Higher Ground: Looking back on marijuana gains in 2014

Looking back on 2014, it was a tremendous year for marijuana activists with two more states legalizing, California lowering penalties for low level crime, New York City decriminalizing possession of small amounts, eight cities in Michigan legalizing, Guam voting for medical use, and generally the public opinion numbers kept moving in the right direction. Washington, D.C., legalized, but since the city is a federal district Congress has to approve. However, hardline anti-marijuana Republicans are making that look iffy at the moment.

As we look ahead, it may soon become passé to count how many states have legalized or opted for medical use. Three fronts on the marijuana campaign — legal, medical, and economic — look like they will turn this into a landslide over the next couple of years.

On the legal end, up to 11 states could be gearing up for recreational legalization runs in 2016. The Cheat Sheet lists California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Missouri, Arizona, and Hawaii as primed for legalization. USA Today listed those states plus Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. However, waiting for 2015 might not be necessary for all of them.

"We suspect that a state legislature in 2015 will pass a legalization bill, probably in New England, Maine or Vermont or Rhode Island," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the nonprofit National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Here in Michigan, activists fundraised and commissioned a poll to gauge the percentage of voters in the state who support recreational legalization. Several groups plan to meet this winter to consider a legalization run. If the numbers are there, then money is a problem. Most successful initiatives have help from national organizations and their efforts are on a few select states.

"One could easily envision Michigan as the Midwest state with a voter initiative," says St. Pierre. "We'd love to see those resources come locally."

California is considered a good bet to legalize recreational use through an initiative in 2016. That would solidify the entire West Coast (including Alaska), and with the prospect of Nevada and Arizona legalizing that would create a solid block of states with potential economic plusses from marijuana.

Every time a state legalizes it puts more pressure on the federal government to bring its policies closer to what's happening in the states. The big prize there would be changing marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration. A federal court in California heard testimony from doctors that the federal stance defied modern science in classifying the plant as "very dangerous" and "lacking medical use."

"In some ways it's now been exposed at its core, the federal government acknowledges that it's flawed, states acknowledge that it's flawed," says St. Pierre. "Business and pharmaceutical interests are saying, 'hey, you can't have serious research, you can't invest the dollars necessary until this comes off Schedule 1.'"

And we all know how closely government listens when business interests start talking.

On the medicinal side, there is startling news on a consistent basis regarding the medical potential of marijuana. Most people understand the palliative effects of the plant that can help with pain management, nausea, and appetite problems for the likes of cancer, HIV and MS patients, and evidence is showing that marijuana can directly fight disease. A recent report from St. George's, University of London published in the journal Molecular Cancer concludes that cannabinoids (chemical in marijuana such as THC and CBD) are helpful in treating brain tumors, inhibiting tumor growth, and neutralizing tumor creation. This is in line with other reports. One of the key aspects of this treatment is that it doesn't have any negative effects. In fact it helps lighten the negative effects of chemotherapy and radiation, the two mainstream medical treatments.

The National Cancer Institute's web page on Cannabis and Cancer cites studies in rats and mice that show that cannabinoids exhibit probable anti-tumor activity.

There is also a CBD boom as some seek the marijuana ingredient that doesn't get you high, although as more scientific information comes out it seems that CBD and THC in tandem, actually the whole plant with its dozens of cannabinoids, seem to work better than any one cannabinoid alone.

"The big hoopla around CBD is going to be very disappointing for people," says Martin Lee, director of Project CBD. "CBD alone has limited therapeutic value. It's a very limited slice of what's possible of the whole plant with a significant amount of CBD, THC, and other things. ... We're finding that about 10 percent of kids with seizure disorders have miraculous results, others improve and 10 to 20 percent don't respond. The vast majority of families using CBD-only find they have to augment it with THC. CBD combined with a little THC is more effective. It underscores one of the big problems with the so-called CBD-only approach. It's very limited."

GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company, is finding that Sativex, made from the whole plant, is much more effective than its Marinol, a synthetic THC product. Marinol is distributed in the United States but not Sativex because it is made from the plant.

In addition, the just beginning understanding of the human endocannabinoid system, cannabinoid receptors and cannabinoids period shows potential to revolutionize how a wide array of disease is treated.

Things are just as startling when you look at the economic impact. Taxation is the first avenue most look at when considering the economic impact of marijuana legalization. A recent Washington Post article showed that in June 2014, Colorado collected more than $7 million in taxes, license, and fees. The Congressional Research Service released a report last month showing that the federal government could collect $7 billion each year in taxes on legal recreational marijuana. It also shows that the "external costs" of marijuana legalization — health and social issues — to be no more than 1.6 billion. That compares favorably to the $30 billion external costs of alcohol use.

However, taxes are just a percentage of overall sales. That money goes to pay for salaries, rents, research, production, construction, and more — keeping money circulating in the economy.

And let us not forget the lower costs for law enforcement, courts, and incarceration if laws are changed. That will also leave some who would be incarcerated out on the street to be productive citizens.

There are a few publications already dedicated to business and investments in marijuana and related fields. Numerous products such as skin salves, acne treatments, cannahoney are on the market. The CBD is extracted from industrial hemp imported from other countries, which is actually legal. There are plenty of U.S. farmers who want to grow hemp because it's a great crop that can be used in thousands of products.

"There's going to be CBD in all sorts of products," says Lee. "It'll be like spirulina in the health food fad."

It's significant that many of these same changes are going on around the world. Uruguay legalized this year. When you consider the potential legal, medicinal, and economic implications of changes happening right now, what's next for marijuana means worldwide impact.

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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