The dangers of California-style marijuana dispensaries
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, February 28, 2009

Last summer’s New Yorker piece entitled “Dr.Kush” describes how medical marijuana is transforming America’s pot industry. In the land where referendums are authorizing the use and cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes, author David Samuels describes how 200,000 physician-sanctioned California pot users are serviced by a robust subculture of growers, dispensers, brokers, and doctors.

All bring a certain sophistication to their trade. Typical is dispensary owner Cindy99, who grew up in B.C. She likes helping sick people, though she suspects there’s little seriously wrong with the young guys buying an eighth of L.A.Confidential. Best of all, she is really up on her pot strains. “These two have sativa in them,” she says. “They’re really good for daytime use.” Purple Urkel is better for alleviating pain but, she admits, “the percentages are abitrary because of all the cross-breeding. You take a Blueberry and you cross it with a Kush and you get back into Trainwreck, and how do you get a percentage from that?”

And that’s before you get into the really interesting strains like Cat Piss and Dog Shit. But then as Emily, a ganja-grower grown politically complacent in the forests of Humboldt County tells Samuels, “It’s fuuuun….. You’re still subverting the Man, you know?”

Only in California, you say? Perhaps.

A recent Federal Court of Appeal decision allowing medical marijuana suppliers to have more than one customer clearly opens the door to California-style pot-shops. This despite the fact no government (and very few doctors) supports the use of smoked marijuana for treatment and whose advocacy many believe is a not so subtle attempt to legalize the drug.

Moreover, what happens to the integrity of medical science if courts and referendums can decide drug treatments without their having to undergo rigorous scientific protocols?

“The medical marijuana industry is dysfunctional,” says David Hill, Chief Executive Officer of Cannaset Therapeutics Inc. “The government spent $10 million to create strict operating procedures in a well secured facility, Prairie Plant Systems, to obtain pharmaceutical grade marijuana for medical users and the courts are now effectively licencing underground growers.”

Not that this will affect Cannaset, says Hill. Having invested $10 million in its own research, Cannaset is the only Canadian firm developing highly purified, cannabinoid based drugs. First up is CAT 310, a new form of dronabinol - a synthetic version of tetrahydrocannibinol (THC) designed for treating neuropathic pain. Already an approved drug, Cannaset’s sublingual version enhances bioavailability, reduces side effects, and is now undergoing clinical trials.

Jon Page understands the goals of companies like Cannaset. The Research Officer in Plant Biotechnology at the National Research Council in Saskatoon is studying biosynthetic processes in marijuana and hemp, both of which are derived from cannabis (C.sativa) “The Holy Grail of current science is how to preserve the good effects of cannabis without the psychoactivity”, he says. To remove impediments to hemp’s (C.sativa L. supbsp sativa) industrial development, he’s hoping to eliminate its already low levels of THC but with 60 or more cannabinoids that are capable of correlating with the endocannabinoids that humans produce naturally, marijuana (C.sativa subsp indica) is proving to be the cornucopia from which to develop medicines.

This is important work because in addition to potentially useful cannabinoids, marijuana also contains over 100 chemicals. Moreover its psychoactive component, THC, has been implicated in the development of schizophrenia in vulnerable young adults, particularly among those who use marijuana from early adolescence. But then as David Hill explains, while marijuana used to contain about 5% THC and 1-2% cannabidiol (CBD) , today’s varieties have been engineered to contain 15-20% THC but without any commensurate rise in the CBD levels that counter THC’s anxiety and paranoia inducing effects.

Given high levels of consumption, some experts are bracing themselves for an epidemic of schizophrenia as today’s young users reach their twenties. In this light, Cannaset’s development of synthetic CBD appears timely.

For Canada’s medical marijuana patients using untried and untested substances, however, the prognosis is less clear. Have the courts done them any favours? In the circumstances, Health Canada might do everyone a favour by getting them out of the courtrooms and into clinical trials where product safety can be monitored and where the growing body of knowledge about this ubiquitous drug can be scientifically augmented.

Margret Kopala’s regular column on western perspectives appears for the last time today. She can be reached at the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies where she is Director of Research and Policy Development.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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