With 29 states and the District of Columbia having laws permitting the use of medical cannabis and 9 states plus D.C. allowing legal recreational use of cannabis, it seems that marijuana has gone mainstream. As the prohibition of pot begins to fade, the facts begin to emerge. Cannabis, along with its derivatives, is classified as a Schedule I drug which places tough restrictions on obtaining licenses to study the plant and its applications; this puts the United States decades behind Israel, Italy, and numerous other countries in regards to cannabis research. Because pot is taboo in America, the National Institute of Health has been paying Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist, $100,000 per year for over 45 years to research marijuana. In the cannabis world, Mechoulam is known as the “Grandfather of Marijuana” because he and his staff were the first to isolate the most controversial molecular compound known to man: delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or more commonly known as THC. Mechoulam is also responsible for the isolation and identification of cannabidiol (CBD) and of the first known endogenous cannabinoids: anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol. Thanks to his research and that of cannabis pioneers such as Dr. Ethan Russo, Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, and Dr. Christina Sanchez, we are beginning to learn the truth about the complex history surrounding this simple plant.
The first historical mention of cannabis was around 2900 BC by the Chinese Emperor, Fu Hsi and later in written Ayurvedic Medicine study around 1100 BC. Cannabis has been used for agricultural, religious, and medicinal purposes for centuries. In the United States, a variety of cannabis known as hemp has been grown and used for fiber, rope, soap, and food. In fact, rom the Colonial years until the early 1900’s, hemp was one of the leading crops in America. Cannabis sativa l was included in the United States’ pharmacopeia from 1854 until 1941, and by 1937, there were around 28 over-the-counter medications that contained cannabis. However, it was also around this time that the ‘Reefer Madness’ phenomenon emerged and the Marijuana Tax Act was passed; the combination of which put a strain on the farming of hemp and ended legal access to medical cannabis. ‘Reefer Madness’ was fueled by Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which laid the groundwork for the DEA as we know it today.) Anslinger spread his demonization of the cannabis plant by issuing racist and sensationalist articles in newspapers and magazines owned by his co-conspirator, William Randolph Hearst. Anslinger once stated in an article that “there are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and many others." As a result of their campaign, Anslinger and Hearst received support from Lammot du Pont of the DuPont Chemical Company and from several pharmaceutical corporations. It comes as no surprise that cannabis was a major competitor of DuPont’s companies as well as Hearst’s timber business.
In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act categorized cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug which means that it had a high potential for abuse with no medical benefit. It is important to note, however, that the American Medical Association testified against the Marijuana Tax Act and opposed the Schedule 1 delegation. In 2009, The AMA voted to request Congress and the DEA to re-categorize cannabis as a Schedule 2, but the effort failed. To this day, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug even though the United States government recognizes the medicinal value of the plant as is made obvious by the fact that they own a patent on cannabinoids used as an antioxidant and neuroprotectant.
Even though cannabis and its derivatives are Federally illegal, the FDA has approved several synthetic cannabinoids for medical use. Marinol (Dronabinol) was approved by the FDA in 1985 as treatment for wasting syndrome in AIDS patients and chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting in cancer patients. The FDA has also approved a similar medicine consisting of synthetic THC called Nabilone. Because these medications are synthetic and only comprised of the single man-made molecule THC, they fail to tap into the “entourage effect” which is what makes full spectrum (utilizing all components of the plant) cannabinoid therapy so successful. In 2016, the FDA approved the synthetic cannabis medication Syndros which is a liquid formulation of Marinol. Syndros is manufactured by Insys Therapeutics, and it is important to note that this pharmaceutical company is the same one that makes a fentanyl-based medication that is 50 times stronger than heroin, and spent nearly half a million dollars to successfully lobby against cannabis legislation in their home state of Arizona.
While the federal government maintains its criminalization of marijuana, states have taken matters into their own hands. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize cannabis as early as 1973. California was the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996. Many other states began to follow suit over the next two decades. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Now, two-thirds of the United States have implemented some sort of cannabis legalization, and 64% of Americans support the legalization cannabis. In recent years, Congress has passed legislation that protects state’s right in regards to their cannabis laws. The Farm Bill, the Cole Amendment, and the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment have all provided states with cannabis legislation a safety net under which to operate within their state laws without fear of Federal intervention. In January of 2018, just days after California dispensaries began selling cannabis for recreational use, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to all states’ Attorneys General on Federal marijuana enforcement policies encouraging them to pursue prosecutions related to marijuana activities. While many Americans and cannabis patients feel threatened by this statement by Sessions, most Attorneys General in states with legal access vow to continue to support the will of the people.
Cannabis is still a controversial plant, as there will always be arguments on each side of the cannabis debate. It appears obvious, however, that political favoritism, perhaps driven and funded by pharmaceutical, petroleum, and other industries, has kept this plant out of the hands of American citizens for almost a century, but the tide is turning. States are beginning to see the financial benefit to legalization and patients are gaining access to an alternate source of medicine; it isbe only a matter of time before the Federal prohibition of pot becomes the regulation of cannabis.