Cannabis: Recreational Drug or Medicinal Revolution?

By: Christopher Pauli 

This table describes the differences between medical and recreational Cannabis in Colorado in 2017. Sources: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/tax/marijuana-taxes-file , http://www.coloradonorml.org/information/taxes , https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/marijuana/laws-about-marijuana-use

Anyone over 21 can buy Cannabis in Colorado. It’s as easy as buying a six-pack of beer or a pack of cigarettes, although Cannabis isn’t quite like Coors or Marlboro. While drinks and smokes can be fun, Cannabis has also been proven to have a wide range of medical benefits.

In fact, that’s why Colorado legalized Cannabis in 2000. The state set up a system to distribute it as a medicine. With a doctor’s recommendation, anyone could get it from special stores.

In 2012, Colorado legalized Cannabis for anyone over 21. This was called “recreational” — the preferred term today is “adult use,” because adults use the plant for lots of reasons — intellectual, creative, spiritual and, yes, fun.

The recreational shops didn’t drive out the medical dispensaries. They now coexist.

With our current system, there is much confusion about the division between recreational and medicinal Cannabis.

Is medical pot different from recreational?

Why should a non-psychoactive pain cream be sold and taxed as a recreational drug?

Why do Cannabis-specific doctors only write medical Cannabis recommendations without any other prescriptions?  

Cannabis is currently approved for patients in Colorado suffering from cancer, glaucoma, PTSD, HIV, AIDS, Cachexia (wasting away due to some disorder like multiple sclerosis or tuberculosis), persistent muscle spasms, seizures, severe nausea and severe pain. These patients usually find their physician is unwilling to write Cannabis prescriptions due to issues with prescribing other drugs as well. However, the Medical Marijuana Registry Program has denied conditions including anxiety, depression, and diabetes. Patients whose condition did not make the list are turning to the recreational Cannabis market for relief. Furthermore, with the lack of medical professionals trained in Cannabis medicine, many patients find recommended dosages, use schedules, and treatment options to be confusing and unregulated.

Recreational Cannabis products are becoming increasingly popular for these otherwise denied or excluded patients. Some patients find relief from depression and anxiety, among other conditions, through using transdermal patches, topical creams, and pill form cannabinoids, which are sold commonly at recreational shops. This solution is not perfect: these products are subject to the higher tax rate (about 15 to 25% in Colorado) than medicinal Cannabis (2.9% + Local Sales Tax in Colorado), or pharmaceutical drugs that treat the same conditions.

In addition to these more medicinal forms of Cannabis, there are more of the traditional recreational products as well, including candies, pre-rolled joints, and vaporizer pens available. Most edible products are limited to less than 100mg of THC in a single package and less than 10mg in a single serving; however, it’s important to be aware that some of the smokable, topical and transdermal product dosages may exceed this limit. Thus, it is always important to ask how these different dosages and ingestion methods will change the effectiveness of the Cannabis.

If you find yourself wondering if obtaining a medical card is helpful, the most common benefits of shopping at a medical store are a more medically-focused staff, higher doses of edibles, and lower prices and tax rates. While many products sold in recreational stores would be considered purely recreational, such as a lollipop, those same products will also be sold in the medical stores for patients that may find that the sublingual absorption from using a lollipop works best. Although many products are available in both medical and recreational shops, medical stores may lack product diversity, which can be detrimental to a patient attempting to find the most efficient method to treat their condition. Additionally, medical concentrates and infused products were not required to be tested before November 1, 2017, in Colorado, which has led to less consistent and reliable products in the medical market than the recreational in the past.

For patients in the states without legalized medical or recreational Cannabis, low-to-no THC products have been developed, which have been shown to provide numerous benefits. These products are derived from cultivars of Cannabis referred to as Hemp, which is defined in Colorado as a Cannabis Plant “containing a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of no more than three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) on a dry weight basis.”  This means that a plant can have high concentrations of any of the other 109 identified cannabinoids as long as the THC concentration is below 0.3% by dry weight, which leads to a large variety in products. Furthermore, with no oversight on the products produced from hemp, some companies have begun selling products such as tinctures, patches, or pills that contain high concentrations of non-psychoactive Cannabidiol (CBD) that can be useful for alleviating some symptoms without having a “high” feeling while using it. While low-THC products can provide relief for many patients, THC by itself or with other cannabinoids has been shown to be beneficial for Parkinson’s disease , dementia, and autoimmune disorders. These THC products can be introduced in small doses and gradually increased to limit the impairment or “buzz” associated with the psychoactive cannabinoid while still benefiting from the relief.

There is a gray line between the recreational and medical use of Cannabis in large part because of the variability in users’ intentions and response to the vast range of Cannabis products. Furthermore, the limited qualifying conditions for medicinal Cannabis creates healthcare barriers for those who need access to medicine, and causes them greater healthcare costs when they are forced to pay the higher tax rate. Without a method to help doctors incorporate Cannabis into healthcare, it will continue to be seen as a supplemental medicine and lack the regulation and standardization needed to be understood as the viable treatment in which it is used. The demand for a legal medicine that can be used in any state has driven the CBD-rich hemp market to grow exponentially without the oversight that is needed to provide transdermal compounds and tinctures safely to the general public.

The system, as it stands now, pretends there’s a huge gulf between medical and recreational Cannabis. In reality, Cannabis is both a healer and a fun thing to do on a Friday night. A nausea-killer for cancer patients and an appetite stimulant for those about to dine out at a four-star restaurant. A calming agent for PTSD sufferers and a relaxer for the spa.

Cannabis is one of humanity’s oldest plant friends. As the genetics team at the Agricultural Genomics Foundation can tell you, humans have lived alongside it for thousands of years. We’ve shaped it by spreading it and cross-breeding it to bring out its most useful qualities. And it’s shaped us, by helping us soothe ourselves, clothes ourselves, be creative, healthy and happy. It’s no wonder Cannabis doesn’t fit into neat modern boxes of “medicinal” and “recreational.” Cannabis is one of the most intriguing, fascinating and complex plants. And we at AGF would know — it’s our job to look into its genome, and unlock its secrets.

Edited by Reilly Capps (@ReillyCapps)

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