LONGMONT, Colo. — In a few months, Dani Fontaine Billings will plant 80 acres of hemp at her farm here, out behind a clapboard farmhouse with views of the Rocky Mountains.
Some of the plants will grow tall, like bamboo, and yield grain and fiber for textiles and other industrial products. Others will look and smell like marijuana and yield a cannabis compound. The profitability of that compound, Billings said, is drawing many farmers and would-be farmers to the hemp industry.
Few people had heard of cannabidiol, known as CBD, before a 2013 CNN documentary, “Weed,” that featured its healing powers. Now entrepreneurs put CBD into pills, tinctures, candies, body lotions and dog treats, and customers use it to ease health problems from anxiety and sore muscles to seizures.
Billings and her mother, Tracee Box, own and operate Nature’s Root, a hemp spa tucked beside the American Legion in this suburb north of Denver. As many things in the spa as possible are made of hemp, from the bathrobes to the massage oil. But cannabidiol-infused products are among the bestsellers, said the 31-year-old Billings. “We have a very large clientele that just wants to use the CBD on their bodies.”
CBD can be derived from marijuana or hemp — both are varieties of the cannabis plant — but the marijuana version is only available in states that have legalized the drug. The hemp version, however, is easy to find online and in stores all over the country, including in spas and grocery stores. And because the hemp version isn’t psychoactive, it could attract a bigger market: people who want to feel better without getting high.
But for growers and sellers there’s a problem: The federal government is divided on whether the hemp CBD extract is legal. The 2014 federal farm bill says cannabis becomes hemp — and legal to grow and market — when its psychoactive potential drops below a certain level. But the 1970 Controlled Substances Act says only certain parts of the cannabis plant can be legally sold as hemp. That definition excludes the cannabis flowers, which are usually harvested for CBD.
This month, a federal court in San Francisco will hear arguments in a lawsuit — brought by Hemp Industries Association, a trade group, and two hemp companies — that seeks to overturn the DEA classification.
The current hemp CBD industry also faces long-term threats beyond questions about legality. As more states legalize marijuana, the industry may face more competition from marijuana-derived cannabidiol. And pharmaceutical companies are getting in on the action. Two cannabidiol drugs are moving through the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process, and one of them — an anti-seizure medication — could hit the market this year.
The New Hemp Boom
Hemp was historically grown to make rope, sailcloth and textiles. But it fell out of favor as a cash crop in the 20th century, as states and the federal government banned marijuana, and cotton and synthetic materials became cheaper to produce.
Hemp’s resurgence began four years ago when Congress passed the farm legislation, defining “industrial hemp” as cannabis with a concentration of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, of no more than 0.3 percent by weight. The law says states can allow universities and agriculture departments to grow hemp in order to study the plant’s growth, cultivation and marketing.
“That word marketing — it was the crack in the door,” says Brent Burchett, director of plant marketing for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. In Kentucky, where officials have argued that the only way to conduct market research for a product is to allow it to be bought and sold, private hemp farmers get a license from the state and share their experience growing, processing or selling the plant.
Two-thirds of states have enacted legislation to allow hemp to be grown under the farm bill, according to Vote Hemp, a nonprofit that advocates for hemp. Of those states, nineteen had active hemp programs last year. The vast majority of them — including Kentucky and Colorado — allowed commercial sales.
Farms in Colorado and Kentucky generated about half the nation’s hemp crop last year, according to industry estimates. Burchett expects 6,000 acres to be planted in Kentucky this year, up from 30 in 2014. Initially, most farmers grew for hemp fiber. Now, more than half is planted for CBD, he said.
In Colorado, where close to 10,000 acres of hemp was planted last year, the harvest, which had long been mostly used for CBD, has shifted to other uses recently, according to Duane Sinning, the assistant director of plant industry at the state Department of Agriculture. More farmers are choosing to grow hemp for its grain, he said. Hemp seeds, also known as hemp heads, are gaining prominence as a “superfood” like chia or flax seeds.
But at a recent cannabis trade show in Denver that featured marijuana and hemp companies, most entrepreneurs were selling wares infused with CBD.
Along the “Hemp Hallway,” passersby could reach out for free samples of everything from caramels to pills packaged to look like medicine. Peggie Baker, of the Little Flower Colorado Hemp Company, stood behind a cloth-draped table decorated with succulents and poured samples of sticky, tangy CBD tincture onto a spoon.
Her target customers are interested in the product’s health benefits but would never walk into a marijuana dispensary, she said — that’s why the company has a pretty logo and retail partnerships with a few spas and a grocery store. “I want to get to places where women and grandmas would walk in,” she said.
Under FDA rules, companies selling cannabidiol extract can’t market their products as cures for specific diseases because none are approved as medical drugs. The FDA says companies can’t call CBD products supplements, either.
Yet many companies either flout those rules or walk right up to the line. At the Denver expo, many sellers had a story to tell about a miracle improvement, such as a client whose Parkinson’s tremors subsided or a wife whose muscle pain eased. Some, like Baker, simply said they got into the business because they wanted to help people around them who were sick.
Relaxing in an armchair in the lobby of his daughter’s spa the day before the trade show, Bill Billings — who runs a second business with her, advising newcomers to the hemp industry — said that since he started using CBD, the swelling and pain in his arthritic knee have subsided. Two poodles trotting around the spa lobby that morning were also CBD users. They’re given the extract to ease their arthritis and anxiety, Dani Billings said.
Industry analysts say the CBD market will only grow. The Hemp Business Journal, a Denver-based organization that publishes industry estimates, predicts that within two years marijuana, hemp and pharmaceuticals will split a combined CBD market of more than $1 billion. Other estimates for the hemp-derived market are much higher.
A Legal Gray Area
Some legal experts caution, however, that buying and selling hemp-derived cannabidiol might be illegal.
That’s because of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which says cannabis is marijuana — except for the stalks, fiber and oil of the plant traditionally used by industry. That means cannabis flowers, the source for CBD extract, qualify as marijuana no matter the THC level of the plant.
The Drug Enforcement Administration leaned on the latter definition when, in 2016, it classified all cannabinoid extracts as dangerous drugs. Local law enforcement agents have raided CBD sellers in North Dakota and Iowa, and Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill concluded last year that it’s illegal to sell cannabidiol extracts there. Indiana law does permit patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy to use the substance, Hill said in his legal opinion.
Daniel Shortt, a Seattle-based attorney at the law firm Harris Bricken who works with cannabis industry clients, said hemp CBD products occupy a gray area.
“The thorny question is whether these CBD products derived from industrial hemp can be legally sold and distributed online,” he said. Some major retailers won’t sell CBD, others will. “A lot of it comes down to what level of risk businesses are willing to take.”
Bob Hoban, a Denver-based lawyer whose firm represents the hemp companies suing the DEA, said Congress has for the past three years cleared the way for hemp products to move across state lines by adding language to spending bills that prevent the DEA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture from interfering with state hemp programs.
Seeking to distance hemp from marijuana, some hemp companies have chosen to expand in places that don’t allow marijuana cultivation.
AgTech Scientific recently established a hemp product development center in Kentucky partly for that reason, said Mike French, the company’s president. He said the overlap between cannabis industries in other states can make banks reluctant to serve hemp businesses.
In Colorado, many cannabis entrepreneurs dabble in both varieties of the plant. Billings and her mom, for instance, owned a medical marijuana edibles company before selling it in 2012 and switching to hemp.
The marijuana industry was “toxic,” Billings said — she just didn’t like the culture. Her family’s hemp empire, which began with a 2.5 acre harvest, keeps on expanding. Next up: two spas opening next month in Jamaica.
The young entrepreneur set up shop outside of Urbn Leaf, a recreational and medical marijuana dispensary in San Diego. According to local news outlet Fox 4, the girl sold more than 300 boxes in about six hours.
Urbn Leaf posted this photo on Instagram, encouraging its clientele to grab some “Girl Scout Cookies with your GSC.” (GSC is a strain of weed named after girl scout cookies, and is known for its “sweet and earthy” flavor.)
“I think our customers loved it,” said Savannah Rakofsky, a representative for Urbn Leaf. “They went out and bought boxes.”
According to Rakofsky, there was an “added value” to visiting the dispensary and getting the chance to buy Girl Scout cookies. Although it didn’t necessarily bring in customers, it did drum up publicity for Urbn Leaf. Rakofsky posted the photo as she was leaving for her lunch break, and there were already news teams at the store when she came back.
Rakofsky also said there’s a possibility of this becoming a trend.
“The funny thing is, after the news story ran, we had more Girl Scouts show up over the weekend,” Rakofsky said.
Although Girl Scouts are only allowed to sell at “approved sites” — which doesn’t include pot shops — this particular scout got around the rule by selling cookies from her wagon, and by moving up and down the sidewalk instead of staying in front of the store. Alison Bushan, a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts San Diego, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that this tactic was “gray area.”
It wouldn’t be the first time a Girl Scout racked in sales in front of a dispensary. In 2014, one savvy scout sold cookies outside of a San Francisco cannabis clinic. Girl Scouts of Northern California actually condoned it, because “the mom decided this was a place she was comfortable with her daughter being at.”
Rakofsky said Urbn Leaf would be “totally open to” allowing Girl Scouts to sell cookies outside their storefronts regularly, if the organization allowed it. “We have no problem,” she said. “But unfortunately that’s not us, that’s the Girl Scouts.”
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The green revolution is here ― and it’s mostly black, brown and female.
This month, California became the largest state in the nation to allow and regulate recreational cannabis. With marijuana legal in some form in 29 U.S. states, many are rushing to cash in on the wealth and opportunity the industry can provide.
Fortunately, women, specifically women of color, have already been doing the work.
Though mainstream images of cannabis users and industry executives might suggest otherwise, the industry is sustained by a diverse community of supportive women pursuing wellness, wealth, joy and justice through the plant.They are entrepreneurs, healers, lawmakers, scientists, doctors, activists, artists and immigrants. They’ve been in the field before most people called it one, and together they’re creating a just, equitable future.
Here are 27 women who will shape the future of the plant.
Shaleen Title, marijuana attorney; commissioner, Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an industry from scratch, but the product itself has been used since the beginning of history. That dynamic is unique and provides an opportunity for anyone with expertise and drive to become a leader. It’s an honor to be one of the youngest women of color in a regulatory position like mine.”
“The cannabis plant is a female plant. Its essence is feminine. My position, and Supernova’s position, how I see it, is to bring the feminine wisdom, the beauty, the strength that this cannabis plant has and that we have as women ― that’s what we’re here to represent and for us to be able to build it. We already live it, we walk in it every day, but for people to start seeing that.”
Wanda James, first black woman to own a dispensary in Colorado
“You are going to respect this plant. As women, we’re finally getting the chance to scream that as a group. You’re going to respect what we have to bring to the table…. That’s been so empowering, and now that I’m seeing women on the other end becoming investors in the space, not only just running companies, but real estate investment trusts to give properties to people going into cannabis ― it’s amazing. It’s stuff that women do every day. Why not do it in cannabis as well?”
Ophelia Chong, founder of StockPot images, Asian Americans for Cannabis Education
“StockPot wasn’t created because I saw this huge cannabis industry coming at all. My sister, who has an autoimmune disease, was trying to use cannabis to help with some of the symptoms. I was looking at her, and I thought, man, she looks like a stoner. And then it hit me: I thought, I’m stereotyping her. I hurt my own feelings. Then I was thinking about the lack of diversity and how people of color are viewed when they use cannabis. People talk about a ‘stoner grandma,’ which is not so bad of a term when it’s a white woman. But when I saw images of an African American man holding a joint, they would be labeled ‘convict,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘drug dealer’ or ‘addict.’ That was the day I started StockPot ― to change the way we look at the cannabis community.”
Tsion Lencho, attorney, Supernova Women co-founder
“The reason I was attracted to this industry in law school was it was one of the few issues I had stumbled across where you had conservatives and liberals both coming to the same table about the failed war on drugs…. When I was in law school, California was first dealing with reentry and with over-incarceration and trying to reduce criminalization ― the timing [to make an impact] was pretty perfect.”
“The movers and shakers in the industry and activist space are phenomenal women who broke down barriers in corporate America, politics and in every other aspect of life, out of necessity. These women are mothers, partners, wives, sisters and daughters to the men killed and imprisoned and left with few options in life as the war on drugs rages on. We don’t have the option of not speaking up for ourselves and not actively pursuing restorative justice in addition to creating an equitable industry. As a black woman helping to build this industry and as a longtime consumer, I had no choice! I not only advocate for myself and my interests but also those of my community. My personal experiences with cannabis are just as important as the professional skill set and expertise I bring from other industries.”
“Elevate Jane aims to destigmatize cannabis culture in support of the plant as medicine. You shouldn’t feel you have to hide your pipes in a shoebox in the closet; there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Your favorite painting hangs in your bedroom, and you should similarly be proud to display your beautiful, handmade piece on your coffee table. Within the industry, there’s an incredible force of women leading the charge to mainstream cannabis. There are vastly more female-owned and run businesses in the cannabis space compared to other industries, and we’re growing stronger together by collaborating and supporting each other.”
Takiya Anthony-Price, founder and executive producer of One on One, a cannabis-friendly podcast
“I’m the founder and executive producer of One On One, a cannabis centric media series, that aspires to craft a new perspective on how we view cannabis consumption within multi-cultural communities! Our guests narrate their history with the plant and how it plays a pivotal role in who they are today. I do it because when I began to use cannabis medicinally I noticed that there were very few POC discussing their relationship with the plant. Even fewer were in a position to do so, due to a plethora of issues. The first being the stigma already associated with cannabis and how deeply entrenched its history is with racist tactics that ultimately led to the War on Drugs. The other reason being that I know that my community generally listens to each other. You can give us statistics, you can tell us facts, and that’s all fine and dandy. But, if their Auntie Maxine is talking to them about something, you’re more likely to listen. [Being a woman in weed] means that I have the ability to reshape the cannabis industry in my image. That image happens to be related to who I am ― queer, black, and a mother. All facets of who I am also happen to be underrepresented communities. My hope for the future is that we see more people of color join the cannabis movement, whether it be by, advocacy work or by owning and operating their own business. There’s absolutely enough room at the table, and if they don’t find a table they like, I encourage them to go ahead and build one.”
Safon Floyd, Siritia Wright, Kali Wilder, founders of EstroHaze
“We decided to start EstroHaze because we saw what was happening as far as industry growth, were enthusiasts and felt we could help close a gap in education within our communities. It angers me that so many people of color are locked up for a plant that saves so many lives. And the last time this whole prohibition thing happened, a lot of people who look like me didn’t benefit. Not this time.
My co-founders and I worked together at a national media company and knew we could use our backgrounds to spread a message, to provide resources, to document what is happening. To spark conversations and amplify voices. There is a growing, evolving, beautiful community that we have the pleasure to share with on a daily basis.
Being a woman in this industry, in this moment in time, and able to contribute in this way is something we don’t take lightly. It’s all new. How does it feel to be a woman in weed? We are women in weed focused on connecting women to weed. So, dope.”
Sirita Wright, CMO:
“Women in weed are either bold, brave or both. EstroHaze started as a podcast and evolved into a media platform where ambitious, career-focused women like us, who look like us, can come together to both appreciate and finally profit from cannabis. The women in the industry are focused on building impactful change both within the cannabis industry as a whole and in their own communities.”
“I am a cosmetologist specializing in henna tattoos and lash extensions. I’m a mom to a one-year-old baby girl and a proud Indian cannabis advocate. My mission? I’m hoping by being vocal about my personal journey using cannabis will open conversations about cannabis in other Indian family homes. Being an Indian woman advocating for cannabis is very rare. My community tends to be judgemental and definitely looks at marijuana in a negative way. But I feel that education is the solution, especially with immigrant parents. I never imagined my parents accepting my own cannabis use. It wasn’t overnight, so I had to educate them and still continue to today. My greatest hope for the future of cannabis is to see it accessible in every country, especially India… I believe in the cannabis industry, and know more research and studies are unfolding every day about this miracle plant. I’m honored to have experienced it firsthand and now seeing it is changing the world.”
Sonia Espinosa, co-founder, Massachusetts Recreational Cannabis Consumer Council
[I do this work] because weed legalization is not simply ending prohibition and creating the ability to buy legal weed from a storefront. Legalization means creating equity for those who have been most damaged by the war on drugs…. Cannabis is a booming industry, but it’s important to consider who’s making money from it and who’s getting locked up and deported.”
Dasheeda Dawson, president, MJM Strategy, and chief strategy officer for Minorities for Medical Marijuana
“I am The WeedHead, a corporate-to-cannabis cross-over executive. From Target to THC, I am the founder and president of MJM Strategy, a digital-focused management consulting firm specializing in the cannabis and hemp industries. After witnessing the palliative effects of cannabis on my mother as she underwent chemotherapy, I decided to explore the medicinal benefits. When my mother passed away, I moved to Arizona and immersed myself in the industry. My mission is to legitimize, stabilize and diversify the cannabis business. As a black woman, I have faced intersectional barriers because of my race and gender, which have only made me more determined to open doors for other women and people of color. My ultimate goal is to help end cannabis prohibition globally, so that people everywhere can enjoy the health and wellness benefits from the plant. I hope that my work and voice expand the world’s perspective on a myriad of cannabis-related issues, from equitable and sustainable business to social justice.”
Chelsea Candelaria, advocate, blogger and customer success manager, Try Chemistry
“There’s a huge stereotype about women that we don’t smoke or, if you do, that you’re a poor mother, you can’t be professional. That’s especially impactful in my own communities. I’m Latina and I’m also black. Those things run very, very deep. I’m determined to help break that stereotype. I’m an educated woman with a professional background and I use cannabis very regularly. You can be a productive person. You can be a good citizen and use cannabis. There’s such a deep history in my community around cannabis use and the effects of cannabis prohibition. My own family has been affected, significantly, by the war on drugs. That was another huge motivation for me to get into the industry and make an impact.”
“I’m the only African American woman that has any kind of cannabis business in San Francisco. I do on-demand hair. I thought: I work on demand, I work with all these tech people, I go to people’s houses. Let me open up a delivery service. So I just read and read and trained myself, and then I opened it up last year. For me to be able to be here after seeing all of this craziness and dysfunction is a dream. And to be able to go to the next level in this business, I never knew how I was going to make it in this world or how I was going to be able to capitalize on anything to be stable, and finally, because of this, I’ll be able to have money. I’ll be stable. And I’ll also have a successful business ― everything I always wanted and that I work hard for every day.
Ashley Brooke and Tahirah Hairston, founders of The High Ends
“The High Ends is a community (and soon to be content platform) for women who smoke and want to explore their relationship with the plant amongst like-minded people. We’re working to disrupt image of what a woman who smokes weed looks like. Too often we were flooded with images that were either oversexualized or super carefree and bohemian—and mostly white. It wasn’t a realistic picture of what our world looked like, and it was important for us to open up the scope and create a space that showcases diverse women across all races, cultures, and professions. As black women in the industry, it has become even more important to carve out that space for women of color as cannabis becomes legalized and the people reaping the benefits remain predominantly white. Black and brown women are often stigmatized and still unfairly prosecuted for our relationship with weed, The High Ends wants to help combat that and create more opportunities for our stories to be told. Our hope is that by amplifying the voices and lifestyles of the many faces of women who smoke for reasons that range from chronic pain to distress to creative brainstorming, we’ll create a new image of what it means to be a woman who smokes.”
Nicole Gonzalez, marketing assistant, founder of @stigmafit
“I want to give people inspiration to get outside and explore the world around them. To stay active and as a community motivate each other to push to their highest potential. To be a “women in weed” to me means a strong female figure making moves and making a change in the cannabis industry. A woman who can have a voice for the community. Women are taking over this industry and #breakinggrassceilings!″
“I was always in love with cannabis. Almost 15 years ago, I started working at a dispensary. I just could never see myself going back to a regular job. I go to help people. I got to hold a space for people that was really missing. A lot of these people were suffering, slipping through the cracks and just couldn’t afford health care. I got a cold call that there was a celebrity who wanted to make a menstrual line and I was a good person to talk to, and I said absolutely. Whoopi [Goldberg] wanted to guinea pig some people that she knew who had severe menstrual cycles, and I was told if it worked we’d move forward, and if it didn’t, we wouldn’t. It worked, and it works for a good reason.”
“Women of color have played a critical role in ensuring equity in cannabis. We know that the LGBT community was one of the main reasons that cannabis was legalized in San Francisco and in California, we know that veterans are also playing a big role in the cannabis industry in advocacy and in using it as a medical treatment for PTSD. We know, of course, people of color, of course, women in general, have ties to it. People with disabilities using this, cancer patients, senior citizens have their own coalition. Immigrants, undocumented folks play an important role.In this field, it’s amazing how you can have discussions about all of these topics and interact with all of these people and have conversations that truly address all of these topics. Immigrants, undocumented folks play an important role. By far, of any topic that I’ve studied, it’s had the most intersectionality.”
Kebra Smith-Bolden, registered nurse and president of CannaHealth CT and Cannabis Consultants of CT
“As a ‘woman in weed,’ I have merged my traditional career as a registered nurse with the unconventional cannabis industry. As a cannabis nurse, I focus my energy on researching how and why people consume. I study the effective use of cannabis in conjunction with therapy for inner-city residents suffering from complex traumas. I also have the opportunity to work on ‘righting the wrongs’ of the prohibition of cannabis and the detrimental effects the criminalization of cannabis has had on communities of color as a result of the war on drugs. By providing education, avenues to entrepreneurship and equal opportunities despite race, class or socioeconomic status, communities of color can initiate the healing process and discontinue the suffering endured due to years of racial, social and economic inequities.”
Lisa Sanchez, cannabis artist, speaker and advocate at Visine Queen
“I started visinequeen.com in 2008. At the time, it was for images of cannabis plants, art, clothes and whatever pictures I could find of women smoking. My [advocacy] work came about a few years into creating art and realizing that women of color are not represented properly. At the time, inclusion didn’t seem like a priority in the cannabis space. It was important to me to be a part of the inclusion that needed to happen within cannabis art. Today I create cannabis art to promote women of color and empower any woman who uses cannabis medically, recreationally or spiritually. My hope is that the black and Latino community sees cannabis legalization, cultivation and the businesses that come with it as opportunities ― stepping stones that will restore what we have lost, or what we never have had a chance to build.”
Dr. Rachel Knox, Dr. Janice Knox, Dr. Jessica Knox, co-founders, The Canna MDs
“I’m the co-founder of Gossamer, a lifestyle publication for the modern cannabis consumer, covering culture, travel, design, art, and food through a “green” lens. One of our goals with Gossamer, particularly as a lifestyle publication, is to change the perception of cannabis and cannabis consumers and, in doing so, help move the conversation around legalization and social justice forward, and perhaps into spaces that have been historically inhospitable to it. Legal cannabis is an entirely new industry in this country, which means there’s an incredible opportunity to build it mindfully, such that it is inclusive and diverse across all genders, sexual identities, races, and classes. It’s going to take a lot of work, especially considering the historical injustices perpetrated by the war on drugs, but it’s something I&
This is a story about marijuana that begins in a drawer of dead birds. In the specimen collections of the California Academy of Sciences, curator Jack Dumbacher picks up a barred owl—so named for the stripes than run across its chest—and strokes its feathers. It looks like a healthy enough bird, sure, but something nefarious once lurked in its liver: anticoagulant rodenticide, which causes rats to bleed out, and inevitably accumulates in apex predators like owls. The origin of the poison? Likely an illegal cannabis grow operation in the wilds of Northern California.
“It's a mess out there,” says Dumbacher. “And it costs taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up the sites.”
Marijuana doesn’t just suddenly appear on the shelves of a dispensary, or the pocket of a dealer. Someone’s gotta grow it, and in Northern California, that often means rogue farmers squatting on public lands, tainting the ecosystem with pesticides and other chemicals, then harvesting their goods and leaving behind what is essentially a mini superfund site. Plenty of growers run legit, organic operations—but cannabis can be a dirty, dirty game.
As cannabis use goes recreational in California, producers are facing a reckoning: They’ll either have to clean up their act, or get out of the legal market. Until the federal prohibition on marijuana ends, growers here can skip the legit marketplace and ship to black markets in the many states where the drug is still illegal. That’s bad news for public health, and even worse news for the wildlife of California.
If you’re buying cannabis in the United States, there’s up to a 75 percent chance that it grew somewhere in California. In Humboldt County alone, as many as 15,000 private grows churn out marijuana. Of those 15,000 farms, 2,300 have applied for permits, and of those just 91 actually have the permits.
Researchers reckon that 15 to 20 percent of private grows here are using rodenticide, trying to avoid damage from rats chewing through irrigation lines and plants. Worse, though, are the growers who hike into rugged public lands and set up grow operations. Virtually all of them are using rodenticide. “At very high doses the rodenticides is meant to kill by basically stopping coagulation of blood,” says Dumbacher. “So what happens is if you get a bruise or a cut it you would you would literally bleed out because it won’t coagulate.”
And what’s bad for the rats can’t be good for the barred owl. How the poison might affect these predators isn’t immediately clear, but researchers think it may weaken them.
Scientists are used to seeing rodenticides in owl livers—but usually, those animals are picking off rats in urban areas. Not so for these samples. “When we actually looked at the data, it turned out that some of the owls that were exposed were from remote areas parts of the forest that don't have even roads near them,” says Dumbacher. When researchers took a look at satellite images of these areas, they were able to pick out illegal grow operations and make the connection: Rodenticides from marijuana cultivation are probably moving up the food chain.
The havoc that growers are wreaking in Northern California is worryingly similar to the environmental bedlam of the past. “We can't just take exactly the same historical approach that California did with the Gold Rush,” says Mourad Gabriel, executive director of the Integral Ecology Research Center and lead author of the study with Dumbacher. It was a massive inundation of illegal gold and mining operations that tore the landscape to pieces. “150 years down the road, we are still dealing with it.”
And Northern California’s problems have the potential to become your problem if you’re buying marijuana in a state where it’s still illegal. “We have data clearly demonstrating the plant material is contaminated, not just with one or two but a plethora of different types of pesticides that should not be used on any consumable product,” says Gabriel. “And we find it on levels that are potentially a threat to humans as well.”
Across from an old cookie factory in Oakland, California sits a lab that couldn’t look more nondescript. It’s called CW Analytical, and it’s in the business of testing marijuana for a range of nasties, both natural and synthetic. Technicians in lab coats shuffle about, dissolving cannabis in solution, while in a little room up front a man behind a desk consults clients.
Running this place is a goateed Alabama native named Robert Martin. For a decade he’s risked the ire of the feds to ensure that the medical marijuana sold in California dispensaries is clean and safe. But in the age of recreational cannabis, the state has given him a new list of enemies to test for. If you're worried about consuming grow chemicals like the owls are doing, it's scientists like Martin who have your back.
“We're trying to do it in legitimate ways, not painting our face or putting flowers in our hair,” says Martin. “We're here to show another face of the industry." Clinical. Empirical.
Labs like these—the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories, which Martin heads, counts two dozen members—are where marijuana comes to pass the test or face destruction. Martin’s team is looking for two main things: microbiological contaminants and chemical residues. “Microbiological contaminants could come in the form of bacteria or fungi, depending on what kind of situation your cannabis has seen,” says Martin. (Bad drying or curing habits on the part of the growers can lead to the growth of Aspergillus mold, for instance.) “Or on the other side, the chemical residues can be pesticides, herbicides, things like that.”
The biological bit is pretty straightforward. Technicians add a cannabis sample to solution, then spread it on plates that go into incubators. “What we find is of all the flowers that come through, about 12 to 13 percent will come back with a high level of aerobic bacteria and about 13 to 14 percent will come back with a high level of fungi and yeast and mold,” says laboratory manager Emily Savage.
With chemical contaminants it gets a bit trickier. To test for these, the lab run the cannabis through a machine called a mass spectrometer, which isolates the component parts of the sample. This catches common chemicals like myclobutanil, which growers use to kill fungi.
Starting July 1 of this year, distributors and (legal) cultivators have to put their product through testing for heavy metals and bacteria like E. coli and chemicals like acephate (a general use insecticide). That’s important for average consumers but especially medical marijuana patients with compromised health. One group of researchers has even warned that smoking or vaping tainted marijuana could lead to fatal infections for some patients, as pathogens are taken deep into the lungs.
“This is why we have to end prohibition and regulate and legalize cannabis, so that we can develop the standards that everybody must meet,” says Andrew DeAngelo, director of operations of the Harborside dispensary in Oakland.
After testing, a lab like CW has to report their results to the state, whose guidelines may dictate that the crop be destroyed. If everything checks out, the marijuana is cleared for sale in a dispensary. “That gives the public confidence that these supply chains are clean for them and healthy for them,” says DeAngelo.
That safety comes at a price, though. To fund the oversight of recreational marijuana, California is imposing combined taxes of perhaps 50 percent. “They're too high,” says DeAngelo. He’s worried that the fees will push users back into the black market, where plants don’t have to hew to the same strict safety standards. “This shop should be a lot fuller than it is right now.”
And the black market gets us right back to the mess we started off in. Illegal cultivation is bad for consumers and bad for the environment. The only real solution? The end of prohibition. At the very least, the owls would appreciate it.
A New Crop of Marijuana Geneticists Build Better Weed
There are thousands of strains of weed. Cracking their genetic codes may be the key to transforming pot from a budding business to a high-flying industry and a cannabis analytics lab is trying to unlock the true potential of weed. Pictures by Preston Gannaway.
A pair of studies has found that states in the US that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana have seen a drop in opioid prescriptions.
Both published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the two pieces of research analyzed more than five years of data from Medicare Part D and Medicaid.
The former was investigated by researchers from the University of Georgia, Athens. It concerned elderly people over the age of 65 between 2010 and 2015.
In states that had legalized medical marijuana, they found that opioid prescriptions decreased by 2.11 million daily doses a year. This increased to 3.7 million when dispensaries to get marijuana opened up.
In the second study, by the University of Kentucky, they found that states that had legalized medical marijuana saw a 5.9 percent drop in opioid prescriptions. That rose to 6.4 percent for states that had legalized recreational marijuana. Both were between 2011 and 2016.
In an accompanying opinion piece, it was noted that the findings supported “anecdotal evidence from patients who describe a decreased need for opioids to treat chronic pain after initiation of medical cannabis pharmacotherapy.”
Marijuana has long been touted as a way to decrease dependence on opioids, which claim the lives of 90 people in the US every day due to overdoses. And there has been plenty of research before that the pain relief afforded by medical marijuana could reduce the need for opioids.
Not all research agrees, however. In February this year, a study found that although there was a correlation between the increase of medical marijuana use and the reduction of opioid deaths, there was no evidence it was the cause.
This is similarly noted in the opinion piece about prescriptions, adding these latest studies are ecological analyses. “We do not know whether patients actually avoided or reduced opioid use because of increased access to cannabis,” they note.
However, the research does seem to point in the direction of marijuana having some sort of positive benefit with regards to lessening opioid prescriptions. Cannabis policy has advanced much quicker than cannabis science in the US, so it’s likely more studies will be needed to properly see the effects legalization is having.
Determining how intoxicated someone is can be quite a difficult task. For alcohol consumption, a substance that the body excretes in a quick, linear fashion, we can measure the amount of metabolic by-products present in the blood using a breathalyzer, or directly measure ethanol levels with a blood test.
In the US, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and adult recreational use is legalized in eight. Widespread popularity of this psychoactive drug seems to necessitate a similar method for measuring whether or not someone is too high to drive.
Actually creating a “weed breathalyzer” or other marijuana field sobriety test, however, is fraught with scientific complications.
According to a commentary published in Trends in Molecular Medicine, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, THC, not only lingers in the body inconsistently, it also has unpredictable cognitive effects between users.
Early medical studies implied that THC could be detected in the blood for approximately six hours after smoking. Yet subsequent work by the article’s co-author, Marilyn Huestis, found that behavioral changes and motor impairments may last 6-8 hours after smoking despite near zero blood levels after just 2.5 hours.
Even if THC blood levels could accurately judge impairment, taking blood samples after a suspicious accident is likely to be fruitless for law enforcement.
“[Blood levels decline by] 74 percent in the first 30 minutes, and 90 percent by 1.4 hours,” said Huestis to Wired. “And the reason that’s important is because in the US, the average time to get blood drawn [after arrest] is between 1.4 and 4 hours.”
So why do people continue to feel stoned long after the drug is gone from the blood? Unlike ethanol, a hydrophilic molecule, THC doesn’t like hanging out in the water-based blood plasma and rapidly distributes into the cells of lipophilic fatty tissues, organs, and the brain.
“In fact, individual experiences reflect two different levels of drug ‘high,’” the article states. “..Namely a low ‘high’ effect in the absorption phase during cannabis inhalation, and a much higher effect later during the distribution phase owing to the lag time for full distribution of the active THC to the site of action – in this case, the brain.”
Furthermore, the body does not metabolize all the THC absorbed by body tissues at the time of smoking, vaping, or eating; the excess is slowly broken down over days to weeks. Heavy cannabis users will develop a THC tolerance due to this chronic, low-level exposure.
Consequently, occasional users and heavy users may feel wildly different effects from consuming the same dose of THC, preventing determination of a universal, safe dosage cut-off for drivers.
A national poll from 2017 suggests that half of Americans are unconcerned by the prospect of stoned drivers on the roads, but law enforcement officials in many US states have drug-impaired driving laws that they intend to enforce. So, what tools should they use?
Huestis, who is also a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, does not support a legal driving limit for marijuana. She believes that, currently, well-trained police officers are best-suited for recognizing signs of impairment. Meanwhile, researchers such as herself are working to identify biomarkers that are more representative of the drug’s cognitive effects than blood THC. Ideally, these can then be measured using rapid non-invasive tests.
Another interesting prospect: Researchers at University of California San Diego are recruiting participants for a trial to develop an iPad-based cannabis-specialized field sobriety test. Volunteers will randomly receive marijuana joints at various THC concentrations, then complete driving simulations and undergo experimental impairment assessments. You can sign up here.
A growing body of evidence suggests that cats and dogs experience therapeutic benefits from cannabis products, just like us humans. Unfortunately for well-intentioned owners and veterinarians, critical information regarding efficacy, proper dosages, and possible side effects has not been established.
One thing that is known, however, is that animals can become ill if they overdose on cannabis products. Dogs and cats display familiar responses after consuming small amounts of the marijuana plant or edibles: lethargy, altered behavior, blood-shot eyes, and slower response times. But if too much enters their systems, our furry friends can experience dangerously low blood pressure and heart rate, loss of bodily control, incontinence, diarrhea, and in severe cases, coma or death.
Due to marijuana’s potential toxicity, it’s essential that owners never leave cannabis products lying about in their pet’s reach.
Though marijuana consumption appears to carry risks for pets that don’t exist in humans, our overall physiology is highly similar. They are vulnerable to many of the same diseases as us, including those that are now commonly treated or alleviated with medical marijuana. And because all mammalian bodies contain similar cannabinoid receptors, it is logical to surmise that pet species can experience the same symptomatic relief from cannabinoids.
Due to marijuana’s status as a controlled substance, however, veterinarians are unable to prescribe or even legally recommend cannabis products for pets. In US states with legalized medical use, physicians may turn to cannabis to help human patients suffering from chemotherapy complications, chronic pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, seizure disorders, anxiety and more – but none of the laws included wording that authorized vets to do so for their patients.
This hasn’t stopped some bold animal health practitioners from selling or supporting the use of pet-specialized medicinals, typically in the form of cannabidiol (CBD) oil extracts. One of several cannabinoid molecules found in marijuana, CBD appears to mediate many of the drug’s fascinating anesthetic, anti-convulsive, anti-inflammatory, and anxiolytic properties. And unlike THC, it does not produce a “high” mental state.
Many in the veterinary research community would like to substantiate the existing anecdotal evidence in favor of CBD-based therapies with clinical trials, yet federal policy has made this endeavor nearly impossible.
In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) added CBD to the list of the most tightly regulated Schedule 1 substances, alongside the likes of heroin and ecstasy. The classification for CBD could be downgraded, or a path to medical use approved if there was evidence of CBD’s benefit from completed studies. The catch-22 is that many proposed trials are either rejected outright or stalled for years due to unreasonable required conditions.
According to a New York Post article, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine had to halt investigations into CBD for canine arthritis due to worrisome legal ambiguities.
“Unfortunately there’s not a lot of research out there, especially on animals, on CBD compounds,” Byron Maas, DVM, told the Post. “The research is really necessary to help us understand how to actually use these compounds on our pets.”
Providing a beacon of hope in this quagmire of bureaucratic red tape, determined scientists at Colorado State University may soon provide some published data from their two trials on CBD for canine epilepsy and arthritis.
Furthermore, the American Veterinary Medical Association as a whole is lobbying for the DEA to relax restrictions on CBD.
If all goes according to plan, you and your animal companion could stroll into a dispensary together someday soon.
Two new studies have found a correlation using data from programs used by millions of older, poor and disabled Americans
The number of opioid prescriptions for the elderly and the poor declined in states where medical marijuana is legal, two new studies have found.
In one study, researchers at the University of Georgia, Athens, used data from Medicare Part D, a government-run prescription drug program for people older than 65.
They found prescriptions filled for all opioids decreased by 2.11m daily doses a year when a state legalized medical marijuana, and by 3.7m daily doses a year when marijuana dispensaries opened. Forty-one million Americans use Medicare Part D. The study analyzed data between 2010 and 2015.
In a second study, researchers at the University of Kentucky examined opioid prescription data from Medicaid, a government-run program for the poor and disabled. More than 74 million Americans use Medicaid.
That analysis found state medical marijuana laws were associated with a 5.8% lower rate of opioid prescribing, and states with recreational marijuana laws were associated with a 6.3% lower rate of opioid prescribing. That study used data from 2011 to 2016.
Both studies were published in Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine.
The findings are likely to bolster legal marijuana advocates, who have long contended legal marijuana could curb the opioid epidemic.
Americas overdose crisis has claimed more lives each year since the early 2000s, when powerful opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin were aggressively marketed. In 2016, more than 64,000 people died of an overdose.
In a JAMA opinion piece accompanying the research, Drs Kevin Hill from Harvard and Andrew Saxon from the veterans affairs health system wrote that the research supports anecdotal evidence from patients who describe a decreased need for opioids to treat chronic pain after initiation of medical cannabis pharmacotherapy.
Marijuanas effect on opioid use remains contested. Researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse found illicit marijuana use was associated with increased illicit opioid use. That study used data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which has produced analyses skeptical of the benefits of liberalizing marijuana.
Meanwhile, a 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine study would seem to support the new findings. That study found states with medical marijuana laws had higher overdose rates, but that those rates declined in years after medical marijuana laws were implemented, with an average 24.8% decline.
No new money has been allocated to the crisis since Trump took office. Further, Republican proposals for cuts to Medicaid would have disproportionately affected people in addiction treatment. Experts believe serious efforts to curb the epidemic will cost billions and will need to address bottlenecks in mental health infrastructure.
Both studies have limitations. First, the opioid crisis has touched every state in America, but there are regional variations. And marijuana laws vary significantly.
People who rely on Medicaid or Medicare Part D are generally poor, disabled and elderly, meaning the findings may not apply to the population in general. Further, it is unclear whether people avoided opioids when medical marijuana was available.
Many companies and states (via taxes) are profiting from the cannabis industry while failing to support research at the level necessary to advance the science, wrote Hill and Saxon.
This situation has to change to get definitive answers on the possible role for cannabis in the opioid crisis, as well as the other potential harms and benefits of legalizing cannabis.
The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is currently reporting that, since early March, 38 people have been bleeding from various orifices and soft tissues after using a form of synthetic cannabinoids. One person has died.
According to the IDPH, the subjects are suffering from severe bleeding from their nose, eyes, ears, and gums, as well as experiencing heavy menstrual bleeding, and the ejection of bloody remnants through vomiting, coughing, defecating, and urination.
The majority of these cases have cropped up in Tazewell County (12), with Chicago (10) coming in second, as of March 30. Individuals have reported using a range of synthetic cannabinoid products, including K2, a notorious synthetic whose detrimental health effects have made headlines around the world.
Back in 2016, 33 people in Brooklyn died of a suspected overdose of K2. Despite being banned in 2014, K2 is still easily obtainable in New Zealand, and as of 2017, people were still dying after using it.
In this latest case, it’s not clear what specific ingredient – or indeed brand of synthetic cannabinoid – is causing the excessive bleeding, but authorities are looking into it.
According to the Chicago Tribune, however, three people hospitalized after using the substance have tested positive for brodifacoum, which is more commonly known as rat poison. This triggers the body to stop using Vitamin K, which assists in the coagulation and clotting of blood, which could explain the severe bleeding.
According to a 2017 review of K2’s synthetic cannabinoids, they are known to “produce a variety of dangerous acute and chronic adverse effects, including psychosis, seizures, tolerance, dependence, and death.” The CDC notes that “people who smoke these products can react with rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations.”
Bleeding doesn’t appear to be mentioned in the literature, which suggests this is a new side effect, one that’s currently specific to this Illinois variant.
Hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids currently exist, and each year, new ones become available. They’re sold and distributed in numerous ways, with plenty being sold as packages of leaf-like material and others being vaporized, sprayed onto plant material and then smoked.
As explained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these drugs replicate the feeling of using the real deal because they act on the same brain cell receptors as cannabis’ tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) using different compounds. Unlike bona fide marijuana, however – whose availability, legality and common forms also vary all over the world – research into the health effects of synthetic cannabinoids is, at present, far less comprehensive.
Depending on where you are, synthetics aren’t necessarily banned, although plenty are. In some parts of the US, general categories of ingredients relating to synthetics, rather than specific chemicals, are outlawed. In fact, part of their popularity stems from the fact that they are not necessarily banned in certain places, or they’re perceived to be legal – or even safe – by those that use them.
The IDPH noted that such synthetics “are often marketed as safe, legal alternatives to that drug,” before stressing that “they are not safe and may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana.
“Their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, more dangerous or even life-threatening.”