The cannabis industry is at a crossroads. What was once primarily a social justice movement has transformed into a multi-billion industry, despite the direct conflict with federal law. But thanks to federal regulations that are science-light and prejudice-heavy, there is still a whole lot we humans don’t know about cannabis and how it works, and a lot of businesses and individuals are trying to fill in the blanks with technology.
In Oregon, a state where cannabis has been legal for four years and medical for 20, there are no caps on business licensing, which has fostered innovation through one of the most free legal cannabis markets in the world. The small northwest state is rapidly becoming ground zero for some of the most cutting edge research and technology with the power to shape our shared cannabis future.
“The concept that ‘the future of cannabis is now’ [comes from the fact that] some things in this industry feel kind of sh*tty. Instead of focusing on policy or what the market looks like, we wanted to think about what the cannabis world could be like, and should be like in the future,” said Amy Margolis, founder of the Ted-Talks style Toke Talks: The Future of Cannabis, held last month at Portland Center Stage at the Armory.
Margolis is a Portland-based attorney and founder and director of the Oregon Cannabis Association. Many of the speakers she brought to Toke Talks were concerned about where the cannabis industry is heading and are pushing hard to make their ideal version of the cannabis future a reality. Three things are clear: combining cannabis with the power of new technologies could rapidly reshape how the world approaches medical treatments, the only way to further the research properly is to federally decriminalize and deschedule the entire plant, and if the industry does not foster a culture of diversity and sustainability, we will all feel the effects of focusing on the bottom line and pushing out small businesses in the pursuit of corporate wealth.
Where Technology Meets Cannabis Medicine
In 2013, an international nonprofit research collaboration called The Walk Again Project began testing the use of brain implants that allow paraplegic people to control robotic exoskeletons with their minds, enabling them to walk upright. Virtual reality was introduced to the study participants in order to train them before using the robotic frames, and the addition led them to an incredible accidental discovery.
“After a few months of training, people started to regain sensation in their legs,” said Peter Lund, a speaker at Toke Talks and the CEO of video game and virtual reality firm Super Genius Studios. “All of the patients were reclassified as ‘partially paralyzed’ and by the end of the study, they had all regained bladder control. This is an extreme jump in quality of life. This media talks to our brains in completely new ways. It is a measurable mind-altering substance,”
Lund notes that virtual reality has already been used in pain management with initial trials showing significant reductions in reported pain levels. He believes that virtual reality and cannabis are “complementary mind-altering substances” and research combining the two could lead to novel treatments for PTSD, anxiety and an unlimited range of other mental and potentially even physical applications.
He admits that most of the use of cannabis and virtual reality together will largely be to enhance the consumption of immersive entertainment media or showcasing legally off-limits spaces like mega grows and research labs. But until the law changes to allow more experimenting with the two together, most experiences will be anecdotal. Lund encourages networking between the cannabis and virtual reality communities in order to drive these life-changing innovations.
Why the Only Solution is a Federal End to Prohibition
Because of federal prohibition, it has been impossible to apply the available technology in the United States on meaningful research of how the cannabis plant works in humans. We know the basics, but we are light-years behind where we could be if the plant itself was not just re-scheduled, but completely de-scheduled. This would open the door to fully decriminalized interactions with the plant and the freedom to use data to understand the botanical applications humans tend to prefer, no matter what reason they bring to their use.
Today, there is a growing and evolving group of federal legislators around the U.S. now pushing to open the cannabis floodgates by following the science and de-scheduling cannabis.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden was the first co-sponsor of New Jersey Senator Corey Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act. Wyden knows his state is home to a significant share of the nation’s legal cannabis market and has embraced the industry. He believes descheduling, not pharmaceuticalization, will usher in the cannabis future best suited for cannabis patients and small businesses.
“What we have to do is reverse these outdated laws, and it has to include de-scheduling at the federal level. That is a key part of fighting injustice and reversing some of the damage done over the years,” Wyden said at Toke Talks.
Thanks @OR_Cannabis for inviting me to speak at today’s conference in PDX. Good to have so many strong allies in our fight to modernize outdated #cannabis laws & grow jobs in this biz. #ourcannabisfuture pic.twitter.com/oulF8P47pH
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) March 16, 2018
While it is unlikely that the Marijuana Justice Act is going to pass, especially in the current Congress, it is a milestone for the reform movement because of its content. Not only would the bill, if passed, deschedule cannabis, it would decriminalize it and lay out a plan to reinvest tax revenues into communities most affected by the War on Drugs. This bill paints a very different picture of the future than the one we are heading for right now.
Because the bulk of the research being done on cannabis-human interactions right now are from pharmaceutical companies seeking to patent for-profit cannabis remedies, federal prohibition has stymied the ability for the industry to use technology to better target the experiences users seek. As more senators come around to Wyden’s way of thinking, we inch closer to a cannabis future full of meaningful and widespread research.
“The march goes on, you are on the right side of history,” Wyden encouraged.
Who Wins and Who Loses?
As the pharmaceutical industry has moved into the cannabis space, there is a lot of money to be made in making standardized extracts that could be approved by the FDA and prescribed for use. Enter Cronos, a Canadian firm in partnership with California-based MedMen. Cronos is a NASDAQ-listed pharmaceutical firm looking to capitalize on this hot business trend and is in the final stages of completing a 286,000 square foot facility in Canada that, when in operation, will be the largest legal growing facility in the world.
And, despite admitting he didn’t know much about cannabis at all before getting involved, Dr. Lasse Schulze, director of research and development and horticulture for Cronos, is excited about the possibilities being opened by the rapidly changing legislation worldwide. Schulze’s research focuses on developing and patenting specific cultivars to treat different conditions.
“On the cultivation side, we are seeing a big trend towards more and more automation and sophistication,” Schulze said at Toke Talks.
Schulze believes cannabis for medicinal use should only be produced in tightly controlled indoor mega-facilities, like the one being developed by Cronos, and said he is “on the fence” about the ability to produce quality medicine in a greenhouse.
He added that Cronos, like similar business endeavors, will find the “one perfect strain” for medical patients and these pharmaceutical companies will be the first to fully “harness the power of this plant.” It’s an ideological stance, rooted in the untested theory of pharmacologicalism, and at odds with the goals of sustainability and diversity other cannabis influencers are pushing.
“We have an opportunity in this industry to change everything,” said Jesse Peters of Eco Firma, an Oregon-based cannabis farm that is seeking to be the first to become carbon neutral.
Peters believes in smaller, more community-centric businesses using sustainable methods to produce quality botanical cannabis in responsible and conscious ways. To him, sustainability isn’t just about ecological awareness, it’s about redesigning economies and creating safe, quality botanical produce at an affordable price for all users, especially patients. He points to the consolidation of the alcohol industry and warns that if the cannabis industry is carved up in a similar fashion, patients and small economies will lose out the most. The whole planet will suffer the consequences of the lack of environmental oversight.
“Why do we do that? Because we are staring at the bottom line all the time and corporate America has taught us to do that. Is that sustainable?” Peters asked.
Mowgli Holmes, co-founder and CEO of Portland-based Phylos Bioscience, a company mapping the cannabis genome, also warns of the consequences of industry consolidation and especially against using agricultural practices based on maximizing revenue at the cost of diversity.
“We wanted corn that would make growers a lot of money and produce a lot. We took what had been hundreds and hundreds of different varieties of corn, and through the process of engineering and plant breeding, we have whittled that down to just a couple elite cultivars that are supposed to solve the world’s food security problems,” Holmes said at Toke Talks. “But, paradoxically, we have weakened our food security because we didn’t preserve any of the diversity that is out there.”
Holmes points to the Irish Potato Famine as an example of the consequences of “whittling away at genetic diversity.” In the 19th century, the Irish were largely reliant on a single potato cultivar. When the entire crop was wiped out by a fungal disease, millions died and hundreds of thousands more emigrated to other countries. Genetic diversity in the potato stock, or the pursuit of diversity over homogeneity, could have prevented it.
Despite the desire to standardize for profit, all populations of living things — plants and humans — benefit from strong genetic diversity, Holmes points out. He also warns that if the cannabis industry itself is homogenous, it will have just as dramatic consequences as the homogenization of the crop.
“Diversity is what makes populations strong, it’s exactly the same for humans,” said Mowgli. “Rarely has there been a time that so much money has been poured into a brand new industry taking shape overnight…. This industry is happening because the U.S. waged a drug war they knew from the beginning was a good way of putting people of color in jail. And now those laws are being rolled back and a bunch of white people who already have a lot of money are coming in to make more, and it is not a diverse industry.”
The future has yet to be written. Whether the cannabis industry welcomes diversity and sustainability may make or break the industry’s ability to venture into exciting possibilities, like pharmaceutical-free pain treatments that combine virtual reality and lots of diverse cultivars of botanical cannabis. The only way to prevent the doomsday scenario of legal cannabis Peters and Holmes warn about, is the federal decriminalization and descheduling Wyden is pushing. The future is in our hands, and it’s happening right now.
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