In a world with legal cannabis for all, is there a need for a medical cannabis industry?
Yes, of course there is, but a lot depends on what the term “medical” means in the context of a legal cannabis market.
There is a simple way to look at this question, though it will serve many private interests to make this a complicated issue. The simple way to look at it is this: the products medical patients need for the therapeutic use of cannabis need to remain available to them, as well as the services they need to best utilize cannabis in a therapeutic manner.
The key word here is “therapeutic.” Patients—people with medical conditions that require therapy—need to have access to cannabis with as few restrictions as possible, and access to cannabis and related services at the lowest feasible cost.
“Medical” is an unnecessary term in a world where cannabis is widely available in a free, competitive, and consumer-responsive market. Medical refers to the practice of medicine, a highly professional service industry, and one which relies extensively on prescribed drugs. Medical drugs are subject to extensive regulation, including extensive clinical testing and proprietary licensing by the companies that have developed and patented them. In other words, medicine is expensive. Cannabis should not be expensive.
Lester Grinspoon has been a pioneer and leader in the long-term movement to recognize marijuana’s medical value. Grinspoon declared long ago that cannabis should be as freely available as aspirin. There is an aspirin industry, but it is not nearly as profitable as Ambien, Prozac, or Viagra. Grinspoon has spoken out frequently on the looming problem of the pharmaceuticalization of cannabis. And that’s the peril built-in to the concept of medical marijuana.
The need for public policy to recognize the needs of patients to have access to cannabis for therapeutic use has driven the medical cannabis movement, and its gains have been numerous and influential. It has shattered the foundation of prohibition–that marijuana is a worthless drug that should be eliminated from civilized society.
Legalization, though, changes the legal, social and economic environment in ways that make the medical label less useful to patients but more profitable to merchants.
Patients need access to various types of cannabis, with various combinations and amounts of CBD and THC for example, and they need access to information and counseling about what types of cannabis best accommodate their therapeutic needs. Some of the better products may indeed come from the pharmaceutical industry, and some of the best advice may come from medical professionals.
Neither industry, though, should have a legal monopoly on the supply of cannabis nor on information about its use.
Legalization opens the door to entrepreneurship, which is the creation of new combinations of goods and services. This can already be observed in the legal markets in Colorado and Washington, and this process will continue in the emerging legal markets in other states. Entrepreneurship also unleashes the power of creative destruction, in which these new combinations of goods and services attract capital from other economic channels. In other words, new products attract business from old products, and new industries attract business from old industries.
Sometimes the new products and industries result in the destruction of the old ones. This is what the alcohol and legal opiate industries are worried about, and why some companies in these industries have begun to oppose the legalization of cannabis. It is inevitable, too, that legal cannabis for all will have a significant impact on the current version of the medical cannabis industry.
Change is underway. It is exciting. It will be profitable for some, and it will result in lost profits for others. There is a bright future for the therapeutic cannabis industry, a profitable future serving the needs of patients with a wide variety of ailments for which cannabis provides relief. But consumers should be wary of arguments designed to increase the profits of business at the expense of both patients and other cannabis consumers in general.
Words are important, but in the final analysis the market will decide the winners and the losers when it comes to making money from the legalization of cannabis. The future of medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, legal cannabis or any other category of cannabis depends on the ability of industry to serve the needs of consumers.
Nonetheless, watch what happens after more states legalize cannabis. The arguments and debates will shift from whether cannabis should be legalized to just who is going to make money in this new market and how much can they make. The future of medical cannabis will depend on whether the industry focuses on profits or people.
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