Merry-juana Gift Guide: Our expert’s top picks for the pot head in your life

We all know the concept of voting with our wallets, but how many of us end up heading straight for Amazon Prime free shipping and big box Black Friday sales when it comes time for holiday shopping? Of course we can’t be conscious consumers all the time, but our purchasing choices feel more important than ever as this disaster of a year comes to a close. If, like me, you’ve embraced the loungewear lifestyle of 2020 and the thought of crowded malls and long lines sounds more unappealing than a second helping of pie, you may be planning to stick to online shopping this holiday season, and with good reason. If this year made you realize the importance of supporting small businesses, working to dismantle systemic racism and putting your money where your mouth is, then this gift guide is for you: unique recommendations for the cannabis lover in your life, featuring black women-owned businesses that are changing the game in the cannabis space.

Based out of Brooklyn, NY, Jane Parade offers “apparel and accessories for the aesthetically inclined cannabis user.” It’s hard to choose between the hoodies, hats and totes emblazoned with phrases like “Plant-Based” and “Freelance Joint Roller,” but for a unique gift pick, I love the Inhale the Universe print. janeparade.com

Noirebud is a “fearlessly black female owned multidimensional CBD luxury product line” founded by Carolyn Gray with a philosophy that is as much political as it is pampering. Among the offerings in her online boutique, the CBD Herbal Tea Packs are a stand-out stocking stuffer, and with flavors like Lavanilla, G-Mint and Strawberry Immunity, is there a more delicious way to relax at the end of a cold winter’s day? noirebud.com

I can attest that the Ardent Nova Decarboxylator & Infuser (and its big sister, the ArdentX), is a game-changer when it comes to at-home cannabis infusions. A great option for any beginner or experienced maker of edibles, infused oils or homemade cannabis topicals, the Ardent system takes the guesswork out of decarboxylating raw cannabis material, and proper decarboxylation and infusion are possible with the touch of a button. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry — founder Shanel Lindsay and her team have put together some amazing educational materials that can help even the most novice cannabis user create great edibles. ardentcannabis.com

For a COVID-friendly cannabis gift, look no further than Just The Tip’s signature “chill stone,” a glass mouthpiece designed to make the communal cannabis experience a little more hygienic. “Share responsibly” is their slogan, and the chill stone makes it possible to share a joint with others without sharing a mouthpiece. Plus, it keeps fingertips cool, increases filtration and can be used as a one-hitter in a pinch. jttip.com

Lastly, if you are looking for the perfect soothing CBD experience for the self-care-loving stoner in your life, here are a few more of my top picks:

Whether you are keeping it super chill this holiday season, or going all out with gifts, I hope this guide helps you navigate the wonderful world of weed-related goodies to find something that any cannabis lover would enjoy. But most of all, I hope that this holiday season you are able to connect with your loved ones, remember what is truly important in life, and get blazed before dinner, just like you always do. 

Reform on the Ballot: We explain the legalization ballot measures five states are considering

Cannabis reform is certainly not the political issue on the top of everyone’s mind this election season, but in the five states considering some form of legalization for medical or adult use, there is even more at stake when they hit the polls on November 3. Without much movement happening in Rhode Island cannabis policy, the least we can do is look to the states that are taking action to make change, and learn something about how they are going about it. Here’s our breakdown of the key differences in upcoming state ballot measures, and why they are important:

Arizona — Smart & Safe Act (Proposition 207)

This ballot measure is a second attempt to legalize cannabis for adult use in Arizona, after a similar measure failed in 2016. With record voter turnout expected this year, and general support for legalization growing all the time, Arizona reform advocates are confident that this year will be different,

  • What it Does: Legalizes possession for adults 21+, creates and regulates legal state cannabis market (local governments can ban sales)
  • Home Grow: Yes — 6 plants per individual
  • Tax Structure: In addition to sales tax, revenue from a 16% tax rate will be divided amongst workforce development (33%), first responders (31%), a highway fund (25%), and justice reinvestment (10%)
  • Public Support: 55% support, 37% opposed, 7% undecided (OH Predictive Insights)
  • Expungement: Yes, for individuals with marijuana possession charges 

New Jersey — NJ Marijuana Legalization Amendment (Question 1)

This ballot measure is a “legislative referral,” meaning that that state legislature is bringing the question of legalization to the people of New Jersey, after the governing body was unable to successfully pass legislation last year that would tax and regulate cannabis for adults in the Garden State.

  • What it Does: Leaves it up to the legislature to work out the details of a regulated market
  • Home Grow: To be determined
  • Tax Structure: Cannabis-specific sales tax is prohibited, but local governments can implement a 2% sales tax in addition to the state sales tax
  • Public Support: 66% support, 23% opposed (Brach Eichler LLC)
  • Expungement: Yes — an online portal would be created to help expedite the process.

Montana — Initiative I90 and Constitutional Initiative 118

Dual ballot initiatives in Montana would, respectively, create a commercial market for cannabis, and set a minimum age for purchasing and consumption, which would likely be 21.  

  • What it Does: Legalizes possession, creates regulated cannabis industry (local governments can ban sales)
  • Home Grow: Yes — 4 plants and 4 seedlings
  • Tax Structure: 20% tax rate, with revenues divided between wildlife, parks and recreation (50%), the general fund (10.5%), and treatment, veteran support, Medicaid and cannabis regulation (40%)
  • Public Support: 49% support, 39% opposed (MSU)
  • Expungement: Yes — individuals can petition for expungement of record for newly legal activities

South Dakota — Recreational (Amendment A) and Medical (Measure 26)

These ballot measures will make South Dakota the first state to attempt to legalize cannabis for both medical and recreational use, in the same year. 

  • What it Does: Legalizes possession and creates regulated cannabis industry (local governments can ban sales)
  • Home Grow: Yes — up to 3 plants, and only if you live in an area with no commercial retailers
  • Tax Structure: 15% tax rate, with revenues used first to help implement and regulate the new cannabis industry, and then split 50/50 between public schools and the general fund.
  • Public Support: 60% support for recreational, 70% support for medical (NORML)
  • Expungement: No

Mississippi — Initiative 65, or Alternative 65A

In Mississippi, voters will have to choose between two initiatives on the 2020 ballot: one that will legalize medical marijuana, and one that will do the same, but in a much more restrictive manner. The former is a citizen initiative that establishes 20 qualifying conditions, while the latter is a legislative initiative that would only allow cannabis use by terminally ill patients. With 81% of Mississippi voters supporting medical marijuana for those with serious medical conditions, it will be interesting to see whether these competing ballot initiatives will split the yes vote, which may end up hampering the ability of either ballot measure to succeed at the polls (FM3 Research).

  • What it Does: Legalizes medical marijuana for those who qualify
  • Home Grow: No
  • Tax Structure: 7% sales tax (Initiative 65)
  • Public Support: 52% support for Initiative 65, 23% support for Alternative 65A (FM3 Research)
  • Expungement: No

So, the “laboratories of democracy” experiment continues when it comes to cannabis reform in the US. If all of these state ballot measures pass, 15 states would have some form of regulated market for adult use, and one third of Americans would have access to legal recreational marijuana (THCNet). Further, more than two-thirds of federal lawmakers would represent states with some form of legal cannabis (medical or recreational/adult use). We already know that a majority of Americans support legalization, including 78% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans (Pew), but with both major party candidates still opposed to federal legalization, it’s up to individual states to tip the scales with each election season, until the will of the people can no longer be ignored. 

The results of this election may also illustrate how differences in state ballot measures may affect the success of a legalization initiative, in the short or long term. We know that the allocation of tax revenue is critically important (general fund & police departments = bad, while funding public schools, treatment, and infrastructure improvements = good), but I am also paying close attention to whether home grow, automatic expungements and social equity measures will be implemented. 

No matter how we choose to do it, the benefits of legalizing cannabis will always outweigh the risks, and whatever happens on November 3, the landscape of cannabis legalization in the US will be changed, yet again. While I’m disappointed at the current status of cannabis legalization in my home state, I look forward to the opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of other states, in hopes that little Rhody can one day be an example of how to create a legal, taxed and regulated cannabis market that we can all be proud of.  

Pot Politics 2020: Biden/Harris and cannabis

In part one of my Pot Politics 2020 series, I covered Donald Trump’s unsurprising oscillations on US marijuana policy in recent years. This time, I turn the lens to examine the policies (past, present and future) and the people who are on the Democratic ticket in this election: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. 

“Architects of The War on Drugs”

Last issue, I mentioned that the Trump campaign was attempting to paint Joe Biden as an “architect of the war on drugs,” which is quite the statement coming from a supposed law and order lover who is known to have “the utmost respect and adoration” for Richard Nixon, an actual architect of the modern War on Drugs. Similar criticisms about the political past of Kamala Harris have been raised, especially in relation to her role as the District Attorney of California. Is there any truth to these assessments, and what kind of evolution on cannabis policies can we expect to see from the two top Democrats in 2020 and beyond?

The short answer is yes, there is truth to those criticisms, and I do believe that the past remains relevant when it comes to current political viewpoints. Biden was, in fact, one of the authors of  the 1994 Crime Bill, an infamous set of draconian drug laws that many believe helped fuel mass incarceration in this country, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences for first time nonviolent possession of small amounts of controlled substances. In the more recent past, he also opposed decriminalization of marijuana during the Obama administration, despite mounting evidence of success in other countries. Harris, in her days as a powerful prosecutor, was vocally dismissive of marijuana reform efforts, even co-authoring a voter guide opposing the legalization of cannabis in California in 2010, and has long been criticized for her role in convicting nonviolent marijuana offenders.

Where They Stand Now

“Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor and I know it as a senator.” – Kamala Harris. With words like that, I think it’s safe to say that both Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have wisened up when it comes to the realities of marijuana policy in the US. Kamala has said she now supports ending the War on Drugs, mass incarceration and private prisons, while Biden would like to expand rehabilitation efforts, eliminate mandatory minimums and abolish the death penalty. However, as major party nominees, they are also beholden to the Democratic Party platform, which is not known for its progressive stance on cannabis — or for even mentioning it at all.

This year, federal legalization was almost included as part of the Democratic Party platform, but it was voted down by committee, ironically because such a commitment would force Joe Biden to evolve more on the issue than he is comfortable with. Instead, the party adopted recommendations submitted by the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, which include cannabis rescheduling, decriminalization, automatic expungement, federal medical legalization and a continuation of allowing states to be “laboratories of democracy” when it comes to adult-use cannabis.

Biden also addresses cannabis reforms in his Plan for Black America and his Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice, although his proposals stay within the guidelines outlined by the task force. He also supports rescheduling marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which would open up more research opportunities, although that move is thought to be largely symbolic rather than substantive. While none of these reforms, in my opinion, go far enough on their own to right the wrongs of the modern War on Drugs that Biden is partially responsible for, I would be lying if I claimed that they wouldn’t amount to huge wins for our country when it comes to cannabis policy. 

As a US Senator, Kamala Harris has shown support for more forward-thinking proposals related to cannabis and criminal justice reform than her running mate. She has supported the Marijuana Justice Act and cosponsored the SAFE Banking Act, saying, “We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry… That means not only legalizing marijuana, but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry.” She is also the lead sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would completely remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (as opposed to rescheduling, as Biden wants to do), as well as provide a framework for expungements, protect immigrants’ rights and direct tax revenue toward building equity in the cannabis space through a Cannabis Justice Office within the Department of Justice.

What to Expect in 2020 and Beyond

As it stands, neither major party candidate supports federal legalization or the type of progressive cannabis reforms that would actually make a difference in the lives of everyday Americans. However, with a majority of Democratic (76%), Independent (68%) and even Republican (51%) voters now in support of marijuana legalization, I think it’s likely that we will see some kind of federal reform policies pushed through in the next four years. As Violet Cavindish of the Marijuana Policy Project noted, “It really depends on what the makeup of Congress looks like after the election, and who each candidate would choose to be on their staff … At the end of the day, Biden is more likely to choose people who are in favor of cannabis than Trump.”

Overall, I think that the apparent Biden/Harris evolution on cannabis reform is probably an accurate reflection of the gradual forward progression of the general public on this issue, and an example of how even the most progressive policy idea can be watered down into pragmatic incrementalism as it moves through the cogs of American democratic government. While I certainly believe in setting high policy standards for our political leaders, and holding them accountable for their past and present actions, ultimately what I want to see most in our elected officials, and in our fellow citizens as a whole, is a capacity for growth. If we don’t allow each other (and ourselves) the space to learn and grow from our past mistakes in pursuit of creating a better world, then how can we expect to make progress?

Pot Politics 2020 Edition: Trump and cannabis

Listen, I know that marijuana reform is not even close to the top of anyone’s political wishlist for the 2020 election. Which makes sense — in a political climate where every vote cast feels like a vote for critical issues like climate change, economic justice and human rights, who is really thinking about cannabis legalization? And judging by the current major party platforms, we aren’t likely to get it anytime soon. At least not at the federal level, despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans support legalization, according to a recent PEW study.

Still, I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at the presidential frontrunners’ history, policies and opinions on cannabis, at the very least so we can have a sense of what to expect from them. In this issue, I will cover Trump’s wishy-washy history of “opinions” on cannabis policy, and in the next issue we will take a deep dive into the policy promises of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, as well as their checkered past on drug policy issues. 

Way back in 1990, long before he set his sights on the White House, Donald Trump apparently had some semblance of logic and reason when it came to cannabis: “We’re losing badly the war on drugs,” he said. “You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars…” Which may literally be the only sentence this man has ever said that I agree with completely. It was because of this stance that many drug policy advocates, while dismayed at his election in 2016, thought (for better or for worse), that Trump might actually be the president to usher in a new era of legalization in America. Where Obama laid the groundwork with his justice department memos that deprioritized enforcement of marijuana prohibition in states experimenting with legalization, Trump could have been the one to take it one step further, by descheduling, decriminalizing or federally legalizing the plant during his first term in office.

On the campaign trail in 2016, most likely in an attempt to appeal to his conservative base, Trump’s opinion was apparently that he saw cannabis as a states’ rights issue. In a classic Trump quote in which he strings words together without saying anything, he stated, “We’re going to see what’s going on. It’s a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision. A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.” A seemingly promising sign for advocates of drug policy reform, many of whom would rather see imperfect progress than prohibitionist regression.

Alas, no one is really surprised when Trump’s statements vary wildly from moment to moment. Was anyone was surprised to hear Trump praise Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte in 2017 for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem” by sanctioning the extrajudicial killings of over 6,000 suspected drug dealers, with blatant disregard for due process or basic human rights? I am not sure, but I suspect not. Trump’s been a fan of the death penalty for decades (remember the Central Park Five?), and he has recently offered praise to China and Singapore for their willingness to turn to the “ultimate penalty” when it comes to dealing with drugs in society: “I don’t know that our country is ready for that, but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty .. .with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem.” Nevermind the premise of his argument is completely false, Trump is clearly fine with killing people in an attempt to solve complex social problems.

In 2018, long-time drug prohibitionist and Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the first real policy change related to cannabis law enforcement when he rescinded the Cole Memo, one of the aforementioned federal recommendations remaining from the Obama administration, which were hugely important for the economic and legal security of the nascent cannabis industry. This move put advocates and industry professionals on high alert, afraid that the Trump administration would crack down on state-legal cannabis businesses at any moment. But then again, in June 2018, months before Sessions’ forced resignation in November, Trump stated that he “really” supported Republican senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, and that he would “probably support” the STATES Act, a bipartisan bill that would effectively end the federal prohibition on marijuana and leave the issue up to the states.

This year, cannabis initiatives will again be on the ballot in six states, and Trump is reportedly concerned about how that might affect his chances at re-election. And he’s not wrong to be worried — cannabis initiatives may have the ability to increase democratic voter turnout, and Trump can’t afford to lose in states like Arizona, where the polls are close and the margin for victory is already small. The Trump campaign has even taken to attacking Biden as an “architect” of the War on Drugs, and is framing Trump as the criminal justice reform candidate.

More on that in the next issue, but for now, remember that local elections impact cannabis policies, too! Whatever your political beliefs, make sure you educate yourself on the candidates and the issues that matter to you, and get out there to cast your vote in the RI Primary on Sep 8 and in the general election on Nov 3.

Parenting on Pot: Our expert discusses the risks, rewards and recommendations

Cannabis is used by adults all over the world to take the edge off after a long day, to help ease debilitating medical conditions, or just to relax after putting the kids to bed. A 2017 survey of more than 10,000 cannabis users conducted by California cannabis company Eaze found that 1 in 5 respondents were parents, and 63% of them partake daily. These numbers certainly reflect a growing community of cannabis users in this new age of legalization for medical and recreational use in the US, but there is still a significant amount of stigma associated with cannabis consumption, especially when it comes to parenting.

Why is it that memes celebrating #winemom culture are seen as relatable, while many parents who use cannabis are still afraid to admit it to friends and other parents? It’s no secret that alcohol is by far the most glorified drug in American culture, but it’s pretty frustrating to realize that there are parents sitting in jail cells or fighting for custody of their children because of their medical cannabis use, while others drink alcohol in front of their kids every night, no questions asked.

“But what about the CHILDREN!?” (cue hand-wringing and Reefer Madness-esque paranoia) seems to be the last crumbling argument that proponents of the failed War on Drugs are using to support the continued prohibition of marijuana, a drug proven to be far safer than alcohol in spite of its
federal Schedule 1 status. Because of its longstanding illegality, the stigma against marijuana has been deeply implanted into the American psyche for generations, and it’s no surprise that parents feel that they would be judged or even vilified for their cannabis use. In fact, it’s justified — cannabis use continues to be levied against parents in custody battles, court cases and family disputes, even in states with legalized adult use.

Even before giving birth, mothers face scrutiny, and while the topic of cannabis use while pregnant is controversial and the research is minimal at best, it’s worth noting that an increased number of women are choosing to use cannabis medicine to ease some of the more challenging symptoms of
pregnancy; a recent survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network showed a doubling in the number of pregnant women who reported using marijuana in the previous month between 2007 and 2012 (4%), compared with just over 2% in 2002. When you consider that pregnant women are often given prescription drugs to combat morning sickness and pregnancy pain, it makes sense that they would seek out alternatives that they perceive to be safe, especially as cannabis culture and education are becoming more normalized and available.

When it comes to medical use of marijuana, many parents have found that they prefer the relief and cognitive presence offered by cannabis as opposed to opiates or other prescription drugs. While interviewing parents for a Leafly piece last year, writer Meg Hartley noted, “the thing that people don’t seem to realize is that having a chronic condition can severely and negatively impact one’s ability to parent, and pharmaceutical medications often come with side effects that exacerbate this problem. In many cases of chronic illness sufferers, cannabis is the option that yields the best ability to parent.”

Whether using it for medical or recreational purposes, many parents report appreciating the mindfulness, emotional availability and presence they experience when interacting with their children after consuming cannabis, in addition to the therapeutic effects.

I am certainly not suggesting that cannabis use in front of children is a good idea. In fact, there are a host of risks that should be assessed when navigating the waters of parenting on pot, but I would argue that parents should treat their cannabis like they would any other medicine or intoxicant in the home. We know that second-hand smoke is dangerous in any context, and it’s obvious that substances that could be harmful to children should always be kept locked away and securely out of the reach of children — including cannabis, alcohol, prescription drugs, and other chemicals. Similarly, parents’ first priority should always be the safety and wellbeing of their children, and any substance that could alter an adult’s reaction time or mental capacity in the case of an emergency should be carefully administered, and definitely not consumed prior to driving.

Most parents who consume cannabis do so after their children are asleep or in a discreet manner without their kids’ knowledge. When doing so, it’s important to know your effective dose, and to refrain from experimenting with new consumption methods or dosages when children may be present.
Many parents enjoy vaping or edibles as an inconspicuous way to consume cannabis, but should be wary of delayed or increased intoxicating effects of edibles, as strengths and reactions vary widely. It may be a good idea to start with edibles that come in 5mg (or less) “microdose” servings, but
regardless of strength, locking up cannabis edibles is critically important, especially since they often look like a treat kids might enjoy.

As cannabis becomes more ubiquitous among legal states and throughout the world, the stigma and misinformation surrounding the plant will surely diminish, and hopefully we can get to a place where drug education for children is actually science-based, unbiased, realistic and informative —
a far cry from the “Just Say No” messaging and DARE program scare tactics that were ingrained in so many of us. In the meantime, recreational or medical cannabis use presents a unique opportunity for parents to have honest, age-appropriate conversations with their kids about marijuana and other substances.

When talking to your kids about cannabis, it’s important to tell the truth about why people consume it, and to stick to the facts. Research shows that heavy cannabis use among adolescents can be detrimental to the developing brain, for example, but the gateway drug theory has been thoroughly debunked, so it’s wise to stay away from that message. Be honest about what you know and don’t know, and encourage your children to come to you with their questions about cannabis and other intoxicants – if you don’t know the answer, do the research and get back to them with your findings. It’s not your fault that you didn’t get a good drug education, but it’s your responsibility to ensure that your children have more reliable information than you did. Children are often capable of understanding more nuance than we give them credit for, and the simple fact is that they will most likely encounter cannabis at some point in their adolescent years, so it’s up to parents to make sure they are prepared with accurate and up-to-date information.

As the stigma fades and more parents come out of the cannabis closet, it is my hope that these important conversations will happen more and more frequently, and can complement improved drug education programs offered in schools. Sasha Simon, of the Drug Policy Alliance, is part of a pilot
program that seeks to make those improvements: “There’s been a lot of confusion societally, not just for children,” she says. “Most people have some type of drug in their life — alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine… The idea is to model it after sex ed,” she says. “We know abstinence doesn’t stop sex, and
[the same goes with drugs]. The majority try it before high school and the goal is to make sure they have realistic information and skills.” [Check out “Safety First: A Reality Based Approach to Teens and Drugs”, for more tools and resources to help with these conversations.]

Ultimately, we are still at a place where most adults don’t have all the information either, and all we can ask of parents is that they do the best they can when it comes to cannabis and their family, just as they do when they make decisions about their children’s food choices, health and extracurricular activities. At the very least, I think we can agree that parents deserve to be able to relax and live a balanced lifestyle at least as much as any other adult human, especially in a society as overworked, tense and anxiety-inducing as ours.

Cannabis and The Movement for Black Lives: The racist roots of the war on weed and the role of the cannabis industry now

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” So believed Harry Anslinger, founding commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics and man of many terrible opinions, who did not even attempt to disguise his overt racism while crafting policies specifically meant to punish people of color. Much like policing, it is well known that the prohibition of marijuana, and the so-called War on Drugs as a whole, is rooted in a conscious, strategic effort to suppress and imprison people of color. Dubbed “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander in her book of the same name (if you haven’t read it, now would be a good time), modern mass incarceration acts as an extension of the oppression of Black communities made foundational to our nation through the institution of slavery, re-codified into law through the War on Drugs, and perpetuated by discriminatory policing to this day. 

Despite the legalization of cannabis for adult use gaining traction, more than 650,000 Americans, the majority of whom are people of color, are arrested annually for violating marijuana laws. In Rhode Island, Black people are 3.3 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana (in other states, they can be 6 to 10 times more likely). Once involved in a police encounter, Black individuals are 3.5 times as likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. 

While the War on Drugs is certainly the fuel that powers the school-to-prison pipeline, it is also used to defend brutal police killings of unarmed Black Americans — George Floyd’s murder was justified by a rumor that he may have been on meth, Philando Castile’s killer cited his use of marijuana as just cause, and Breonna Taylor was shot while asleep in a botched police drug raid (while the suspect was already in custody).

Here’s the thing: When it comes to race and cannabis, decriminalization is not enough. Legalization is not enough. And even state-sponsored cannabis equity programs in legal states don’t even come close to righting the wrongs of hundreds of years of systemic discrimination. Even ending the War on Drugs completely wouldn’t put an end to institutional racism, but it’s one important and long-overdue step in the right direction. The cannabis industry, predicted to be worth more than $1 billion in 2020, has a responsibility to prioritize anti-racism and reparative efforts to communities most impacted by cannabis criminalization. 

We need automatic expungement and clemency for non-violent drug offenders, and we need robust equity programs that effectively address the racial inequity that persists in the cannabis industry. We should also defund and demilitarize the police while reinvesting resources into communities where they are badly needed. At the very least, can we agree to stop using legal cannabis revenue to fund policing and drug enforcement? Instead of investing in research or equity programs, Portland, Oregon, imposes a 17% state-mandated tax on cannabis, 15% of which is allocated for the State Police, and an additional 3% tax that goes to the Portland Police department. In California, 20% of the state Marijuana Tax Fund goes to police budgets, and in many states, if tax revenue is destined for the general fund (ahem, Rhode Island), it often ends up in the hands of the police.

The way that legal cannabis markets are set up is critical to ensuring a safe and equitable industry for all, but the way that the cannabis industry responds to this now undeniable movement centering on Black lives will be very telling in terms of how white supremacy infiltrates every corner of this nation, even in an industry rooted in compassion, grassroots activism and civil rights. Where the money comes from and ends up is crucially important, but one of the most fundamental steps the industry should take is to elevate the voices of those most affected by the war on drugs, and ensure that the Black community has a seat at the table when it comes to industry oversight and decision-making. The cannabis industry is just one part of a hugely complex and intersectional movement towards anti-racism in all aspects of society, and the guiding principles of the BLM movement should be centered in any conversation around equity in the cannabis industry.

One can only hope that Steve DeAngelo, longtime cannabis activist and founder of the Last Prisoner Project, speaks for the entire industry when he says: “We have a debt of history we need to honor and need to pay. This industry would not exist without the efforts of generations of African Americans, who were the first people to bring cannabis to North America…Cannabis is a gift of the African American community to the rest of the country.” 

Roll it Up, Gramps!: Introducing cannabis to older folks

Of the 2.1 million Americans using medical marijuana, those age 65 and older are among the fastest-growing group of cannabis users. From 2007 to 2017, cannabis use in adults over the age of 65 increased tenfold. Although they make up less than 15% of the population, seniors are prescribed more than one-third of all prescription drugs in America, and it’s no surprise, considering that 80% of the elderly population are diagnosed with at least one chronic condition

It’s not news that older people experience pain and other ailments that can affect their quality of life. About 53% of Americans age 65 and older reported bothersome pain in the past month, according to a government survey, and among people older than 65 who signed up for the Colorado medical marijuana program, nearly 90% listed pain as a problem. Furthermore, the number of people aged 60 years and over is expected to double by 2025 worldwide and by 2050 in the United States, so we should expect to see the numbers of elderly cannabis users continue to grow — despite existing barriers like stigma, cost of medicine and doctor approval  (American Academy of Neurology, European Journal of Internal Medicine).

Now that I’ve hit you with the statistics, here are a few tips for the older folks looking to try cannabis, or the younger people who just want to help their elderly friends and relatives feel better.

Why Try Cannabis?

Why not? If you have an ailment that cannabis could help with, the cost/benefit analysis is in your favor. All drugs have side effects, but cannabis is one of the safest medicines on earth, and the adverse effects associated with it are minimal — mainly dry mouth, drowsiness or dizziness, according to studies. For most older people, there is much more to gain than to lose when experimenting with cannabis, and it could even turn out to be a more cost-effective treatment than some of your existing prescription drugs. A study published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine found that the therapeutic use of cannabis is safe and efficacious in the elderly population, and that cannabis use may even decrease the use of other prescription medicines, including opioids — a welcome supplement or alternative to the dangerous and addictive drugs typically prescribed for chronic pain.

How To Use Cannabis

If you want to try cannabis, there are a few things you should know beforehand. There are many different methods of using marijuana as medicine, and if you live in Rhode Island or any of the 33 states that have legalized cannabis for medical use, you may have more options than you realize. Cannabis can be smoked, vaporized, applied topically or ingested orally via edibles or sublingual tinctures. In the aforementioned study of elderly cannabis use, the most common route of administration was oil/sublingual (37.3%), followed by smoking (24.4%) and vaporization (6.4%). If you are able to go to a medical marijuana dispensary, they should have most of these products available to you, and the staff should be able to help you navigate the options based on your needs. As a medical marijuana patient, you can also utilize the help of a caregiver to grow/make medicine for you, or even experiment with crafting your own cannabis products at home, if you are so inclined.

CBD or THC? You’ve probably heard a lot about these two compounds, and I won’t go into too much detail here, but the answer is most likely both – besides the well-known “entourage effect,” in which cannabis compounds work synergistically to have greater medicinal benefits, research has shown that a 1:1 ratio of CBD/THC is most effective, while limiting side effects (American Academy of Neurology). That being said, if someone is unable or chooses not to participate in a state-sanctioned medical marijuana program, CBD products are much more easily accessible than THC, thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized the production of industrial hemp nationwide. According to a recent study, 42% of baby boomers use CBD to help alleviate their joint pain, while THC is known to have all sorts of medical benefits, including as a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease (National Council for Aging Care).

Know the laws. Understand that medical marijuana is not covered by insurance, which increases the cost of medicine to patients. If you live in a state that has legalized cannabis for adult-use, congratulations — you can just walk into a store and buy it. If you live in a medical marijuana state, you’ll need to get a patient card in order to grow at home, utilize a caregiver, or shop at a dispensary. If your state doesn’t have a medical marijuana program and you wish it did, contact your legislators! I am equally saddened and enraged to think of all of the people suffering needlessly around the country because their state refuses to get with the times and the science. Wherever you obtain your cannabis medicine, be sure it’s coming from a trusted source. Whether you choose to consume medical marijuana or hemp-derived CBD, ask the producer for lab test results that can prove the potency and safety of the medicine.

Dose Appropriately. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the key to experimenting with any new drug is “start low, go slow” when it comes to dosing. When it comes to cannabis medicine, it’s crucial to find the right dosage and consumption method to fit your needs. Keep a journal to make notes on the time and method of ingestion, strength of dose and any positive or negative effects. And don’t be afraid to increase your dose — as I mentioned, cannabis is extremely safe, and the side effects are mild compared to other prescription drugs that Americans take every day. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the adverse effects of cannabis can be more detrimental to older individuals who already suffer from decreased balance or dry mouth, or who may be a fall risk. In addition, there may be increased contraindications for cannabis use in older folks — for example, decreased kidney/liver functions could impede an individual’s ability to metabolize cannabis, or it could interfere with the efficacy of existing medications in the body, such as the blood thinner Coumadin. As a general rule, only high doses of cannabinoids (over 60 mg/day) present a risk for adverse drug interactions, but it’s a good idea to cut back or refrain from using opioids, sleeping pills, benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, etc.) and alcohol while taking cannabis, and of course to never drive or make important decisions while impaired.

Talk to your health care provider(s)

Any and/or all of them — don’t be ashamed to express your interest in using cannabis, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! If it makes you more comfortable, bring a younger person (or someone well-versed in cannabis medicine) to help talk through things with your practitioner. If you have been experimenting with cannabis already, show them the notes you’ve taken on the dosage/effects. Stigma is one of the biggest barriers to older folks using cannabis, but chances are, your doctor won’t be as disapproving as you might imagine. A 2013 study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that four of five doctors approve of medical marijuana and that more than 90% of medical marijuana patients (of around 7,500 surveyed) say that medical marijuana has helped treat their conditions – and that was seven years ago! 

The exchange of information between patients and medical professionals is so important in terms of driving the dialogue around medical cannabis forward. Even the many doctors who already support medical marijuana have a lot to learn, but you can be part of the conversation — if the result is a better quality of life for you or your loved ones, then it’s well worth it!

Spring Legislative Updates: What’s Happening with Cannabis Policy in RI

Even if you are actively trying to keep track of cannabis policy here in Rhode Island, it can be difficult to stay up to date with everything that is going on at the State House. What’s the deal with the new compassion centers, what are my rights as a medical marijuana patient, and will we ever legalize cannabis for adult use?  

So far during this legislative session, the only cannabis legislation that has passed through the House and Senate and became enacted as law is one that includes the now infamous amendment repealing the requirement that the general assembly have final rulemaking authority on any new cannabis regulations. If you recall, this correction was the result of an effort by House Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Ruggiero to quell the litigious pursuit of Governor Gina Raimondo, who did not take kindly to the legislature sneaking language into the law that would grant the general assembly such unchecked regulatory power.

Several other cannabis-related bills have been introduced and are in committee now. Champions of the medical marijuana program Representative Scott Slater and Senator Josh Miller recently introduced corresponding House and Senate bills (H-7621 and S-2544) that would do a number of things to improve the medical marijuana program, including creating a hardship designation for patients on SSDI/Medicaid, establishing a discount program for low income patients, eliminating the plant tagging system, allowing unlimited compassion center licenses, redefining “debilitating condition” and reducing the compassion center license fee to $5,000. This legislation comes in response to the 2020 Medical Marijuana Patient Coalition Report, which outlined the main issues facing medical marijuana patients in Rhode Island (mainly cost and access to medicine), and called upon the House and Senate to put forth legislative solutions. Senator Miller’s bill has been referred to the Senate judiciary committee, while the House version will be heard in the House finance committee.

Representatives Anastasia Williams, Scott Slater, Joseph Almeida and Chris Blazejewski, among others, have also introduced and co-sponsored several bills relating to criminal justice and cannabis equity that are worthy of supporting. H-7141 prevents past criminal misdemeanors and felonies for possession of marijuana from disallowing a person from entering the cannabis industry or any government assistance programs. H-7142 provides automatic expungement to those persons who have previously been convicted of marijuana possession, which would now constitute a decriminalized offense. H-7635 allows persons with multiple misdemeanors and felonies to seek expungement of up to six convictions, provided that convictions for multiple alcohol related offenses or domestic violence offenses and crime of violence are not eligible. H-7637 reclassifies certain simple possession as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. All of these criminal justice bills have been referred to the House judiciary committee, with the exception of H-7142, which was held for further study. Criminal record expungement, especially for cannabis possession, is long overdue here in Rhode Island, and it is critical that automatic expungements be made available so that RI residents who were victims of the War on Marijuana are not further burdened with the arduous task of clearing their name. 

If you are interested in keeping up with these bills (or any bills moving through the RI legislature), you can sign up for RI Bill Tracker on the General Assembly website. Just create a login and password, choose the bills you’d like to follow and receive email updates when there is movement on any of the legislation you are tracking. This is a super useful tool to help you understand the legislative process more fully, and to learn when to take action on bills that you support. If you support any of the legislation mentioned here, please contact your legislators to ask them to support these bills, especially if they serve on Finance or Judiciary committees in the House or Senate. You can also make your voice heard by writing letters to the editor, providing verbal or written testimony to legislative hearings at the State House, volunteering to help advocates who are organizing around these issues, or just talking to your friends and family about what’s going on. If you are involved in the cannabis industry, or just want to hear the latest about what’s happening within the cannabis space in Rhode Island, you might also consider attending What’s Next for Cannabis in RI, a public educational event taking place on March 5 from 5:30 – 7:30pm at The Hatch RI (244 Weybosset St). I hope to see you there! 

Lessons From Portugal: Drug czar comes to the RI State House

“Drugs are good — drugs are so good that they may become the only source of pleasure in one’s life.” Those may not be words that you would expect from someone in charge of a national drug policy, but Dr. João Goulão knows what he’s talking about. On January 9, a crowd of about 75, including several state legislators, gathered in the State House Library for a program called “How To Solve A Drug Crisis: Lessons from Portugal” to hear the drug czar reflect on the successes of the Portuguese approach to drug use and misuse, and what lessons we might be able to apply to RI’s drug crisis. Hosted by Rep. Scott Slater, the Center for Biomedical Research and Excellence (COBRE) on Opioids & Overdose, and the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery (SUPER) PAC, the educational event aimed to broaden attendees’ perspectives in terms of addressing addiction and overdose through a public health lens, rather than a criminal justice one.

In the ’80s and ’90s, 1% of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin. Since adopting the new policy in 2001, overdose deaths are down 80% (the lowest overdose death rate in Europe) and drug-related social costs have decreased 18%. HIV rates, youth drug use and problematic drug use rates have all declined as well. When the program began, there were 100,000 heroin users in Portugal. Now, there are fewer than 50,000 citizens addicted to any drug at all, and of those, 30,000 are taking advantage of treatment options. In 2017, Portugal lost 38 citizens to overdose out of a population of 10 million. By contrast, Rhode Island lost 314 people in 2018 – under a policy as successful as Portugal’s, we may only have lost 4. 

The results are certainly clear, but what makes Portugal’s drug policy so successful? First, they recognize addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal one. It starts with education — children are taught from a very young age not necessarily that drugs are bad, but about sources of pleasure and how substances can play a role in pleasure-seeking behaviors. Along with evidence-based preventative measures, in 2001 Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the use and possession of all illicit drugs. [It’s important to note that “decriminalizing” and “legalizing” are not the same, and Portugal did not create any type of market industry for selling drugs, similar to how Rhode Island has decriminalized the use and possession of cannabis, without legalizing it for adult use.] In Portugal, when someone is caught with a small amount of drugs (the limit is based on 10 days of personal use), instead of being arrested, they appear before a Ministry of Health panel consisting of a psychologist, a social worker and a lawyer. The panel addresses what the patient’s needs are, if they are struggling with addiction, or what kind of difficulties they may be facing in life that could be causing them to use drugs. If they are struggling with addictive behaviors, they are able to seek help immediately, free of charge. 

This system effectively interrupts the pathway from recreational drug use to serious addiction and overdose. In fact, Portugal has built a comprehensive system of addiction care, funded by the profits of state lotteries, that offers tailor-made treatment and harm reduction services to anyone who would benefit, including those who struggle with addictions to alcohol, gambling and the like — all covered under their universal health care system. This program, known as the Service for Intervention of Addictive Behaviors and Dependencies, includes indefinite treatment despite repeated relapses (“We don’t give up, we are there…we don’t drop people”), as well as harm reduction measures to keep people safe, including safe injection facilities, drug checking sites and safer opioid substitution treatments like methadone and buprenorphine. And although Portuguese prisons aren’t as overcrowded as they used to be, even those that are incarcerated have access to these services. According to Dr. Goulão, the program is “cheap” to maintain, and well worth the investment. Despite some initial resistance from police and politicians, he says, now no one wants to go back to the way things were.

Of course, unlike Portugal, Rhode Island doesn’t have universal health care, and we do have fentanyl, which the Portuguese have not had the misfortune of dealing with yet. Portugal’s drug addiction issues are not as affected by the influence of pharmaceutical companies as ours are here in the US. Despite these differences, Dr. Goulão believes that in Rhode Island, we have all the tools to have a drug policy as successful as Portugal’s. If that is true, then what is stopping us from striving for the same sort of success? Is it Big Pharma, our dysfunctional health care system or just plain ignorance? According to Dr. Goulão, decision-makers need to hear the public voice in order to make a program like this possible in the US; a “bottom-up” approach to policy-making, he says, is critical for success.

Kudos to the organizers of the event, and to Scott Slater for taking the lead toward better drug policies in the RI legislature by recently sponsoring a bill to reclassify drug possession from a felony to a two-year misdemeanor. He, like so many others, understands that treating addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue, will not only allow us to focus police resources on violent crimes and organized drug distribution, but more importantly, it would save many lives. Some may say that we can’t afford to implement a program like Portugal’s, but I would argue that we can’t afford not to.

New Year, New Rules?: Oversight committee tackles issues in medical marijuana program

RI’s medical marijuana program has undergone several iterations since it was made into law in 2006, evolving from a program widely known for supporting patient rights and access to one dominated by money and politics. Recent proposed changes to the program would increase the number of compassion centers to nine from three, which is a step in the right direction for patient access, but the new rules offer little to protect the patients who are supposed to be at the core of this important program. At a recent public hearing held by the Department of Business Regulation, patients were loud and clear about what matters most to them: cost. By law, the compassion centers are supposed to be “not for profit,” yet the state charges exorbitant licensing fees ($500,000 — the highest in the country), and offers no rules or procedures to make sure that medicine stays affordable for RI’s almost 19,000 patients, a third of whom qualify as low income.

When RI first authorized the compassion centers in 2009, the law called for the formation of a Medical Marijuana Legislative Oversight Committee, composed of patients, health professionals, law enforcement and others (although none were appointed by Speaker Mattiello until 2017, when the committee met for the first time). The oversight committee is tasked with evaluating and reporting on “patients’ access to medical marijuana, efficacy of compassion centers, physician participation in the medical marijuana program, the definition of qualifying medical condition and research studies regarding health effects of medical marijuana for patients.” By law, the committee should produce a public report on its findings by January 1 of each even-numbered year, which happens to be, like, now. (Happy New Year!)

Despite the inactivity of the oversight committee in the past, its role remains important. Most recently, committee members have organized to draft and release a report detailing issues with the current program as well as some proposed solutions, and is working with committee co-chairs Representative Scott Slater and Senator Josh Miller to formally submit the report at the beginning of 2020. The financial burden to patients remains at the top of the list of urgent issues they identified, as well as a lack of competition among dispensaries, a lack of testing requirements, restrictive qualifying criteria and exclusion of people with prior drug convictions from the program.

It’s clear that for these committee members, the central focus of the medical marijuana program has veered off course over the years. Long-time patient, committee member and advocate Ellen Smith commented: “Compassion centers are supposed to be not-for-profit, and the program is supposed to be about helping patients who struggle with debilitating health conditions. Instead what we’re seeing are a lot of discussions about who’s going to control the industry and how much the state will make in revenue from fees and taxes. I think a lot of people in the state have forgotten that this program is about providing a better quality of life to people who are suffering, not making a profit.”

Philip Diamond, another member of the oversight committee, added, “We’ve held hearings. We’ve gathered data and information. We’ve testified at committee hearings. But it seems that our efforts to reform the program have fallen on deaf ears. We’re not going to sit on the sidelines any longer. It’s time to put patients back in the center of these conversations.”

To many patients, it feels like the medical marijuana program has been treated like a cash cow in recent years, a far cry from the patient-centered “compassionate care” program that it was intended to be. If the state wants to make revenue and build businesses on cannabis sales, then we should tax and regulate it for adult use, not place the burden on patients who depend on it for medicine.