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President Nixon’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse concluded in 1972, after years of research, that “[t]here is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of natural preparations of cannabis.”
Unfair cannabis regulation has plagued the industry since the earliest days of legalization. Today, the industry is buzzing with debate over the possible rescheduling of cannabis that has recently come to light. Yet, many experts are warning – rescheduling is not the answer.
To gain a little perspective, I spoke with Lezli Engleking, the founder of FOCUS. The Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards is an independent, third-party 501(c)(3) not-for-profit created to develop cannabis-specific standards to answer this unmet need in the marketplace in order to protect public health, ensure consumer safety, and safeguard the environment.
After more than a decade working in the pharmaceutical industry, she stated, “I’ve seen the other side. I know what Schedule III looks like. All these bigger companies think this is going to benefit them because their goal is to sell to a pharma company, but I’ve not been in a single facility that any pharma company would even consider buying if that happened today.”
The Lopsided Reality of Unfair Cannabis Regulation
After spending 13 years in the pharmaceutical industry, Engleking underscores her opinion of the plant, “I think that this is the antidote that society needs to all the pharmaceuticals. It’s a natural medicine, and it doesn’t have to be prescribed. People can use it at home safely without oversight.”
Engleking commented, “In my opinion, it shouldn’t be scheduled at all. I don’t even agree with Schedule VI. It’s a plant. Let’s regulate it like corn with some controls.”
“Corn is under USDA in the field; it’s an agricultural crop. When we harvest it, depending on where it’s going, from an end product perspective, determines the agency it goes to. So if we’re going to make fuels and ethanol, it’ll go to the EPA. If we’re going to make foods and drugs, it’s going to go to the FDA, but there’s a pathway for all of it,” she explained.
“How is cannabis different?” she asked.
Synthetics Contribute to the Scrutiny
Engleking suggested the production of synthetic cannabinoids, particularly those derived from hemp, could be contributing to the push for cannabis to be classified under Schedule III. The manufacturing process for these products, which involves using acids and catalysts, resembles pharmaceutical manufacturing, thus introducing the necessity for a more complex layer of oversight.
Engleking added, “Schedule III means it must go through FDA clinical trials. The cost to get it through those trials is astronomical.”
In fact, [according to statistics], “The average cost to develop and approve a pharmaceutical drug by a single-drug company is $350 million. However, the cost per drug can be as high as $5.5 billion for companies that approved between eight and 13 drugs over 10 years.”
Bias Has No Place in Science or Policy
Ignoring the wisdom of his own fact-finding committee, Nixon continued to politicize cannabis and deemed it as dangerous as heroin. Ironically, despite the abundance of information now available, the same false narratives still proliferate research and mainstream media.
In that same report provided to Nixon, the Commission stated, “Science has become a weapon in a propaganda battle.” Just as it is unethical for journalists to discuss the benefits of cannabis while ignoring the potential for adverse effects, scientific reporting, and mainstream media must be held to the same standards.
These biases are not only limiting the industry; they are persuading policy and stripping the freedoms of those who responsibly consume the herb. Sadly, reefer madness tactics still exist today.
The Florida Report
A report out of Florida from February 2023 is a perfect example of contorting data to fit a specific narrative. This report claims that, in 6 years of data evaluation, 386 people died as a result of cannabis use; of these, 258 cases were caused by synthetic cannabis. Therefore, these researchers are attributing 128 deaths in six years to plant-based cannabis.
Yet, the report concludes that 99% of deaths were actually caused by accidents. So, basically, what they are reporting is that 383 people involved in accidents tested positive for some kind of cannabinoid. It is not necessarily factual to conclude that cannabis caused those accidents. Considering it can take up to 28 days for THC to be undetectable, who knows whether or not the individuals were actually impaired at the time of the accident?
Let’s add some context to this data.
Realistically speaking, being in a car accident in Florida has very little to do with cannabis. The National Safety Council says that the odds of dying in a car crash in Florida are 1 in 107 based on 2019 figures. The Sunshine State is ranked third in the nation for traffic fatalities, with more than 3,200 deaths for an annual average – making any plant-based cannabis correlation a very small fraction of the total number of fatal accidents at less than 1%.
Statistically, 20% of all car accidents are caused by medical conditions such as epilepsy, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental illness, seizure disorders, problems with eyesight, heart attacks, strokes, and alcoholism. Drivers with these conditions average twice as many crashes as those without them. Florida also boasts the most traffic fatalities caused by senior drivers, too.
The report also mentioned that four individuals died from drowning “under the influence” of cannabis. Florida has the highest total number of drowning deaths of any state. On average, there are 3,960 fatal unintentional drownings annually, approximately 11 deaths per day. In other words, cannabis was found in just .017% of Florida drownings in six years.
Comparatively speaking, 1 in 4 drownings involve alcohol.
Speaking of Alcohol
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the U.S. each year. Not only is excessive drinking a leading cause of preventable death in the United States, but it also cost the nation $249 billion in 2010 (the most recent year of data available).
Alcohol has no medical value and a higher rate of addiction than cannabis. There aren’t hundreds of thousands of people claiming alcohol saved their lives, and there’s no doctor prescribing a daily cordial for health and wellness. People are not giving bourbon to their children to stop seizures.
Alcoholics and people under the influence of alcohol kill people every single day. Yet, alcohol consumption is as American as baseball. Sporting events, concerts, festivals, and even child-focused amusement parks serve alcohol.
Meanwhile, cannabis is demonized.
Accidents Happen. Is Regulatory Response Always the Answer?
Between 2016 and 2020, US fire departments responded to an average of 160 home fires per year that started with Christmas trees. Additionally, US fire departments responded to an estimated average of 790 home structure fires per year that began with other types of decorations.
That’s approximately 3800 fires started by holiday decorations over just four years. Do we regulate Christmas decorations because they are dangerous and drain our resources, or do we say, “Oh, what a horrible accident?“
Likewise, a number of common products and situations lead to severe injury or death.
- Acetaminophen causes an average of 500 deaths per year. Should we make Tylenol available only by prescription?
- In 2021, roughly 29,100 people died from falls in their homes. The NSC estimated that 20,850 of them were age 75 or older and that 4,660 were ages 65 to 74. Should we implement a regulation that forces those 65 and older to move into assisted living to prevent falls?
- Another recent headline told the tragic story of a 35-year-old mother who died from drinking too much water – so where’s the FDA-required warning label on bottled water that describes water toxicity?
- A North Carolina student died of ibuprofen toxicity – do we start requiring a pharmacist or limit ibuprofen purchases to just a few pills at a time?
- A 21-year-old Ivy League student died last year from Panera Bread’s “Charged Lemonade” – a super-charged energy drink any child has access to, as it sits in the self-serve beverage area in the restaurant.
While each of these situations and events is incredibly heartbreaking, they are accidents nonetheless, and sometimes, accidents happen.
Any eight-year-old can buy Tylenol or ibuprofen or even get multiple refills of a charged lemonade at Panera, and no one bats an eye. But cannabis, which has no recorded incidents of overdose fatalities ever – is still considered a scheduled drug according to the federal government and still demonized through the use of misinformation and biased reporting.
Ironically, when exploring the CDC’s pages regarding “Drug Overdose Deaths,” – they list statistics for marijuana use disorder. Why? Because even the CDC understands that marijuana use alone cannot kill someone.
Rescheduling is Not Enough
How does one make informed decisions when they aren’t being presented with all the facts? Or worse, when facts have been distorted to fit a writer’s narrative or create a political advantage? Shouldn’t we demand a more rational and equitable approach to cannabis laws and regulation?
While an air of mystery is still circling around the rumors of rescheduling cannabis to Schedule III, baby steps aren’t the answer. It has been 50 years since a presidential commission found little danger in cannabis and discouraged its criminalization – do we want to wait another 50 years for another move or possibly never?
“If we move it to Schedule III, it’s not going lower ever,” Engleking warns.