Nov. 4th: The Winds of Change?

When you’ve been involved in the medical cannabis movement for as long as I have—almost 40 years—you collect an amazing wellspring of knowledge that is very useful, particularly when it comes to recognizing the small nuances and events that signal change.

Medical cannabis has been riding a massive, tsunami-like wave of change and backers have been giddy with the seemingly unstoppable nature of the reform. “The cat is out of the bag,” they say, “and it will never be put back in.”

Such statements are partially correct. But another analogy, more sinister, is, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” Recently I have heard the unmistakable sound of sharpening knives.

The sound is particularly clear in my home state of Florida where the upcoming vote on medical marijuana is just a few days away. I predicted months ago that there would be a massive infusion of opposition money in the late days of the campaign that could be very effective. My observations were pooh-poohed at the time. Proponents last summer pointed to polls showing Floridians support medical access to cannabis by a stunning 88%.  Like displaying peacocks, Amendment 2 proponents grandly paraded about, predicting a massive victory at the polls on November 4th.  But gambling mogul, and Republican donor, Sheldon Adelson infused $4 million into the opposition’s coffers in the late summer and they have been running a series of advertisements that do not attack medical cannabis per se, but rather the language of Amendment 2.  Resurrecting—and re-dressing in modern garb—the original Reefer Madness propaganda of 70 years ago, the opponents began a fear-mongering campaign that has chipped away at support. Recent polls have been all over the map. Some show Amendment 2 going down in defeat, collecting only 48% of the vote.  Even these polls, however, are suspect and could well be a part of the opponents’ strategy, attempting to sow doubt in voters’ minds, making them uncomfortable about supporting such an obviously radical Amendment.

The final outcome of Florida’s vote will have a huge impact on the future of the movement. If Amendment 2 is defeated opponents will be emboldened and there is no telling what might happen, but I think the waters are already being tested. Just last week the DEA raided two Pharmacy clinics in California, the first major raids on medical marijuana clinics in many months. I found it curious that these raids took place in West Hollywood, an area with a history of DEA raids dating back to 2001 and more recently in 2007. Pharmacy is well known for being scrupulously legal in terms of taxes and regulatory requirements. It is unclear why they were raided as no one has been arrested thus far. Possibly the DEA is simply trying to gauge public opinion in this colorful landscape of medical cannabis policy.  More ominously, the federal agency may be sharpening its knives and looking at new fodder such as the Stanley Brothers in Colorado.

The Stanleys are well known for their Charlotte’s Web (CW) cannabis strain that helps young children afflicted with intractable epilepsy. The Stanleys achieved national status in August of 2013 when they were featured in the CNN special by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Weed.  Gupta’s well-publicized switch to support medical cannabis was bolstered by reports from parents’ who found CW an effective medication for their children. The news spread like wildfire and soon thousands of parents were seeking help from the Stanley Brothers’ foundation, Realm of Caring. It is reported that the waiting list for CW numbers more than 10,000.

(Gupta, by the way, in a small but significant nuance, was recently reported as saying that  “policy has outpaced the science,” with respect to medical cannabis. While the statement is certainly factual it nonetheless exhibits a certain level of back-pedaling. Gupta is well aware of the effect of federal policy on cannabis science and the statement, in the opinion of this writer, reflects some powerful pressures being exerted on the neurosurgeon.)

Time Magazine recently highlighted the Stanley Brothers in their piece “Pot Kids: Inside The Quasi-Legal, Science-Free World Of Medical Marijuana For Children” which was accompanied online by a 16-minute documentary, A Journey for Oil.  The piece was interesting for a number of reasons. The title alone has multiple implications. The phrase “pot kids” is certainly titillating and misleading. The magazine then mixes “quasi” and “science” all in one neat package. Such negative wording, all tightly bundled in a headline, sets the tone of the content and readers will not be disappointed.

Time states it received a “summary” of “unpublished research” from the University of Colorado’s Children’s Hospital and it “suggests that many of the epileptic children receiving medical marijuana are not benefiting from the drug at all.” The writer states, “Epileptic seizures were significantly reduced in just a third of children studied.” (Emphasis added.)

That use of the word “just” is extremely telling to this nuanced ear. It is dismissive and almost pejorative. I am unaware of any federal standard that dictates a necessary percentage of success before a drug can be deemed “effective.” (Indeed, a one in three efficacy is impressive.) Moreover, the release of a “summary” that then becomes the centerpiece of the article raised my interest. Who is the investigator behind the data?

The investigator, Dr. Amy Brooks-Kayal, is a physician from the University of Colorado who has strong ties to the National Institutes on Health and is the incoming president of the American Epilepsy Society, organizations that routinely call for more research but have done nothing to effect the necessary policy changes that could bring about such study in this country nor have they been critical of the restrictive Schedule I classification of cannabis.

Getting back to the Stanleys, they have taken to calling Charlotte’s Web plant “hemp” as opposed to cannabis, and have publicly announced a plan to challenge the federal laws by shipping CW nationally. (CW contains less than .03% THC and this technically makes it hemp, which is already shipped throughout the country as a nutraceutical.) It’s a bold step but the Stanleys are confident. “At this point in time,” says Joel Stanley in the documentary, “I don’t feel that the legal landscape is such that people are going to come in with handcuffs and guns and try and shut down something that is providing hope and options for people.”

They might want to read their medical cannabis history. In the early 1990s thousands of AIDS patients, with the cooperation of their doctors, requested legal access to cannabis via the Compassionate Access IND program. The government’s response was not compassionate. They shut down the program, threw out the requests, and basically told anyone who needed medical cannabis to “get lost.” That action was met with anger and rage but the program was never re-opened. Its closure led directly to the passing of Prop P in San Francisco, which, of course, led to Prop 215 for the entire state of California. The federal government initially made life hell for the California clinics, thinking they could regain control but as more and more states enacted laws, and presidential administrations changed, the climate became more hospitable, and there was a reason for that “hope” mentioned by Joel Stanley.  These past seven years have been relatively smooth sailing, but it is best not to let down one’s guard.

Recently I was talking with a cannabis entrepreneur and he asked about the chances of Florida’s Amendment 2. I told him things were “up in the air” and the opposition was pushing back hard.  “Yeah,” he said, “that has really surprised me.”  The movement cannot afford that level of naiveté. If you are serious about medical cannabis reform then learn about its history, pay attention to the words, and never forget there are powerful forces looking for every opportunity to shut this down. In the classic words of Woody Allen, “Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t after you.”

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