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Calling It ‘Cannabis’ Instead Of ‘Marijuana’ Doesn’t Boost Legalization Support, Study Finds

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Some legalization proponents believe it’s important to stop using the term “marijuana” and instead refer to the substance only by its scientific name, “cannabis.” In order to appeal to more people, they argue, it’s better to stick with a term that isn’t controversial and doesn’t come with ugly historic baggage. A new study, however, suggests that reframing the drug as such doesn’t make much difference to the average person.

“Throughout each of our tests, we find no evidence to suggest that the public distinguishes between the terms ‘marijuana’ and ‘cannabis,'” the study’s authors wrote last week in the journal PLOS-ONE.

Many people believe “marijuana” has racist origins: The term was adopted in the 20th century by prohibitionists in part because it sounded foreign enough to scare white people away from using it. Others, however, point out that the term predates its use by anti-drug officials and doing away with it now erases its complex history.

To assess public attitudes about “marijuana” vs. “cannabis,” researchers at Vanderbilt University partnered with YouGov to survey 1,600 adults in the U.S. The survey asked participants a broad range of questions to get their opinions on one of four randomly assigned terms: “marijuana,” “cannabis,” “medical marijuana” or “medical cannabis.” Topics included legalization, moral acceptability, tolerance of drug activities, perceptions of harms and stereotypes of users.

According to the survey, 50.1 percent and 50.3 percent support the legalization of marijuana and cannabis, respectively. The authors note there is a “slight uptick” in how much they support cannabis legalization, though: 34.3 percent strongly support “cannabis legalization,” compared to 26 percent who strongly support “marijuana legalization.” Support for legalization also increases when the term “medical” is attached.

“In each and every test, the name frame (‘marijuana’ versus ‘cannabis’) has no impact on opinion toward the drug.”

In short, the authors write, “calling the drug ‘cannabis’ does not boost public support for legalization of the drug.”

When they analyzed the answers in other categories, researchers found similar results:

  • 43.8 percent found marijuana “morally acceptable” while 44.3 percent said the same about cannabis.
  • Roughly the same number of respondents said they’d be bothered by the opening of a dispensary in their neighborhood, public use, and knowing that a teacher consumed when not working, whether the substance was referred to as “marijuana” or “cannabis.
  • There was also “no noticeable difference” in responses when the survey asked participants about claims of potential harms of “marijuana” vs. “cannabis,” including addiction, that it leads to other drug use, that it is personally harmful to one’s health and that it significantly impairs driving.
  • As for stereotypes, researchers found that the characteristics participants used to describe users fell in two clusters: “medical marijuana/medical cannabis” and “marijuana/cannabis.” For example, users of medical marijuana/medical cannabis were seen as “sick” and “honest” while marijuana/cannabis consumers were described as “teenaged” and “lazy.”

“Even though the name attached to the drug appears to have no influence on public opinion, we find consistent support for the notion that the public views the drug more favorably when told it is for medical versus unspecified purposes,” the study states. “The public is much more supportive of legalization of medical use, more morally accepting of it, less bothered by activities involving it, less convinced that it is harmful, and more likely to attribute positive traits to its users when told that the drug is ‘medical.’”

Ultimately, the authors write, their findings “undermine the notion — widely espoused by policy advocates — that abandoning the word ‘marijuana’ for ‘cannabis’ by itself will boost the prospects for reform or soften public attitudes toward the drug.”

“We find no support for the notion that changing the name of the drug from ‘marijuana’ to ‘cannabis’ affects public opinion on the drug or the policies governing it.”

“For many years,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment, “this issue has been a source of passionate debate within marijuana law reform circles. There now exists some data to better focus this discussion and to provide some important insight.”

“Changing the hearts and minds of the public with regard to marijuana has always been about substance, not terminology,” Armentano continued. “Reformers are winning the legalization debate on the strength of our core arguments — namely, the fact that legalization and regulation is better for public health and safety than is criminalization — and not because of any particular change in the lexicon surrounding the cannabis plant.”

Here’s What Researchers Know So Far About How Marijuana Legalization Affects Public Health

Photo courtesy of Margo Amala

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kimberly Lawson is a former altweekly newspaper editor turned freelance writer based in Georgia. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, O magazine, Broadly, Rewire.News, The Week and more.

Science & Health

States With Medical Marijuana Laws Saw 20% Drop In Some Opioid Prescriptions

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States with active medical marijuana laws saw certain opioid prescription rates drop nearly 20 percent compared to prohibition states, a first-of-its-kind study out of Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center has found. Authors said the findings underscore the importance of providing patients with pain management alternatives, such as cannabis, in efforts to reduce opioid use.

Drug overdoses remain a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 68 percent of those deaths involve illicit or prescription opioids. The new study examines opioid prescriptions made specifically by orthopedic surgeons, who it notes are the nation’s third-highest prescribers of opioids.

“Although our study does not support a direct causal relationship, these population-level findings show that legalization of medical cannabis and patient access to dispensaries may be associated with reductions in opioid prescribing by orthopaedic surgeons,” the study’s authors concluded. “The observed trends reported in this study may be a reflection of growing availability of alternative pain management options for patients.”

“We found that overall opioid prescribing by orthopaedic surgeons in this cohort was reduced in states permitting patient access to medical cannabis, compared with those who do not.”

Analyzing nationwide Medicare Part D prescription drug data, researchers measured the aggregate daily doses of opioid medications prescribed by orthopedic surgeons in each state annually. They then looked for associations between that state-level data and the legal status of medical marijuana in each state.

As with past studies examining correlations between medical marijuana and opioid prescriptions, the Columbia analysis found a marked drop in prescriptions among states with medical cannabis laws (MCLs). “State MCLs were associated with a statistically significant reduction in aggregate opioid prescribing of 144,000 daily doses (19.7% reduction) annually,” the study, published this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, says.

Medical cannabis laws “were associated with a statistically significant reduction of 72,000 daily doses of hydrocodone annually.”

Not all state legal marijuana programs operate the same way, of course. It can also take years after a state adopts a medical cannabis law before its program is up and running. So the researchers looked at various specific factors, including when storefront dispensaries opened, whether state laws allowed home cultivation by patients, and whether recreational cannabis was legal for adults in each state.

Of the relationships that the researchers found were statistically significant, two stood out most clearly: States with active medical cannabis laws saw a 19.7 percent reductions in Medicare Part D opioid prescriptions made by orthopedic surgeons compared to states without medical cannabis laws. On a more granular level, states with operating storefront dispensaries saw a 13.1 percent reduction in those prescriptions.

Other relationships found by the researchers were just as likely to be due to chance. States with restrictive medical cannabis laws that allowed access only to low-THC products, for example, saw small, statistically insignificant increases in opioid prescriptions.

Researchers also “did not observe any significant association between total opioid prescriptions and home cultivation–only” medical cannabis laws, and concluded that “no significant association between recreational marijuana legalization and opioid prescribing was found.”

In “states that allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any reason, there was a significant reduction in prescriptions for fentanyl…”

Cannabis is a particularly appealing alternative pain medication to study the effect of, the authors wrote, “because of its efficacy in treatment of chronic and acute pain and its potential for replacing and/or reducing opioid treatment.”

Researchers adjusted some of their data to better reflect not just the laws on the books but the actual accessibility of medical marijuana in each state. New York, for example, adopted a medical cannabis law in 2014, but home cultivation was prohibited and dispensaries didn’t open until 2016. “As such,” the authors wrote, “we did not classify New York as an MCL state or a dispensary-based MCL state until 2016.”

The study also cautions that its results only mean so much. Because it relied on population-level data and didn’t track individuals’ opioid or medical marijuana use, “we could not make any conclusions about any direct effect of substitution of opioids for cannabis by patients on prescription trends.” the authors wrote. “As such, our study does not draw conclusions of direct causation, but reports observed associations over time using a nationwide cohort database and multivariable regression analysis.”

Still, the study’s results contribute to a growing body of research indicating that medical cannabis accessibility significantly reduces statewide opioid use—and even opioid deaths. As the Columbia authors note in their report, “Multiple large nationwide database studies have shown that states with the legalization of medical marijuana have seen reductions in the opioid prescription rates and opioid-related mortality rates. The authors of these studies have theorized that in states where medical cannabis is more available, patients are likely to substitute cannabis for opioids in their pain management.”

For example, a meta-study that was recently published also signaled that marijuana shows promise as a treatment option for chronic pain and could serve as an alternative to opioid-based painkillers.

Last month, researchers released a study that found cannabis can mitigate symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

In December, researchers determined that states with legal marijuana access experience decreases in opioid prescriptions, and a separate study released the previous month showed that daily marijuana consumption is associated with reduced opioid consumption among chronic pain patients.

Marijuana Seems To Reduce Opioid Use Among Chronic Pain Patients, Meta-Study Finds

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Legalizing Marijuana Boosts Hotel Bookings As Cannabis Tourism Takes Off, Study Shows

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Colorado hotel room rentals increased considerably after the state began legal marijuana sales, a newly published study reveals. Washington State also saw increases in tourism after legalization, though the effect there was more modest.

The two states were the first in the U.S. to allow adult-use cannabis through laws approved by voters in 2012. By comparing hotel room rentals in Colorado and Washington to states that did not change their legal status of marijuana from 2011 through 2015, researchers found that legalization coincided with a significant influx of tourists and a rise in hotel revenue. The impact was even more pronounced after the start of retail sales.

In both states, personal possession of marijuana was permitted for a period of time before legal sales began, and each change coincided with increases in tourism. In Colorado, legalizing possession led to monthly hotel booking increases of 2.5 percent to 4 percent, depending on the modeling method used. Once retail stores opened, the state saw bookings increase by 6 percent to 7.2 percent.

“[L]egalization in Colorado is associated with an increase of nearly 51,000 hotel rooms rented per month [and] once commercial sale is permitted, there is an increase of almost 120,000 room rentals per month”

In Washington, the increases were roughly half that. Hotel bookings increased by about 1 percent after legalizing possession and 3.5 percent after retail stores opened.

The price of a hotel room in both pioneering legal cannabis states also rose during that time, relative to other states that maintained prohibition. Room rates in Colorado increased by about $3.76 (2.8 percent) after possession became legal and $6.31 (3.8 percent) once legal sales began.

“As expected, legalizing marijuana sales is associated with a larger increase in hotel room rentals than merely legalizing marijuana possession.”

Meanwhile, Colorado’s hotel industry saw monthly revenue increase by $9.33 million (6.75 percent) after the change in possession law and roughly $23.71 million (11 percent) after marijuana stores opened.

“Marijuana tourism had an economically significant as well as a statistically significant effect on the hotel industry in Colorado,” the study concluded.

Washington saw a smaller increase in room rates after possession became legal ($1.10) but a larger one ($7.46) once legal sales began.

Researchers believe that the difference the states saw may be the result of Colorado’s more central location for American tourists—”Denver’s airport is a major hub for United Airlines,” the paper notes. Another factor could be Washington’s proximity to British Columbia, which researchers point out “has a strong reputation for growing marijuana and a laid back attitude toward marijuana consumption.” (Recreational marijuana was illegal in Canada during the duration of the study period. The country has since legalized nationally, and adult-use legal sales began there in 2018.)

“Another possible explanation is that Colorado may have achieved a first mover advantage over Washington since it legalized commercial sale six months earlier than Washington,” the study speculates.

The study, “(Pot)Heads in Beds: The Effect of Marijuana Legalization on Hotel Occupancy in Colorado and Washington,” was published online last week and appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Regional Policy and Analysis.

“It is easy to see the implications marijuana legalization might have for tourism,” the paper says, noting that “Amsterdam’s permissive legal tolerance of drugs (and other activities) attracts visitors from around the world, sometimes to the weariness of the Dutch public.”

But until now, evidence of rising tourism in U.S. states was mostly anecdotal. Authors of the new paper wanted to measure the effect through data—and on that front, existing research was thin. A 2015 report commissioned by the Colorado Department of Revenue estimated that tourists made up a large portion of the state’s retail marijuana activity, accounting for 44 percent of metro-area sales and about 90 percent of sales in tourism-centric mountain counties.

“These results suggest an uptick in tourism following marijuana legalization,” the new study says, but until now “there have been no studies directly examining the effect of legalization on tourism.”

The study’s authors are confident in their conclusion that legalization boosted tourism in Colorado and Washington during the first few years of legal marijuana. What’s less clear is how long that boost might last.

“While marijuana legalization increased tourism, especially in Colorado,” they write, “the benefit may wane as additional states including California, Michigan, and Illinois, legalize the possession and sale of marijuana.”

The governor of Illinois, which began legal cannabis sales in January, said in his State of the State address this year that the new law “gives us a chance to collect tax revenue from the residents of Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana.”

Michigan Marijuana Market ‘Maturing Rapidly’ But Faces Barriers To Growth, State Report Finds

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Trump Admin Could Let Researchers Study Marijuana Dispensary Products, Scientist Argues After DOJ Memo Released

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A scientist in a case that forced the release of a previously “secret” Justice Department document about federally authorized marijuana research this week is now calling on Congress to urge administrative action to more rapidly expand studies into the therapeutic potential of cannabis.

Sue Sisley of the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) and attorneys representing her facility say the Department of Justice is empowered to waive certain requirements and allow additional researchers to immediately grow their own cannabis for studies without registration under newly proposed regulations or even to obtain products from state-licensed dispensaries, for example.

They want lawmakers’ help pressuring the Trump administration to take advantage of a process they say would not necessarily violate international treaties that federal officials have long cited as a reason they’ve been slow to license new cultivators.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) disclosed a memo that seemed to have been used by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to justify delaying approval of additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes beyond the sole legal that scientists have had to rely on for half a century. That disclosure was the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by SRI last month.

Attorneys representing SRI said that the newly unveiled document helps explains what was happening behind closed doors for several years of inaction and delays after DEA initially said in 2016 that it would be approving more manufacturers.

But in their new letter to members of Congress, they identify a federal statute that they argue can be used by the attorney general to waive registration requirements, allowing research institutes to immediately grow their own cannabis for studies or to purchase it from licensed dispensaries instead of having to wait until new rigorous licensing rules go into effect.

“That Congress can fix these issues with legislation goes without saying. But what fewer recognize is that this Administration can cut through the regulatory red-tape right now,” Sisley and her lawyers wrote.

“DEA could, for example, exempt licensed Schedule I marijuana researchers from having to obtain a separate registration to manufacture marijuana, provided those researchers agree not to distribute any marijuana they manufacture. Alternatively, it could permit licensed Schedule I marijuana researchers to obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. The executive’s authority to grant waivers under [federal code] is broad.”

SRI is one of dozens of applicants to become federally authorized cannabis cultivators for research purposes. It initially sued DEA three years after the agency said it would expand cultivation facilities, with SRI alleging an unlawful delay in approvals. That led the agency to announce in March that it is proposing new rules in order to process the applications.

Prior to the document’s release, it was unclear exactly what was holding DEA up from fulfilling their pledge. The OLC memo, written in 2018 but undisclosed to the public until this week, determined that DEA’s 2016 announcement about expansion would have violated international treaties—an analysis that the agency had declined to explain to applicants as their proposals languished for years.

OLC also found, however, that even the current system for marijuana research in the U.S.—which involves the National Institute on Drug Abuse contracting a single grow facility at the University of Mississippi to produce cannabis and DEA registering scientists who can obtain it—violates several provisions of international treaty obligations.

In particular, it determined that the existing process violates a provision stipulating that marijuana grown for research must be purchased and possessed by a single federal agency—a policy that DEA is seeking to adhere to under a recently revised rule change proposal released last month.

But SRI and its attorneys argue there’s a simpler solution, and that’s why they’re circulating a letter to members of Congress imploring action.

“In the United States, doing robust clinical research with marijuana should not be so difficult,” the letter from Sisley and her lawyers to members of the House and Senate says. “Scores of Americans rely on medical marijuana to treat a variety of symptoms, including our nation’s veterans and terminally ill. Not surprisingly, this issue has solid bipartisan support. It also has support among federal agencies including FDA, NIH, and DEA itself.”

While DEA’s new proposed rule change would seemingly address issues identified in the OLC memo—primarily by making it so DEA would be the sole agency in charge of possessing and purchasing cannabis for research—attorneys Shane Pennington and Matt Zorn said there’s a federal statute that would enable the Justice Department to circumvent the rulemaking process by unilaterally waiving registration requirements and setting its own regulations to abide by international treaties.

That code in question stipulates: “The Attorney General may, by regulation, waive the requirement for registration of certain manufacturers, distributors, or dispensers if he finds it consistent with the public health and safety.” Unlike other statutes concerning the issue, this one does not explicitly mention international treaty obligations.

“Plainly, given the undisputed urgency of the need for this research, waiving certain registration requirements to allow already-licensed Schedule I researchers obtain marijuana from real world or alternative sources would be ‘consistent with the public health and safety,'” the attorneys’ letter said.

Of course, the international treaties to which the U.S. is a party would still be in effect. But under the statute cited by SRI, the attorney general could theoretically impose any regulations that he felt were necessary to maintain compliance. For example, if the official were to make it so researchers could purchase marijuana from dispensaries, it could satisfy the requirement that research-grade cannabis be purchased and possessed by a single federal agency by allowing DEA to technically “own” the shop’s product.

“I should caution that it’s tough to answer these questions in the abstract because the answer in real life would depend on what the AG thought was necessary to comply with the OLC interpretation of the Single Convention,” Pennington said in an email to Marijuana Moment. He added that he is “not in any way conceding I agree with the OLC’s interpretation” but was simply speculating about how the federal government could allow researchers to immediately grow their own marijuana or study products from dispensaries while still complying with its analysis.

It was previously reported that the Justice Department, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vociferous opponent of cannabis reform, blocked DEA from processing any of the several dozen cultivation license applications it received in response to the 2016 announcement. Attorney General William Barr views the issue differently, however, telling lawmakers that he’s pushed “very hard” to get more manufacturers approved and that he thinks “it’s very important to get those additional suppliers.”

The reason all of this matters to researchers and advocates is because of issues resulting from the monopolized cannabis supply for research purposes at the University of Mississippi. Studies have indicated that the marijuana it produces is not reflective of the cannabis sold in retail dispensaries in legal states, raising questions about the veracity of previous studies that have relied on it.

SRI, for its part, is hoping to become an approved marijuana manufacturer to supply studies into the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Boiled down, the fact that a secret re-interpretation of an international treaty from 1961 has blocked the advancement of marijuana science in this country for the past three years is absurd,” the letter continues. “Allowing American scientists to cultivate or acquire marijuana grown in this country under strict DEA regulation and supervision is pro-science, pro-veteran, and pro-law enforcement. It puts America First and promotes public health and safety.”

Read SRI’s marijuana research letter to Congress below: 

SRI Marijuana Letter to Con… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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