It may have been five years since the state of Illinois first legalized medical marijuana, but that doesn’t mean its growth has blossomed compared to states with complete legality. Still, with more than 50 dispensaries across the state (and 10 in the city of Chicago alone) and the decriminalization for possessing small amounts of the substance, widespread marijuana acceptance is not a far-fetched fantasy in the eyes of Illinois residents or others across the country.
Progressive marijuana laws continue to pass throughout the country, with more than 29 states offering some form of legality for its use, and nine states (plus Washington, D.C.) passing complete legality for recreational use. This wave of legality has not only led to a thriving cannabis industry in states such as Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, it has also led epidemiologists, researchers, and medical centers to invest financial resources into understanding how marijuana affects our bodies and minds. But the growing cultural acceptance and use of marijuana is at risk if recent decisions from Attorney General Jeff Sessions are any indication. In the face of potential opposition, what can be done to ensure the use and research of marijuana does not end?
The path to legality has been a long time coming.
Hemp was grown in colonial America as far back as the early 1600s, and by the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were incorporated into Western medicine practices and sold at pharmacies to treat pain and other physical ailments. However, American sentiments toward cannabis use changed in the 1900s, some say in part due to racist sentiments and mass media hysteria. New laws were introduced to combat its rise, with 29 states entirely outlawing the substance by 1931.
By 1952, the Boggs Act of 1952 placed mandatory sentences for marijuana at two to 10 years, with a fine of up to $20,000. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 listed the substance—along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy—as a Schedule I drug, classified as a drug without a medical use and a high potential for abuse.
The results of these impractical laws (and the proliferation of the War on Drugs) led to gross enforcement of marijuana usage. According to the 2013 ACLU report “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” in 2010 alone, “there were 889,133 marijuana arrests—300,000 more than arrests for all violent crimes combined—or one every 37 seconds.” And while statistics confirm marijuana usage is the same rate between black and white people, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person, a discrepancy which has increased more than 32.7 percent between 2001 and 2010.
Marijuana legality, in part, is a sure method of ending the discriminatory arrests for possession. It’s no surprise to find the states with some form of legality enacted include decriminalization of possession. By allowing states to vote for the legality of marijuana individually, its use has effectively moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream. For states with complete legality such as Washington, marijuana has proven to be a boon to the local economy and governmental initiatives. According to the Washington State Treasurer and the Fiscal Year 2017 Report from the state liquor and cannabis board, Washington collected a total of $319 million in legal marijuana income and license fees. Revenues were $113 million more than liquor revenue, an increase of nearly $130 million from the prior year. Half of the income from marijuana excise taxes went to the Basic Health Plan Trust Account, which provides, according to the Washington Office of Financial Management, “necessary basic health care services to working persons and others who lack coverage, at a cost […] that does not create a barrier.” Thirty-one percent of the rest of the tax income goes to the General Fund, and another 10.7 percent goes to the Department of Social and Health Services to help curb substance abuse.
Most critically, at least from a health perspective, a better understanding of the health benefits of marijuana has made the path to legality easier to acquire.
For symptom management, marijuana is useful for alleviating nausea and vomiting, increasing appetite and mood, and managing pain or itching caused by cancer treatments. According to the American Cancer Society, cannabinoid drugs like Dronabinol and Nabilone (both approved by the FDA in 1985) can be used to aid cancer patients in their treatment of nausea and vomiting when other medicines have not worked. Nabiximols, another cannabinoid drug used in mouth-spray form and available in Canada and parts of Europe, treats pain linked to cancer and multiple sclerosis. Although it is not yet approved in the United States, numerous clinical trials are in progress, according to the American Cancer Society.
While Dronabinol and Nabilone have proven to be useful for treating cancer-related symptoms, some believe marijuana might be the key in the search for the “cure” to cancer. A 2017 study from the University of St. George reports cannabinoids have been shown to slow growth or cause death in leukemia cells, especially in combination with chemotherapy. According to the National Cancer Institute, a laboratory study using delta-9-THC on liver cancer cells showed it damaged or killed the cancer cells, and the same study found anti-tumor effects of the medicine in mouse models. Another study in mice reported by the National Cancer Institute showed cannabinoids may protect against inflammation of the colon and may reduce the risk of colon cancer. Human trials are still in their infancy stages, so definitive proof of a cure cannot truly be determined.
But the cultural (and medical) growth of marijuana is currently at risk.
For the last 50 years, only the University of Mississippi was allowed to grow marijuana for research under a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In August 2016, the Obama administration announced plans to remove roadblocks which previously denied universities or institutions the capabilities to study the substance. Since then, at least 25 universities and research centers have applied for a license to grow and study marijuana with the approval of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Food and Drug Administration, and NIDA.
However, as of Summer 2018, no new universities or research institutions gained approval. The current U.S. DEA under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to want to decrease—not increase—the amount of marijuana it allocates to research.
“I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply, but I don’t—I’m sure we don’t need 26 new suppliers,” Attorney General Sessions said when questioned about the delay. According to the Federal Register (the daily journal of the United States government), the current production allows for 443,680 grams (approximately 978 pounds) of marijuana and 384,460 grams (approximately 848 pounds) of THC, down 6 percent from the previous year.
Sessions appears to be resistant to the legalization of marijuana across the board. In January 2018, Sessions rescinded the 2013 Obama administration policy, allowing federal prosecutors the ability to target marijuana businesses.
Luckily, state and federal lawmakers are working to gain clarity on Sessions’ actions and protect state legality.
According to The Cannabist, in March, complete and partial legalized marijuana states such as Illinois, California, and Oregon requested a joint meeting with Sessions to end confusion over federal and state laws. The meeting has yet to occur. Fifty-nine House Republicans and Democrats also released a joint letter that same month voicing their concerns about the discrepancy of federal laws versus state laws.
“We are concerned about the Department of Justice enforcing federal marijuana law in a way that blocks implementation of marijuana reform laws in those states that have passed such reforms,” the letter stated. “The issue at hand is whether the federal government’s marijuana policy violates the principles of federalism and the Tenth Amendment. Consistent with those principles, we believe that states ought to retain jurisdiction over most criminal justice matters within their borders.”
In the spring of 2018, the bipartisan congressional House Appropriations Committee voted to shield medical marijuana patients and providers from prosecution by the federal government if they comply with state laws. A provision since 2014, the decision was added to legislation funding for Sessions’ department for Fiscal Year 2019.
But perhaps the most significant effort is still underway.
In June 2018, Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced the STATES Act (Strengthening the 10th Amendment Through Entrusting States), a bill which would eliminate federal interference in states with some form of marijuana legality. Although the law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug and does not remove it from the DEA’s Controlled Substances Act, it would be a step in the right direction to protect the progress of the 29 states with at least partial marijuana legality.
The pressure from legislative bodies appears to have had some effect on Sessions, who only two years ago in a Senate drug hearing said, “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought to be minimized; that it’s, in fact, a very real danger.”
In late April 2018, while speaking to a Senate panel, Sessions reportedly said marijuana was “perfectly appropriate to study” and “there may well be some benefits from medical marijuana.” He also spoke to the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee which works toward approving new applications from medical institutions and research centers eager to study the substance. “We are moving forward, and we will add fairly soon, I believe, the paperwork and reviews will be completed, and we will add additional suppliers of marijuana under the controlled circumstances,” Sessions said.
But even if Sessions does not entirely advocate for marijuana legalization, prosecutions for the substance do not appear to be of the same priority for the government as before. “Our priorities are fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine,” Sessions reportedly said to this same Senate panel. “People are dying by massive amounts as a result of those drugs. We have very few, almost zero, virtually zero, small marijuana cases.”
Sessions’ statements may not be the definitive support states and legislators (and scientists, doctors, and patients) want, but they are a slow step in the direction of progress. What is clear is that complete legalization—or at the very least, legalization for medical use—will remain up for debate across the country. Like all essential progressive movements, change is slow. Unfortunately, those most in need of a real change will bear the brunt of this inaction, making the current legal back-and-forth a matter of suffering in silence for symptom relief.
TYPE: Short and bushy leaves that originate best between 30 to 50 degrees latitude. Best for indoor growing.
EFFECTS: Tends to have more of a full-body effect that relaxes and sedates.
SYMPTOM RELIEF: Anxiety, insomnia, pain, and muscle spasms.
TYPE: Tall and thin leaves that originate from areas between 0 and 30 degrees latitude. They grow better in outdoor gardens.
EFFECTS: Tends to create cerebrally focused effects that energize and cause creativity.
SYMPTOM RELIEF: Depression, ADD, fatigue, and mood disorders.