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Overregulation Drives Illegal Marijuana Market In Legal States, Study Suggests

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Excessive state regulations may be the reason illegal marijuana markets continue to exist after legalization, a new exploratory study found after looking at data from the first two U.S. states to end cannabis prohibition.

“The qualitative analysis of news reports reveals that regulation is one of the main reasons that people stay in the illicit market,” the paper states. “The comparison of marijuana crime trends in Colorado and Washington shows mixed findings. While marijuana offense rates in Colorado largely remained steady over the years, those in Washington increased dramatically after the implementation of more intensive regulations.”

Published in July, the research is the master’s thesis of Sikang Song, a graduate student of the criminology and criminal justice department at Portland State University.

Song writes that he was interested in understanding why the unregulated marijuana market persists in states where cannabis is legal. Since growers, sellers and consumers have “legitimate channels” to produce, trade and obtain cannabis, these illegal avenues should presumably diminish.

Yet research shows they haven’t disappeared altogether: Last year, one report found that 18 percent of cannabis consumers in California said they purchased marijuana products from an unlicensed seller.

For his analysis, Song investigated whether there’s an association between how intense state cannabis-related regulations are and the extent of the remaining illegal market. First, he reviewed news articles published between late 2013 to April 2019 featuring interviews with cultivators, sellers and consumers who shared the various reasons why they remain in the unregulated market. He then looked into whether marijuana arrest rates changed in the first two legal states after new sets of regulations were installed.

In Washington, he used June 2016 as the intervention point, and in Colorado, he used November 2015 and January 2017 as intervention points. (In 2017, for example, Colorado state lawmakers passed new rules regarding labeling and packaging of all containers holding marijuana flower and trim, concentrates and other products.)

According to the study, the reasons most people said they grew or sold marijuana illegally were “strict regulations and the high cost associated with the compliance.”

“Over two thirds of recording units (68%; n = 115) contain interviews and quotations from black market participants stating this reason,” the paper states. “Terms such as ‘overregulation,’ ‘cost of compliance,’ ‘high taxes’ are frequently used in the headlines and texts to describe ‘barriers’ for ‘small producers’ to enter the legal market or ‘drive’ them to the black market.”

Other reasons for staying in the illegal marijuana market included high taxes, market fluctuations and organized crime.

Using an interrupted-time series analysis, Song also found that Washington’s crime rate increased after the state introduced more regulations. “In 2014 and 2015, the marijuana crime rates per 100,000 residents were both at around 26,” he writes. “This number was increased to more than 28 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2016. In 2017, a total of 2,628 marijuana crimes were reported by law enforcement agencies in Washington, making the annual crime rates 35.96 per capita.”

Colorado, on the other hand, did not see any significant short- or long-term changes to its cannabis-related crime rates after the state implemented new marijuana regulations.

“Although the findings are not conclusive, the results of Washington data show that regulation intensity may be one of the main factors that influences or explains the persistence of illegal cannabis transactions after the legalization,” the study states. “The fact that Washington’s marijuana black market kept growing after the implementation of more complex and sophisticated regulations at least indicates a correlation between regulation intensity and the increase of the black market in the case of Washington.”

The fact that similar findings were not reported in Colorado, the study continues, suggests “the magnitude of illicit marijuana activities may be affected by regulation intensity in some states.”

Ultimately, the author points out, these results raise questions about “the possible adverse effect of intensive regulations to researchers and policy makers.”

If one of the goals in marijuana legalization is to eliminate the unregulated market, Song writes, it’s important for lawmakers to consider the implications of unnecessarily strict state rules. Instead, they should focus on creating an “equitable and accessible market that allows the coexistence of both large and small businesses.”

“The cost of compliance to regulations should be reduced to remove the barriers of establishing a legal marijuana business,” Song concludes, adding that “future policies should also pay more attention to cracking down [on] persistent illegal growers and sellers and organized crime groups who are unwilling to participate the legal market.”

Legalizing Marijuana Leads To Fewer Illegal Grow Sites In National Forests, Study Finds

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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

Epilepsy Patients Who Use ‘Artisanal CBD’ Have Higher Quality Of Life, Study Finds

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Epilepsy patients who used nonprescription CBD products reported a higher quality of life and better sleep than patients who did not take the cannabinoid, according to the results of a newly published study in the peer-reviewed journal Epilepsy & Behavior.

Patients who used CBD products also better tolerated epilepsy medications, used fewer prescription medications overall and experienced reduced psychiatric symptoms such as anxiety, the study found.

No significant differences in seizure control were observed between patients who used CBD and those who did not, but the study’s authors noted that “both groups included a high number of individuals with no past month seizures.”

“These findings further emphasize the need for controlled research to determine optimal CBD product types, doses, and concomitant use of other medications that maximize possible clinical benefit while minimizing potential risks,” the report says.

Healthcare utilization by Artisanal CBD product use. Plotted are the percentage of participants reporting use of prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, or the specified event in the past month or those using an artisanal CBD product (black bars) or not using an artisanal CBD product (white bars) in the baseline assessment. Artisanal refers to non-pharmaceutical (i.e., non-Epidiolex!) use. * p < .05; ** p < .01.

J.C. Strickland, H. Jackson, N.J. Schlienz et al., Cross-sectional and longitudinal evaluation of cannabidiol (CBD) product use and health among people with epilepsy, Epilepsy & Behavior.

The study, “Cross-sectional and longitudinal evaluation of cannabidiol (CBD) product use and health among people with epilepsy,” was published Tuesday. It focuses specifically on what authors call “artisanal CBD”—alternatives to the prescription drug Epidiolex, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved in 2018 to treat certain rare types of epilepsy.

“Pharmaceutical CBD is currently a restricted prescription medication, and insurance coverage is often limited to only those patients with the specific approved indications,” the report says. “As a result, a large number of patients with epilepsy elect to use alternative CBD products sold widely as dietary supplements by commercial vendors.”

The research was funded by Realm of Caring, a nonprofit foundation devoted to cannabinoid therapies that is sponsored by companies that make CBD products. The group conducted the study in collaboration with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Despite the widespread availability and variety of these alternative cannabinoid products—here referred to as artisanal CBD in contrast to pharmaceutical CBD—controlled studies evaluating their safety or efficacy are rare,” the authors write, “making conclusions about the clinical utility of these products uncertain.”

To arrive at their conclusions, researchers analyzed the results of surveys returned by 280 epilepsy patients who said they used so-called artisanal CBD products and 138 patients who used no cannabis products. The participants were selected using Realm of Caring patient registries and social media posts, and follow-up surveys were collected from a subset of 190 participants.

Most patients (74 percent) were white, and roughly half (55 percent) were female. The average age was 21 years old, and most (90 percent) reported no history of non-medical or recreational cannabis use. A majority (93 percent) reported epilepsy as their primary condition, while the other 7 percent developed epilepsy related to cancer, autoimmune or neuropsychiatric conditions, sleep disorders or other conditions.

Although those who took CBD products reported fewer seizures than those who did not, the difference was not statistically significant and may be due to random chance.

Other measures of well being, however, were higher in patients who took CBD. Participants filled out standardized questionnaires on quality of life, pain, anxiety and depression and sleep.

While some indicators, such as pain, did not meaningfully differ between the groups, artisanal CBD users reported greater health satisfaction. Sleep was significantly better among CBD users, and patients who used CBD were also less likely to meet the clinical threshold for anxiety.

Epilepsy medication adverse effects. Plotted are group mean scores on the Liverpool Adverse Events Profile on total scores (top panel) and individual items (bottom panel). Controls (white bars) and participants using an artisanal CBD product (black bars) are plotted. Error bars are standard error of the mean. A clinical cutoff of greater than 45 is also presented in the top panel in the dotted line). Artisanal refers to non-pharmaceutical (i.e., non-Epidiolex!) use. Individual items available in the Supplemental Materials.

J.C. Strickland, H. Jackson, N.J. Schlienz et al., Cross-sectional and longitudinal evaluation of cannabidiol (CBD) product use and health among people with epilepsy, Epilepsy & Behavior.

Those who used CBD also had lower odds of having gone to the emergency room or calling in sick to work or school during the past month.

“Generally, higher quality of life, lower psychiatric symptom scores and improved sleep were observed among people using an artisanal CBD product based on both cross-sectional and longitudinal comparisons,” the study says. “Artisanal CBD Users reported significantly better epilepsy medication tolerability, a lower odds of prescription medication use and traditional anticonvulsant use, and reduced healthcare utilization compared with Controls.”

“These findings are consistent with research indicating that practitioners recommending CBD in clinical care for epilepsy report integrating the use of CBD both as a means to improve patient quality of life and as well as for seizure reduction,” the researchers noted.

Other patients—about 1 in 5 of the survey participants—reported adverse effects from CBD. These included drowsiness (11 percent), apparent worsening of epilepsy symptoms (4 percent), high or prohibitive cost of CBD products (4 percent), worries over legality (3 percent) and either concerns about or experienced interactions with other drugs.

CBD dosing didn’t seem to significantly impact the outcomes, although higher doses of CBD were associated with higher quality of life scores and lower odds of a past-month outpatient visit. In general, participants reported using a median dose of 1.4 milligrams of CBD per kilogram of body weight, which authors note “is well below the dose commonly associated with pharmaceutical products (e.g., 10 mg/kg/day is the current recommended maintenance dose for pharmaceutical CBD).”

Authors acknowledge there are a number of limitations to the study, for instance the fact that it’s drawn from self-reported data. “These limitations mean that we are not able to directly verify epilepsy characteristics and did not have control over factors like CBD dose or frequency of administration,” they wrote. Moreover, participants were drawn from Realm of Caring’s patient registry, “which may not generalize to the broader population of patients with epilepsy. Of note, the nature of the sample means that there is a possible referral bias and related increases in expectation for clinical benefit.”

Some of the authors also have links to the commercial cannabis industry, according to a study disclaimer. Of the study’s eight named co-authors, one, Ryan Vandrey, has received compensation as a consultant or advisory board member from Canopy Growth, MyMD Pharmaceuticals, WebMD and Syqe Medical. Another, Marcel O. Bonn-Miller, is an employee of Canopy Growth and a past director at AusCann Group Holdings.

Overall, the study says, the findings “highlight real-world evidence for the possible utility of artisanal CBD products in a diverse and heterogenous population of patients with epilepsy. Although the lack of a placebo control group precludes determination of efficacy, the consistent observation of clinically meaningful differences between groups at baseline and with Controls who initiated artisanal CBD product use over time suggests that use of these products can improve health and quality of life for patients with epilepsy.”

Congress To Vote On Marijuana, Psychedelics And CBD Amendments This Week Following Committee Action

Photo by Kimzy Nanney

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Politics

Surgeon General Says Stop Locking People Up For Marijuana

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The nation’s top doctor said on Sunday that it’s time to stop incarcerating people for marijuana use.

“When it comes to decriminalization, I don’t think that there is value to individuals or to society to lock people up for marijuana use,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in a CNN appearance. “I don’t think that serves anybody well.”

Murthy was answering a question about a new draft federal marijuana legalization bill that was circulated last week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other top senators.

While the surgeon general stopped short of endorsing full-scale commercial cannabis legalization, his comments do indicate support for an approach that would at least decriminalize low-level possession.

President Joe Biden, who opposes broad legalization, campaigned on a platform of incremental decriminalization and expunging past records, but has taken no steps to follow through on those promises since taking office.

“When it comes to marijuana, I think we have to let science guide us,” Murthy said in the CNN interview. “And we know that the science tells us that there are some benefits to marijuana from a medical perspective but there are also some harms that we have to consider—and we have to put those together as we think about the right policy.”

Murthy, who previously served as surgeon general under the Obama administration, said he is concerned about the effort to change cannabis laws getting ahead of the science.

“In terms of our approach to marijuana, I worry when we don’t let science guide our process and policymaking,” he said in the latest comments. “And as surgeon general that’s my role, is to work with policymakers who work with members in the community and the general public to help people understand what science tells us and where you gaps, to help fill those gaps with research and with honest inquiry.”

Previously, in 2015, Murthy said there is “preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms, that marijuana can be helpful.”

But in 2018, the doctor said he is “concerned about how rapidly states have been legalizing marijuana” because there are a “lot of unknowns” about its effects.

Top Maryland Lawmaker Pledges To Put Marijuana Legalization On 2022 Ballot

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Science & Health

Testing People For Marijuana Impairment Based On THC Levels Is ‘Not Reliable,’ Federally Funded Study Finds

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The amount of THC in a person’s system after consuming marijuana is not an accurate predictor of impairment, a federally funded study has determined.

The research, backed by a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), involved 20 people who either ate or vaporized cannabis with varying levels of THC. They were then tested with basic field sobriety and cognitive tests.

While the groups that received doses higher than 5mg of THC were all “negatively impacted” and experienced observable psychomotor impairment, the RTI International researchers found that “THC levels in biofluids were not reliable indicators of marijuana intoxication for their study participants.”

“Researchers investigated how marijuana affects skills required for safe driving and found that biofluid levels of THC did not correlate with field sobriety test performance or marijuana intoxication, regardless of how the cannabis was ingested.”

That raises questions about “per se” laws that are in place in several states, barring people from driving if they have more than a certain amount of THC in their blood.

“These important findings come as no surprise,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “Despite a handful of states imposing per se THC thresholds as part of their traffic safety laws, there exists no science demonstrating that these arbitrary limits are reliable predictors of either recent cannabis exposure or impairment.”

The study, which was published last year and promoted by NIJ in a tweet on Thursday, also found that various tests, including standing on one leg, balancing and walking and turning, “were not sensitive to cannabis intoxication for any of the study participants.”

Throughout the tests, participants’ blood, urine and oral fluid were collected and then sent to forensic laboratories.

“Results from the toxicology tests showed that the levels of all three targeted cannabis components (THC, cannabidiol, and cannabinol) in blood, urine, and oral fluid did not correlate with cognitive or psychomotor impairment measures for oral or vaporized cannabis administration,” NIJ said.

“Many of their study participants had significantly decreased cognitive and psychomotor functioning even when their blood, urine, and oral fluid contained low levels of THC,” the federal agency continued. “The researchers also observed that standardized field sobriety tests commonly used to detect driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol were not effective in detecting marijuana intoxication.”

In other words, THC does lead to impairment—but the concentration of that compound in bodily fluids does not accurately correlate with the extent to which a person is impaired. And in low doses, it seems some people are not negatively impacted, at least with respect to the standard tests that the researchers utilized.

Late last year, a different study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that low levels of CBD do not appear to have a significant impact on driving, and low-level THC consumption has an impact that is “modest in magnitude and similar to that seen in drivers with a 0.05%” blood alcohol concentration.

A a congressional research body also released a report in 2019 that found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.

Researchers have found on several occasions that traffic fatalities do not increase after a state legalizes marijuana.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that both opponents and supporters of legalization generally caution against driving under the influence.

Mississippi Lawmakers Hold Medical Marijuana Hearing After Court Overturns Voter-Approved Law

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