For thousands of years humans have cultivated a species of plant known as Cannabis Sativa. In the 21st Century, it may be the plant’s turn to change us.
What began as an ancient crop is now having its cultural moment in America. In Minnesota, there is the lingering possibility of legalization for recreational use.
“For more than 10,000 years we’ve been shaping it,” said George Weiblen, a University of Minnesota Plant Biologist.
For more than a decade, Weiblen’s lab has been mapping the cannabis genome, by cross breeding two cousins: marijuana and hemp.
The research has led to the discovery of a single gene, responsible for producing two of Cannabis Sativa’s signature chemicals: THC and CBD.
THE MAGIC GENE
“They’re like sister molecules,” said Weiblen. “We know the gene is responsible for whether a plan produces mostly the THC, or mostly the CBD. They’re inversely related.”
THC is the predominant chemical in marijuana that induces euphoria. CBD is the dominant chemical in hemp, which clinical research shows may reduce anxiety and pain, and boost the immune system.
There is a typically a minuscule amount of THC in hemp, and generally speaking, smaller quantities of CBD in marijuana.
Beginning in the 1970s, breeders in the Netherlands and California began genetically manipulating marijuana for higher levels of THC, often at the expense of CBD.
Marijuana in the 1970s and 1980s sometimes contained 10 percent THC. Today’s commercial brands, with names like “OG Kush,” “Trainwreck,” and “Sour Diesel,” can contain 20-30 percent THC.
“For a plant to put 20 to 30 percent of its resources into making one molecule is pretty extreme,” said Weiblen.
“There’s much we still don’t know,” said Weiblen. “The discovery of these receptors in the nervous system to which THC binds, these turn out to be the most abundant receptors in our nervous system, and they have wide reaching effects on all our mood, appetite, memory, sleep.”
“It’s a much more complex interaction these molecules have on our brain,” said Weiblen.
THE GREEN WAVE
The THC molecule still defines what is legal or forbidden, depending on where you live.
Ten states, Washington, D.C., and Canada, have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Twenty-two other states, including Minnesota, have legalized marijuana for medical use. In Minnesota, patients can be certified for medical use of marijuana if they have one of a dozen different conditions.
“I lived everyday praying for God to allow me to die,” said Donna Davidge, a medical cannabis patient, who once took several opioids for chronic pain. Now, she just takes THC.
“With this, I just take a couple little hits. Get some giggles, and I’m good to go. I’m not cloudy,” said Davidge.
According the Minnesota Health Department’s Office of Medical Cannabis, among the more than 14,000 current medical cannabis patients in Minnesota, most take it for intractable pain (64 percent), followed by PTSD (16 percent) and muscle spasms (13 percent).
For parents like Kim Kelsey, it is not THC, but CBD that is the savior.
Kelsey’s son, Alec, had life-threatening seizures every day – until he began taking high doses of CBD.
“He had tried over 24 pharmaceuticals,” said Kelsey. The treatment costs her $700 a month, and insurance doesn’t pay a dime.
Kelsey is one of many patients struggling with the high cost but who worry about what would happen to the medical marijuana program if Minnesota legalized recreational use.
“I’m supposed to go and pick something out of a cookie jar and roll up a joint for my 26 year old,” said Kelsey incredulously. “That’s not going to happen. I’m not going to pick out a bud and extract CBD. I mean, I can’t even keep a poinsettia alive.”
‘CLOSE TO BREAK EVEN’
“There are some roadblocks in Minnesota,” said Dr. Jay Westwater, CEO of Minnesota Medical Solutions, which along with LeafLine, are the two companies licensed to sell medical cannabis in the state.
In just five years of medical cannabis being legalized in Minnesota, the two companies have reportedly lost $11 million.
“Our accountant tells us we are close to break even,” said Westwater.
Asked why they aren’t making money selling cannabis, Westwater has a simple answer: “We don’t have enough patients.”
Minnesota’s medical cannabis program does not allow the sale or use of marijuana flower (bud). Instead, THC and CBD are extracted from the plant and put into vaping oil, pills and patches. All contain very precise amounts of THC and CBD.
Westwater said the companies providing medical cannabis are treated more like a drug cartel. While the overhead is expensive, there are none of the normal business tax deductions because cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance.
“I’m coming at this as a physician, and I’m very comfortable in a medical model,” said Dr. Westwater.
COST IS TOO HIGH
At a recent meeting of the Governor’s Task Force on Medical Cannabis, the message from patients was that the cost of medical marijuana is too high.
“The patients are not being heard,” said Maren Schroeder of Sensible Minnesota.
Joan Barron, a medical marijuana patient, told the task for she is grateful the program has allowed her to get off pain killers, but the cost is becoming prohibitive.
“My husband and I are driving two cars that are about to give out on us, because the cost of a car payment is what I need to find a safer alternative,” said Barron. “The cost has got to come down.”
In other states, where recreational cannabis has been legalized, cost did come down, but at a price.
“We’ve seen quality go up, and we’ve seen people go out of business,” said Craig Small, a Denver attorney who specializes in cannabis.
Like other states, Colorado is growing more marijuana than people are consuming, leading to a drop in prices. He said the medical and recreational system are now almost identical.
The concern in Colorado and other states is that market forces will mean more people are buying cannabis flower and fewer people will buy the more expensive medicine.
“I know that’s one of the biggest complaints of medical community is how can we say medical marijuana is medicine when we can’t scientifically identify doses,” said Small.
Dr. Charlie Reznikoff, an addiction expert with Hennepin Healthcare, agrees.
“When you draw physicians into it and say we want you to supervise, we are going to have a set of expectations,” said Reznikoff.
Dr. Reznikoff, who also sits on the Medical Cannabis Task Force, said he hasn’t seen the program produce rigorous data and research that will significantly advance the science of medical cannabis.
Dr. Reznikoff believes a recreational program and a medical program could co-exist in Minnesota. He dislikes the term ‘recreational’ because “it sounds like you’re on a beach somewhere.” He prefers the term ‘discretionary use.’
“So, if you think about all the substance one uses throughout the day – caffeine to wake up, alcohol to relax – we use it for all different purposes,” said Reznikoff. “That doesn’t mean my barista is my doctor, or the liquor store is my alcohol dispensary.”