Cannabis Law Prof Blog

Editor: Franklin G. Snyder
Texas A&M University
School of Law

Monday, June 20, 2016

Maryland's Harris Sponsoring MMJ Research Legislation

AThe White House doesn't have much interest in medical marijuana legalization, but support is now coming from a surprising Congressional source.  Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a physician who strongly opposed D.C.'s legalization last year, is now leading efforts to ease restrictions that prohibit research on marijuana's medicinal benefits.  From the Baltimore Sun:

 

Harris, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist who hangs a white lab coat in his waiting room on Capitol Hill, has been working for roughly a year to build a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who want to ease restrictions on marijuana for the purpose of studying its effect on debilitating diseases.

 

Harris and other lawmakers intend to introduce legislation this week to create a less cumbersome process for marijuana researchers seeking Department of Justice approval to work with the drug.

 

Among other changes, the measure would require federal regulators to approve or deny research applications within two months.

 

. . .

 

“Part of my frustration in the entire debate around legalizing medical marijuana is that there really isn’t good scientific evidence about what it’s good for and what it’s not good for,” Harris, who still practices medicine, told The Baltimore Sun. “We really don’t have good data supporting widespread use.”

 

That position is uncontroversial — even some proponents of looser marijuana laws have lamented a lack of peer-reviewed research. The American Medical Association calls for “further adequate and well-controlled studies” in the opening lines of its formal policy on medical marijuana.

 

There is anecdotal evidence that the drug has helped patients who are suffering from seizures, Parkinson’s and other complex conditions. But Harris and others say states are making decisions about which types of disease can be treated with marijuana without a clear sense of the drug’s efficacy.

 

In that sense, both supporters of expanding the use of medical marijuana and opponents can find reasons to back the legislation. Both sides agree that one of the reasons there is so little data is because it’s been difficult for researchers to get their hands on the drug.

June 20, 2016 in Drug Policy, Federal Regulation, Legislation, Medical Marijuana, News, Politics, Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

New Study: Marijuana May Not Harm Adolescent Brains

AIt's a well-known aphorism that correlation is not the same thing as causation.  A major study last year suggested a correlation between teenage marijuana use and lowered IQ.  A new study has a somewhat different take.  From the Associated Press: Marijuana doesn't cause teens' IQ drop, study says:

    A new analysis is challenging the idea that smoking marijuana during adolescence can lead to declines in intelligence.

 
 

    Instead, the new study says, pot smoking may be merely a symptom of something else that's really responsible for a brainpower effect seen in some previous research.

 

    It's not clear what that other factor is, said Joshua Isen, an author of the analysis. But an adolescent at risk for smoking pot "is probably going to show this IQ drop regardless of whether he or she is actually smoking marijuana," said Isen, a lecturer in psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

 
 

    The study was released Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some prior research has led to suggestions that the developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to harm from marijuana.

 
 

    Studying the topic is difficult because children can't ethically be randomly chosen to either take illicit drugs or abstain for years so that their outcomes can be compared. Scientists have to assess what people do on their own.

 
 

    For the new work, the researchers examined data that had been collected for two big U.S. studies of twins. They focused on 3,066 participants who were given a battery of intelligence tests at ages 9 to 12 -- before any of them had used marijuana -- and again at ages 17 to 20.

    They tracked changes in the test scores and studied whether those trajectories were worse for marijuana users than for non-users. Most tests revealed no difference between the two groups, but users did fare more poorly than abstainers in tests of vocabulary and general knowledge.

 
 

    If smoking pot harmed test scores, the researchers reasoned, people who'd smoked more pot should show poorer trends than those who'd smoked less. But that's not what the data revealed. Among users, those who'd smoked more than 30 times or used it daily for more than a six-month stretch didn't do worse.

    The study also looked at 290 pairs of twins in which one had used marijuana and the other had not. The members of each pair had grown up together and 137 sets were identical twins so they shared the same DNA. Again, the pot users did not fare worse than their abstaining twin siblings.

    So, the researchers concluded, pot smoking itself does not appear responsible for declines in test scores. Isen noted, however, that the work says nothing about other potential harmful consequences of smoking marijuana in adolescence.

    Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said that while the study has some limitations, it is important and deserves to be followed up with more research. She noted the government has already launched a project to follow about 10,000 children over time to assess the impact of marijuana and other drug use.

    A prominent 2012 study had indicated long-term IQ harm from pot smoking in teenagers. An author of that research said the new work does not conflict with her finding. Terrie Moffitt of Duke University said her study dealt with marijuana use that was far more serious and longer-lasting than the levels reported in the new work.

January 19, 2016 in Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Marijuana and Heavy Metal Go Together Like . . .

Marijuana and heavy metal have gone together since at least the Seventies, when you rolled doobies while Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath LPs spun on the turntable.

They still apparently get along, but now it turns out that heavy metal is often found in the marijuana that's smoked these days.  Along with other stuff that manufacturers don't want necessarily to put on the labels.  From Smithsonian.com:

    In Colorado, which made marijuana legal in November 2012, the latest results show that the pot lining store shelves is much more potent than the weed of 30 years ago. But the boost in power comes at a cost—modern marijuana mostly lacks the components touted as beneficial by medical marijuana advocates, and it is often contaminated with fungi, pesticides and heavy metals.

    “There's a stereotype, a hippy kind of mentality, that leads people to assume that growers are using natural cultivation methods and growing organically," says Andy LaFrate, founder of Charas Scientific, one of eight Colorado labs certified to test cannabis. "That's not necessarily the case at all." LaFrate presented his results this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Denver.

    LaFrate says he's been surprised at just how strong most of today's marijuana has become. His group has tested more than 600 strains of marijuana from dozens of producers. Potency tests, the only ones Colorado currently requires, looked at tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound that produces the plant's famous high. They found that modern weed contains THC levels of 18 to 30 percent—double to triple the levels that were common in buds from the 1980s. That's because growers have cross-bred plants over the years to create more powerful strains, which today tout colorful names like Bruce Banner, Skunkberry and Blue Cookies.

    Those thinking that stronger pot is always better pot might think again. Breeding for more powerful marijuana has led to the virtual absence of cannabidol (CBD), a compound being investigated for treatments to a range of ills, from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia, Huntington's disease and Alzheimer's. Much of the commercially available marijuana LaFrate's lab tested packs very little of this particular cannabinoid. “A lot of the time it's below the detection level of our equipment, or it's there at a very low concentration that we just categorize as a trace amount,” he says. Consumers specifically seeking medical benefits from cannabis-derived oils or other products may have a tough time determining how much, if any, CBD they contain, because Colorado doesn't currently require testing.

    “I've heard a lot of complaints from medical patients because somebody claims that a product has a high level of CBD, and it turns out that it actually doesn't,” LaFrate says. Colorado also does not yet require testing of marijuana for contaminants. Washington, the second state to legalize recreational marijuana, does require such testing for microbial agents like E. coli, salmonella and yeast mold, and officials there rejected about 13 percent of the marijuana products offered for sale in 2014.

    "It's pretty startling just how dirty a lot of this stuff is," LaFrate says. His team commonly found fungi and bacteria in the marijuana products they tested. But for now it's unclear just how much marijuana growers need to clean up their product. "Like ourselves, this plant is living with bacteria that are essential to its survival. In terms of microbial contamination, it's kind of hard to say what's harmful and what's not," he adds. "So the questions become: What's a safe threshold, and which contaminants do we need to be concerned about?"

    At the top of that list would be chemical contaminants in products such as concentrates, like the hard, amber-colored Shatter, which contains more than 90 percent THC, LaFrate suggests. Concentrates and edibles (think brownies) make up perhaps half of the current Colorado market. Their makers sometimes suggest that their chosen products are healthier than standard weed because they don't involve frequent smoking. But some manufacturers employ potentially harmful compounds like butane to strip the plant of most everything but THC. Tests also show that marijuana plants can draw in heavy metals from the soil in which they are grown, and concentrating THC can increase the amounts of heavy metals, pesticides or other substances that end up in a product. That means regulations for their production still need to be hammered out, LaFrate says.

    “People use all kinds of different methods to produce concentrates,” LaFrate says. “They allow people to use rubbing alcohol and heptane. But what grade of solvents are they using? Are they buying heptane on eBay, and if so, what exactly is in there? There are a whole bunch of issues to figure out, and right now there are not enough resources and really no watchdog.”

Hey, here's a thought:  Maybe the FDA could get involved.

March 25, 2015 in Drug Policy, Edibles, Federal Regulation, News, Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Same anti-legalization arguments, new state

As Douglas Berman pointed out, Derek Siegle, executive director of the federally funded Ohio High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area  Program, presented a guest column piece today at cleveland.com, in which he included nearly every argument he could imagine in opposition to ending marijuana prohibition. His article presents a wonderful (if stream-of-consciousness) summary of all the main talking points currently used by HIDTA officials around the country. This seems like a great opportunity to dispel some of the dire warnings we often hear. I’m cherry picking here, since there are so many arguments, a full response rather longish. But here are some of the more commonly used, and abused, arguments I see out there.

Not that many people are arrested for marijuana possession, so the impact on the criminal justice system isn't that great.

I never really understood this argument. It seems to be saying "we could be jailing everyone, but we really aren't doing it all that much - so that's good, right?" If it is so rarely invoked, then why allow for jail time at all? It seems to suggest that even the system recognizes that jail is not an appropriate sanction. 

Of course, lots of people (particularly African Americans) are arrested for possession, so this argument might not be as compelling for those lucky contestants who win a free police escort to their local jail. But more to the point, the criminal justice system is far more than incarceration. Jailable offenses mean court appointed attorneys or private counsel, courtroom time, and the time law enforcement spends processing cases. On the back end, it can mean the loss of personal property and money in asset forfeiture proceedings, along with probation. Even technical violations of probation rules can lead to (re)arrest and incarceration, which would not show up in the claim that possession doesn't often lead to jail time. And then there is a criminal drug conviction that could show up in background checks for jobs, school, and housing for a lifetime. 

Heavy consumers may find that the accumulation of THC in their system can affect them in a variety of ways, both physically and mentally.

If this is true, it is a compelling reason to not over-consume, but there is no reason to believe that criminalizing behavior changes people’s practices. Research has shown that teen use does not go up when penalties go down. Nebraska and Mississippi removed the possibility of jail in the 1970s, and teen use is lower in those states than in neighboring Texas, which treats possession as a crime. Studies also generally show that raising penalties for use does not deter behavior, and lowering penalties does not encourage behavior. The bottom line is that while marijuana over-consumption could possibly be a health concern, making it a crime does not deter consumption nor deal with the actual concern mentioned here - health.

Marijuana is more potent than it used to be.

There is some evidence that marijuana is more potent that it was several decades ago, but unlike both narcotic medications and alcohol — which take the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year — there are no known incidents of overdose deaths attributable to marijuana at any time.  Despite its increased potency, it is still a safer alternative than substances we already regulate and control.

Potential tax revenue will only cover about 15 percent of the collateral costs to our community: increased drug treatment, emergency room visits, crime, traffic accidents and school "dropouts."

While it is not clear where HIDTA's statistics come from, the Congressional Research Service did an analysis of the revenue potential of a federally taxed adult marijuana market, published in November 2014, which is directly on point. It found these costs manageable with a modest tax:

Economic theory suggests the efficient level of taxation is equal to marijuana’s external cost to society. Studies conducted in the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada suggest that the costs of individual marijuana consumption to society are between 12% and 28% of the costs of an individual alcohol user, and total social costs are even lower after accounting for the smaller number of marijuana users in society. Based on an economic estimate of $30 billion of net external costs for alcohol, the result is an external cost of $0.5 billion to $1.6 billion annually for marijuana. These calculations imply that an upper limit to the economically efficient tax rate could be $0.30 per marijuana cigarette (containing an average of one half of a gram of marijuana) or $16.80 per ounce. An increased number of users in a legal market would raise total costs, but not necessarily costs per unit.

We do not know what the wholesale or retail sales rate would be under the better-known legalization effort in Ohio, or if they are comparable to prices in other parts of the country for similar products. If they were, a tax rate of 15% would be considerably higher than $16.80 per ounce. 

States that do not tax medical marijuana find that their adult consumers cheat and sign up as medical marijuana patients. And most medical marijuana patients are under 40.

First of all, the “most are under 40 argument” is simply false. According to state marijuana program statistics, the average age of patients in Colorado is 42.  The average in Montana is 47, and the average in Arizona is between 40 and 50.

Secondly, in states that have both medical marijuana and adult use, whether or not people are gaming the system is a question for regulators, not an argument in favor of maintaining the criminality of marijuana use. It is worth noting that according to research by the Toronto-based Center for Addictions and Mental Health and the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, there are somewhere between 400,000 and 1 million self-reported medical cannabis users in Canada, or approximately 4% of the adult population, while only around 1/10 that number are registered patients. It is hard to speculate how many adult consumers would qualify as patients. But at the end of the day, it took a medical professional - not a law enforcement officer - to recommend medical use of marijuana in the first place.   

Legalization will lead to greater use by our youth.

This statement is directly contradicted by peer-reviewed studies, which show that teen use either remained constant, or more often than not, dropped in medical marijuana states. (One interesting question is whether or not teen use of alcohol went up or down after alcohol Prohibition ended. Incidents of reported alcoholism actually did drop based on medical records from the time, but I have never seen this issue researched with respect to teen use.)

Marijuana is a gateway drug.

No anti-marijuana opinion piece is complete without the gateway drug myth, which has been repeatedly debunked by those who have actually studied it, most notably in a White House-commissioned study by the Institute of Medicine in 1999. That study found that marijuana "does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse.” The gateway myth confuses causation and correlation. As recently explained by Susan Weiss, a psychologist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “[p]eople tend to use marijuana before they use other illicit drugs, but that’s probably because it’s much more available, and it’s the drug that people are more likely to come in contact with.” Just like alcohol does not cause people to use marijuana, marijuana does not cause use of harder drugs.

I would also point out that California has allowed practically unregulated medical marijuana since 1996 without any perceptible increase in hard drug use. 22 other states and D.C. followed. Where are all the new cocaine and heroin users ushered in by these laws? But hey, it sure sounds scary. 

Accidents and fatalities on the highway will increase if marijuana is more available as it has in Colorado.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has called out HITDA for misusing state statistics in the law enforcement agencies' repeated efforts to advance this argument. In reality, very recent research by federal government’s own National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found THC-positive drivers possess no elevated risk of motor vehicle accident, after adjusting for drivers’ age and gender. NHTSA acknowledges that this is the largest US-based crash risk assessment ever performed. They also note that their findings are ‘in line’ with other well-controlled studies also finding little to no increased risk.

If marijuana is medicine why isn't it prescribed?

This is one of my personal favorites. Here’s why not:

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) studies and approves or rejects drugs for prescription use.
  • It doesn't study a substance for medical benefit if the drug is already scheduled as having no medical benefits - it needs to be rescheduled first as something with at least theoretical medical benefit.
  • The DEA has the authority to reschedule marijuana, thus enabling the FDA to begin study in earnest, but refuses to do so until there are studies on its medical benefit.
  • Any studies on medical benefit (or any other use) must use marijuana provided by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).
  • NIDA has an institutional policy, imposed by Congress, to only make marijuana available for research if that research examines its harmful effects.

The lack of study is based on the federal government’s general policy to refuse to make it available for studies on its benefits – not because marijuana actually does lack medical benefit.

Crime went up in Colorado after legalization.

No, it did not. Well, some types of crime did go up, while other categories dropped. The claim that crime increased selectively reports the data in order to fit the theory, ignoring the crime rates that dramatically fell. In fact, it's probably too early to really know what has happened to crime rates, although street cops in Denver don't seem to think it made much difference.

As I mentioned in the comments section following Doug’s post, the real problem with these sorts of arguments is that they lack any solution except "maintain the status quo – or else!" All they really do is present the possible harm to society/kids/budgets/crime rates if things change. But in reality they have been changing for decades and the sky is still, well, in the sky.  If there really were horror stories to tell based on what states have been doing since reducing criminal laws since the 70’s, or adopting medical marijuana laws since the 90’s, or legalizing marijuana since 2013, we would not be arguing about hypotheticals. 

March 24, 2015 in Decriminalization, Drug Policy, Federal Regulation, Law Enforcement, Legislation, Local Regulation, Medical Marijuana, News, Politics, Recreational Marijuana, Research, State Regulation, Taxation | Permalink | Comments (0)