My grandparents had a spiraea bush in one corner of their front yard. It was the earliest blooming plant each spring – covered as it was with hundreds of white, compound flowers on branches gracefully arching to the ground. Spiraea is the source of the active ingredient in aspirin, salicylic acid. The “spir” in “aspirin” was the drug maker, Bayer’s way of acknowledging the source of what became the first miracle drug. Over 3,000 years ago, its anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties were well known. Had Bayer not stepped in during the 1890s and isolated the active ingredient and demonstrated it could be synthesized in the lab, we might be calling aspirin “medical spiraea.”
And so, we come to Constitutional Initiative 65 and the question, why is it called “medical marijuana?” There seems to be two answers.
First, marijuana is illegal under federal law. It falls under Schedule 1, along with heroin and LSD. So, the “medical” in medical marijuana is to distinguish its recreational uses from its medical uses. But that doesn’t make it legal. Second, the active ingredients in “medical marijuana” are chemicals called cannabinoids, and they are derived from a plant (as aspirin once was derived from spiraea), named Cannabis sativa. They are THC (the real name is about 20 letters long) and CBD (cannabidiol). The first is the source of the “highs” users get when they use marijuana. The second, CBD, induces no “high” but has been shown to relax the body. According to WebMD, both have been shown to relieve some of the side effects of cancer and its treatments. The rub is that the marijuana one might acquire on the street contains both of these ingredients, the relatively benign one and the potentially dangerous one. And finally, circling back to the first of these answers, possession, distribution or consuming the plant is illegal.
Just as we no longer take “medical spiraea” for a headache, but aspirin, we need pharmaceutical companies to step up and show that THC and CBD can be synthesized in the laboratory (or derived directly from the plant), create a usable form for patients to ingest (a pill, as in aspirin), and make it available to physicians to prescribe to their patients. Indeed, GW Pharmaceuticals (home office, Cambridge, UK) has developed Epidiolex, for the treatment of epilepsy, “the first prescription, plant-derived cannabinoid medicine in the United States,” according to the GW website.
So, it can be done. That is, the medical benefits of the family of drugs called cannabinoids can be delivered in the usual way you and I get medicines through our physicians. The sticking point is the illegality of marijuana.
Constitutional Initiative 65 (as well as 65A) is designed to get around this obstacle. However, I do not believe that constitutional amendments are the way to get this done. Two reasons: first, as an amendment, no changes can be made to it through the normal legislative process, but only through the amendment process. Once in the Constitution, Initiative 65 would be sheltered from legislative action. For all practical purposes, we’d be stuck with it as written.
Second, Initiative 65 has nothing to do with our state’s form of government and how it functions: what a constitution is for. Rather, it is a framework for establishing a network of stores for selling marijuana to a legally protected segment of the population.
As such, it belongs in normal legislation, not in the state constitution.
I do not doubt the sincerity of those whose illnesses would be helped by derivatives of CBD or THC, and I respect their need for relief; but, having read the full text of Initiative 65 carefully, I still have some concerns that I believe are useful to share.
First, throughout the text the sites where the marijuana would be legally sold are called “treatment centers.” In fact, they are simply places where one purchases marijuana. No one there treats anything. It could be a store, but it could be the farm or the processing facility. I assume that this language is used to project an air of professional medicine over these sales.
Second, there is another way the Initiative pulls the medical profession into its plan. In order for a person to legally purchase marijuana at a “treatment center,” he or she would be required to show a “medical marijuana identification card.” The card would be issued by the state department of health upon receipt of a form on which a physician certifies that the card holder suffers from a “debilitating medical condition.” So, any person with an MD or DO (or others?) after their name could provide such a certification, regardless of their specialty, and regardless of what they deem to be “debilitating.” These seem to be loopholes that invite abuse (Section 4, Paragraph 3).
Third, a “medical marijuana treatment center” is defined in the text of Initiative 65 as “an entity that … processes medical marijuana” (Sec. 4 (7)), and in Sec. 4 (10) “process” is defined: “process shall mean to acquire, administer, compound, convert, cultivate, deliver, develop, disburse, dispense, distribute, grow, harvest, …” and it goes on through 12 more verbs ending with “transfer.” Meanwhile, in Sec. 4 (6) a “medical identification card,” we find, is issued by the state health department not only to patients but also to their caregivers and to the “officer, owner, operator, employee, contractor, or agent of a medical marijuana treatment center.”
Just about everyone who touches the marijuana, from the farm (“grow”) to the “treatment center” (“distribute”), is potentially eligible for a medical marijuana identification card, which, as I read the Initiative, may qualify them to legally purchase up to 5 ounces of marijuana every 28 days (Sec. 8 (1)).
Finally, what about those 5 ounces? At 28.35 grams per ounce, that’s 141.75 grams per month. If a typical joint contains about one half gram of marijuana, that’s the equivalent of 283 joints every 28 days (the marijuana could be sold in cookie form or as candy, but weight is the key).
I assume that few patients in need of those active ingredients in marijuana would use that much every 28 days – the equivalent of 10 joints a day. If that guess is anywhere near the mark, then one has to wonder where all that excess weed is going to end up: in the hands of the patient’s family members? Given away? Sold on the street? We don’t know.
As I said above, I read the full text of Constitutional Initiative 65 carefully, and I encourage you to do the same and see for yourself what it does.
My reading of it convinced me to vote against Constitutional Initiative 65.
I believe the marijuana plant contains chemicals that are beneficial for medical use, and I strongly favor them being made available to patients after going through clinical trials that show they are both safe and effective.
For that to happen, however, will require a more enlightened State Legislature and US Congress AND a more engaged population of concerned citizens persistently pressing our facts and our concerns on our elected representatives.
Dick Conville is a longtime resident of Hattiesburg and a retired college professor.