Grow." Their grow houses cultivate more than 70 different varieties of cannabis.
In its first year, Colorado's legal pot sales topped half a billion dollars and generated $50 million in taxes for the state.
Colorado has become a major pot exporter, supplying states in which pot remains illegal. Only 40 percent of sales are to Colorado residents — the other 60 percent are to tourists.
"Marijuana tourism"1 is creating significant discord between Colorado and its neighboring states. In fact, Nebraska and Oklahoma are suing Colorado in the US Supreme Court, arguing they've suffered "direct and significant harm" from pot's crossing the borders.
The Marijuana Underground Is Alive and Well
You might think legalization would have put an end to underground pot sales in Colorado, but actually the opposite is true — the black market is booming. In Colorado, 40 percent is still grown and sold illegally, and recent signs suggest the same may be true for Washington State.2
But why? In the eyes of many seasoned weed users, the marijuana underground offers several advantages, not the least of which is economics.
In licensed Colorado dispensaries, taxes on marijuana are as high as 36 percent, and there are limits on how much you can purchase. In the featured documentary, buyers report they can buy weed illegally for one-third of the price charged in dispensaries with one phone call, day or night... no tax, no limit.
How do sellers get away with it? They claim to offer their products for a "donation," "gift," or "exchange." Some are selling through the mail via sites like Craigslist. A few illegal wholesalers and brokers even manage to sell their goods to licensed dispensaries.
Marijuana Businesses Struggling All the Way to the Bank
Selling marijuana may be legal in your state, but as far as the banks are concerned, any money exchanged is illegal drug money and they won't touch it.
American marijuana businesses are forced to deal only in cash because banks refuse to bankroll them, in fear of the repercussions from federal drug trafficking laws. According to the National Cannabis Industry Association, this is the most significant problem the industry faces at present.3
The proliferation of cash from marijuana sales makes the 2,000 retail shops and medical dispensaries irresistible targets for criminals, as well as being risky for employees and vendors, who must be paid in cash.
These problems will likely grow unless Congress steps in and changes federal drug and drug-trafficking laws. The flip side is that some companies are actually benefitting from this cash-and-carry system — security services and safe manufacturers are doing just fine.
Pot Legalization Ignites Even More Controversy
Marijuana legalization has come with other complications. One is that many workplaces still maintain a zero tolerance for positive drug tests, including cannabis. You can be fired for testing positive for cannabis, even if medical marijuana is legal in your state.
Part of the problem is, unlike alcohol or cocaine, there is no test to determine your current level of impairment from cannabis — your test result will be the same whether you use pot on a daily basis, or used only once 40 days ago.
The development of a "pot breathalyzer" is underway, but in the meantime, the standard drug test is what companies use. On June 15, 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Dish Network was perfectly within its right to fire a call center employee for using medical marijuana (and testing positive on a drug test), because pot remains illegal under federal law.4
Safety guidelines also need to be determined, such as safe levels for driving under the influence of marijuana. This ties back the issue already discussed about the difficulty with assessing a person's current level of impairment. Cannabis edibles are posing another type of challenge, as adults have been "overdosing," and children can't resist the temptation to eat them, if carelessly left in reach.
Marijuana can be added to all sorts of treats, from lollipops to muffins to candy bars — even sodas. Adults tend to overdose on edibles due to the delay in their effect, which has made some individuals fairly ill. Symptoms of THC overdose typically include anxiety, sweating, rapid heart rate, nausea, and dilated pupils. If you purchase marijuana edibles, please make sure to keep them out of the reach of children and pets, as well as adhering to the recommended dose.
Why the National Marijuana Frenzy?
Irrespective of your views on the pros and cons of recreational marijuana, the body of scientific evidence about its medicinal value is strong, and growing, due to its cannabidiol (CBD) content. Much of the herb's popularity stems from its medicinal potential. In 2014, a survey found that the majority of physicians — 56 percent — favor nationwide legalization of medical cannabis.5
A growing segment of the population is becoming aware of marijuana's promise in treating a wide variety of health problems, and none are more excited than the parents of children with severe seizure disorders, such as Dravet syndrome. Dravet syndrome,6 also known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI), is a form of intractable, life-threatening epilepsy in which a child can suffer upwards of 100 seizures a day.
Certain varieties of cannabis offer the only real hope for children with this type of disorder, as Dravet syndrome does not respond well to standard epilepsy drugs. Twenty to 30 percent of children with Dravet experience a significant reduction in seizures within days or weeks of using high-CBD, low-THC cannabis, with virtually no adverse effects. So for some, legalized marijuana is just one more option for entertainment, but others feel like it's the difference between life and death.
The Growing List of Illnesses Cannabis Can Treat
Your body makes its own cannabinoids, similar to those found in marijuana, but in much smaller amounts. These endocannabinoids appear to perform signaling operations similar to your body's neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin. Cannabinoid receptors can be found on cell membranes throughout your body — in fact, scientists now believe they may represent the most widespread receptor system.7
The fact that your body is replete with cannabinoid receptors, key to so many biological functions, is why there's such enormous medical potential for cannabis. CBD may be the most potent and beneficial of the cannabinoids, particularly for tamping down an overactive immune system, as is the case with autoimmune disease. CBD also has antipsychotic properties but does not get you high.
The response of cancer patients to cannabis treatment is very encouraging. Not only does cannabis help with the unpleasant side effects of traditional chemotherapy (including pain, nausea, and insomnia), but the cannabis itself appears to be a natural chemotherapy agent. Over the past several years, dozens of studies point to marijuana's effectiveness against many different types of cancer, including brain cancer, breast and prostate, lung, thyroid, colon, pituitary, melanoma, and leukemia. It fights cancer via at least two mechanisms, making it difficult for a cancer to grow and spread:
- Cannabis is pro-apoptotic, meaning it triggers apoptosis (cellular suicide) of cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells untouched
- Cannabis is anti-angiogenic, meaning it cuts off a tumor's blood supply
This may explain why chronic pot smokers have such surprisingly low rates of lung and other cancers, especially when compared to cancer rates among tobacco smokers.8,9 In addition to cancer, cannabis has been found effective against an ever-growing list of illnesses. Research has been limited, but we may be turning the corner. It's likely we'll soon be expanding this list as the evolving political climate becomes more favorable to cannabis research.
Mental disorders, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), mood disorders, and Tourette's syndrome Seizure disorders Pain and insomnia Rheumatoid arthritis Degenerative neurological disorders, dystonia, and tremor Heart disease Multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune issues Autism Parkinson's disease Obesity Cancer, numerous types Nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite
Science Shows Marijuana Is MUCH Safer Than Prescription Drugs
Many prescription drugs are known to be dangerous. Pharmaceuticals in general are among the leading causes of death in the US, and some drugs have killed tens of thousands of individuals. The painkiller Vioxx is one classic example that killed over 60,000 before being pulled off the market. According to Dr. Margaret Gedde, MD, PhD, owner and founder of Gedde Whole Health and the Clinicians' Institute of Cannabis Medicine, you don't have to look far to find research confirming that cannabis is safer and less toxic than many prescription drugs.
This includes liver and kidney toxicity, gastrointestinal damage, nerve damage, and of course death. Moreover, cannabinoids often work when pharmaceutical drugs fail, so not only is cannabis safer but it's typically more effective. Besides treating intractable seizures, one of the strongest areas of research regarding marijuana's health benefits is pain control.
In 2010, the Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) released a report10 on 14 clinical studies about the use of marijuana for pain, most of which were FDA-approved, double-blind, and placebo-controlled. The report revealed that marijuana not only controls pain, but in many cases it does so better than pharmaceutical alternatives.
If you compare prescription painkillers (opiates) to marijuana, marijuana is much safer. Opioid painkillers can lead to slowed respiration and death if an excess is taken — and the risks are compounded if you add alcohol to the equation. By contrast, cannabis overdose cannot kill you because there are no cannabinoid receptors in your brain stem, the region of your brain that controls your heartbeat and respiration.
The statistics speak for themselves. In 2010, prescription painkillers were responsible for 16,600 deaths, and painkiller overdoses claimed more women's lives than cocaine and heroine combined. In the CDC's Public Health Reports study,11 prescription drugs were involved in fatal car crashes at three times the rate of marijuana. In states where medical marijuana is legal, overdose deaths from opioids like morphine, oxycodone, and heroin decreased by an average of 20 percent after one year, 25 percent after two years and up to 33 percent by years five and six.
As noted by Dr. Gedde:
"There's an ongoing death rate from use of pain medications as prescribed. So, even as prescribed, they're highly dangerous and they are open to abuse. As far as medications used in the pediatric population to control seizures, there are also severe toxicities to organs. Many of them are very sedating. The children become unable to function or really to interact because of the sedating effects. Other medications have a side effect of rage and behavioral problems.
Unprovoked rage is actually a known side effect of some of the anti-seizure medications. Cannabis and in particular cannabidiol has none of these issues. No toxicities. The main side effect of cannabidiol is sleepiness. As a child gets accustomed to it, that does wear off and the child can be very alert and functional on the cannabis oil once they have worked into the dosing. Once you put them against each other, there really is no comparison in terms of safety."
Education Is Key
It can sometimes be challenging finding accurate, science-based information about cannabis. Dr. Gedde offers the following suggestions for obtaining reliable information:
"The reason why it's difficult is that the preponderance of research funds have been to show harm related to cannabis, as a drug of abuse... [L]ook for the real research that's there on the endocannabinoid system and the ways that marijuana cannabis has been helping people for centuries. And look into the history of medical practice; that's where the information starts to come out."
She also recommends looking to current clinical practice, which is possible in states where cannabis is now safely and legally accessible. This is where you can learn more about optimal dosing and protocols found effective for various conditions. Other resources that may be helpful include the following:
- Cancer.gov,12 the US government's cancer website, contains research relating to the use of cannabis
- PubMed13 is a searchable public resource containing a vast amount of medical literature, including studies involving cannabis
- The Journal of Pain14 is a publication by the American Pain Society with a long list of studies on the pain-relieving effects of cannabis
- National Institute on Drug Abuse15 is an excellent resource, including information about preclinical and clinical trials that are underway to test marijuana and various extracts for the treatment of a number of diseases, including autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease, inflammation, pain, and mental disorders.
I also recommend listening to my previous interview with Dr. Frankel, in which he discusses many of the medical benefits of cannabis.