Marijuana And Legalisation
[This article is also a podcast. Listen / download to part 1 here and part 2 here.]
A binding referendum to legalise marijuana is on the horizon in NZ taking place in 2020. A recent poll, conducted in May, puts support for legalisation at ~ 52%. An entirely non-scientific poll of 75 people I conducted on Facebook put support at 92% and generated some wholesome discussion.
I wanted to have a good, hard look at marijuana in order to understand the possible risks for New Zealand (and humans generally), how we might reduce those risks and benefit most from legalisation.
Definition & History
Firstly, marijuana is complicated. This phrase will be common in these writings.
In a perfect world we would have solid data to discuss. But unfortunately, much of the data on marijuana either hasn’t been collected; is hard to collect and/or does not provide concrete answers. To gain any understanding at all, we have to dig a bit deeper into the data that we do have in order to examine whether the benefits of legalisation outweigh the risks.
First up, let’s define marijuana itself.
Botanical Image of marijuana sativa by Walther Otto Müller
Cannabis is a term for drugs made from the plants of the genus cannabis as well as the non-psychoactive hemp. In this article I’ll use the term ‘Marijuana’ in reference to the psychoactive form as this is the primary focus.
Marijuana has been used by humans for at least 2000 years. It can be processed into several forms, including leaf/bud, resin, oil and concentrates. It can be smoked, vaporized or eaten. Or taken as a suppository 😉
Marijuana contains two primary active compounds:
Tetrahydrocannabinol also known as THC
Cannabidiol aka CBD
It also contains a large variety of lesser known compounds including other cannabinoids as well as special aromatic compounds known as terpenes.
THC is the major psychoactive component of marijuana and when taken in isolation is responsible for the “high” most people associate with the drug. CBD is non-psychoactive and is often used in isolation medicinally. It holds high medicinal promise with evidence for anti-anxiety, pain relief, anti-nausea + a bunch of other effects.
Marijuana is a complex issue which touches many important factors in society: individual freedom, mental health, safety, youth, economics, employment, medicine and religion.
The effects are also complex - the half-life (duration of drug action) for cannabinoids in marijuana can be anywhere between 1.3 days to several weeks. Effects and outcomes seem to be influenced by genetic factors and can affect people in dramatically different ways - for longer or shorter periods of time. Countless subjective reports suggest that different strains of marijuana, and the way in which it is consumed can also drastically change the effect.
Marijuana is a far more complicated drug than caffeine or alcohol both of which in small doses are easier to study, have a shorter half-life and are in comparison much more predictable in their effects.
Worldwide Use Stats + NZ Stats
According to the WHO ~ 147 million people (2.5% of the world’s population at time of research) consume marijuana yearly.
12% of New Zealanders (around 564,000 people) use marijuana and 80% of the population had tried marijuana at least once by the age of 21. (source)
9% of Americans that use marijuana develop dependence and this risk is increased 4-7 times when marijuana use begins before the age of 18. (source)
Prohibition doesn’t seem to be fully effective as marijuana is consumed even in countries with incredibly harsh laws such as the death penalty for suppliers.
Medicinal vs Recreational
There is fierce debate as to whether or not marijuana should be legalised or decriminalised for both medicinal and recreational use or restricted to medicinal use only. Below I’ll outline the main arguments. Do note that some of the arguments are ideological, some are backed by evidence and some aren’t. We’ll go a bit deeper into these individual issues later on.
Medicinal marijuana generally has higher support than recreational use. Opinions range from support only for the terminally ill through to access for general medicine and “grow your own”.
- lightly regulated medicinal marijuana is pretty much soft legalisation and is easily accessible by those without a genuine medical issue - the classic story: “go to the funky weed doctor, say you get headaches and walk out with a prescription”.
- not enough hard evidence it is actually medicine
- smoking marijuana is immoral
- powerful anecdotes of great benefit for pain, seizures, sleep etc
- non-pharmaceutical and can be grown at home
- good data that CBD is medicinal
Many of the same arguments are made for decriminalization, however decrim doesn’t come with the same tax benefits and industry oversight.
- people should not seek altered states of consciousness
- marijuana can cause laziness and apathy
- smoking marijuana may cause cancer
- marijuana may be addictive
- can harm young people
- can contribute to traffic accidents
- can worsen mental illness and suicide risk
- people should have personal responsibility and freedom to alter their consciousness
- altered states are natural for humans and can have great benefit
- harm can be significantly reduced via education and regulation
- not physically addictive
- black markets could be reduced
- large amounts of tax money to be made
- police resources can be refocused to violent crime, methamphetamine etc
- risks are non-existent or overblown
And while the arguments rage on nearly everywhere in the planet, legal or not, marijuana is used every day both recreationally and medicinally.
Marijuana Use, Types and Effects
More complexity. While I may feel equally relaxed after consuming a perfectly poured South-German wheat beer or a lovely glass of dry and spicy Argentinian Malbec but fall over and vomit after quickly consuming 10 shots of spiced Captain Morgan Rum, the perceived difference between marijuana strains and methods of use can be like night and day as illustrated in the two anecdotes below:
Object: Bong (Glass water pipe)
Weed: Strong sticky “skunk”, potentially indica
Dose: 1 big inhale
State: Overtired and stressed from work
Anecdote: “...the room felt as if it was closing in and my body began to lightly shake. Waves of anxiety began to hit me and I couldn’t help but hyper-analyse the situation I was in and became strongly aware of others’ perception of me. This awareness caused me to become afraid of acting strange and embarrassing myself in front of my friends, which - I think - outwardly made me act strange, which turned into a weird repeating cycle. My chest felt tight and my heart was racing. At this point I regretted accepting the bong and tried to tell my friends but found it difficult to form a sentence. This lasted for several hours, after which with some relief I slowly came back to myself and felt somewhat normal again.”
Object: Spliff (marijuana cigarette mixed with tobacco)
Weed: Mild Dutch weed, potentially sativa
Dose: 2 puffs
State: Well-rested, post-workout, feeling good
Anecdote: “...within a few minutes of smoking I felt more relaxed, my visual sense seemed both enhanced but also a little hazy, the communal garlic and lemon hummus was even tastier than before, I felt more connected to the people around me and suddenly realised how much I was enjoying the j-fusion band that I hadn’t noticed was playing in the background.”
To an inexperienced user, consuming a large amount (or even sometimes a small amount) of strong marijuana can be a horrible experience. Although binge drinking is far more physically dangerous to the human body than marijuana use, there are definite parallels to the 10 shots of Captain Morgan example above. In Colorado, THC content is required on packaging by law (like alcohol percentage here in NZ). In a black market, we have no idea about the THC content, any of the other compounds, the presence of contaminants or whether it is laced with nasty stuff.
Put simply, dose matters. And like alcohol and caffeine, the state we are in prior to consumption can affect the high. And it seems different strains have an impact as well.
There is a lot of confusion about different strains of marijuana and this isn’t surprising: chemical composition analysis found 44 major cannabinoids and terpenes from 460 Dutch marijuana samples and there may be upwards of 200 of these compounds. Aside from THC and CBD, the psychoactivity in humans of the other compounds is still under research but there is some evidence that they may have a part to play in the wide variety of effects experienced by marijuana users.
There are three typically recognised strains of marijuana (although the distinction is up for debate):
Indica takes its name from the Indian subcontinent, Sativa supposedly stems from eastern Asia and the low-THC Ruderalis is said to be native to Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
There is a common idea that the two common strains of marijuana - Indica and Sativa - have contrasting effects. Indica - also known as “In Da Couch” is claimed to be sedative and felt in the body, whereas sativa is supposed to be more of a euphoric head-high.
But it may not be so simple, as both indica and sativa strains can contain varying amounts of THC and CBD. And it looks like the other compounds may have significant role to play as well.
Terpenes or Terpenoids are one class of compounds found in marijuana. Terpenes are responsible for different aromas in plants and play a role in repelling grazing animals and insects among other ecological functions.
The zesty fresh smell of a lemon? That’s a terpene called Limonene.
The cozy Grandmotherish smell of Lavender? That’s Linalool.
Upon analysis, Indica and Sativa could be differentiated by terpene and cannabinoid composition, but the effects of these compounds are another issue. Let’s check out a few terpenes and their studied effects.
Limonene (commonly encountered in lemons) has potent antidepressant and immunostimulatory effects and is anxiolytic (anxiety reducing).
Pinene (found in pine) is anti-inflammatory, bronchodilatory (increases airflow to the lungs) and aids memory. It is thought that this terpene could counteract short-term memory deficits induced by THC intoxication.
Myrcene (commonly encountered in hops) blocks inflammation, is analgeeeesic (pain killing), sedating, a muscle relaxant and a hypnotic.
“...the hypothesis that myrcene is a prominent sedative terpenoid in marijuana, and combined with THC, may produce the ‘couch-lock’ phenomenon of certain chemotypes that is alternatively decried or appreciated by recreational marijuana consumers.”
Linalool (commonly encountered in lavender) is anti anxiety, sedative, anesthetic, analgesic, and anticonvulsant and anti-glutamate (which would inhibit overactivity in the brain.)
Nerolidol (found in oranges) is sedative and is interestingly, potently anti-malarial in a mouse model.
Phytol (found in green tea) increases GABA, a relaxing inhibitory transmitter (which works in a similar mechanism to low-dose alcohol) .
It’s not hard to see how different combinations and potencies of these terpenes could create very contrasting effects in a user, from sedation and sleepiness to relaxed, sharp and happy.
There are also hundreds of cannabinoids, each with their own unique properties which I won’t get into here.
So again...it’s complex. And to make things more complex, measuring the effect of a single compound such as caffeine is one thing but measuring the combination of effects of dozens of compounds is quite another.
It may well be that several compounds in isolation have one outcome, but in combination have a totally different effect which differs from each of the compounds when taken individually.
This complexity is typical of biology and one of the major hurdles that the medicinal marijuana industry will need to address and something that definitely needs to be taken into consideration when considering harm prevention and how to gain the most benefit from both recreational and medicinal marijuana. Until we learn more we will have to rely on anecdotes of effects from different strains - and even simple anecdotes are near impossible to collect with accuracy in an unregulated black market. (It also doesn’t help that in low-regulation markets, many untested strains aren’t what they claim to be when sold.)
Short Term Effects Of Recreational Marijuana
There are many potential effects from recreational marijuana.
Positive effects can include euphoria, relaxation, giggliness, creativity, abstract and deeper thinking, increased connection with the body, increased enjoyment of food and music, increased libido, general enhancement of experience.
Neutral effects can include hallucinations, slowness, and hunger, tiredness, racing thoughts, altered sense of time. All of which can be coloured according to the emotional state of the user.
Negative effects can include coughing, memory loss, panic attacks, headache, nausea, paranoia, dissociation, anxiety, blurred vision, sluggishness, difficulty concentrating, increased heart rate, bloodshot eyes, loss of coordination and lowered blood pressure.
Any number of combinations of these effects can be felt with different strains, preparations and manners of preparation. I have personally experienced nearly all of the above effects, with what seemed to be remarkably different effects from different marijuana sources.
Again this speaks to the complexity of the drug. Alcohol by comparison is fairly predictable and is pretty much always consumed as a liquid.
Smoking and eating are also very distinct.
Smoking converts Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) into bioavailable THC while consuming marijuana in something like a hash cookie converts the THCA into 11-Hydroxy-THC.
Hash Brownie aka Space Cake, Special Brownie etc
By all accounts 11 Hydroxy THC can be considerably stronger than smoked THC, lasts a lot longer and can induce a significantly different experience which can be overwhelming for the underprepared. This can range from euphoric, dreamlike, wavey experiences in a sunny park, to terrifying experiences - as comedian Duncan Trussell puts it, experiences in which one can end up..
“...curled up in bed in the fetal position waiting for the demons to go away.”
Most negative drug experiences are due to lack of education and information, so it would make sense that having a deeper understanding of substances - without cultural stigma - would significantly reduce the likelihood of negative experiences and abuse.
Effects Of Medicinal marijuana
THC & CBD
Like many medicines, there is significant crossover of effects between recreational and medicinal use.
THC has been shown to be analgesic (pain relieving); a muscle relaxant and antispasmodic; a bronchodilator (increases airflow to the lungs); a neuroprotective antioxidant with 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and twice that of hydrocortisone (source).
CBD can reduce negative THC-associated effects such as anxiety, tachycardia (racing heart), hunger and sedation. It is analgesic, a neuroprotective antioxidant; anticonvulsant; anti-nausea and shows reduction of stroke risk among many other potential therapeutic uses.
There are varied and sometimes extreme claims about medicinal marijuana. It is sometimes touted as a panacea of sorts that can cure anything. As history has shown us, any curall should be taken with a large grain of salt and there don’t seem to be any robust studies proving marijuana cures cancer.
Having said this there is huge potential for the use of marijuana in medicine.
I spoke with Maki Herbert, co-leader of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party on being a Green Fairy and how her home preparations have helped her family and community members with their medical ailments.
Safety And Societal Issues
Now it’s time to dive into the issues..and there are a lot.
Colorado recently released a decade long report on the Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado. Colorado has the best and most comprehensive data on the impacts of Marijuana legalisation and is an interesting model for New Zealand as it has a similar population (nearly 6 million).
If we’re talking about drugs that can can kill purely by ingestion, marijuana is safe. There are no reported deaths due to marijuana ingestion alone. This is remarkable when compared to many other commonly consumed drugs which have many direct-association deaths including alcohol, caffeine and opiate-based pain medication.
There is conflicting evidence whether marijuana smoke causes cancer, though comparisons to cigarettes seem to be politically motivated due to the fact that even regular marijuana smokers inhale far less smoke than a cigarette smoker.
Marijuana overdose is on the rise due to increasing potent strains and ingestion methods.
While weed is safe at the pure consumption level, impairment from high doses of marijuana can be very serious and have led to increases in hospitalisations due to loss of awareness of environmental factors, such as driving a car or falling asleep with the stove on.
Driving and Coordination
There are many claims about marijuana and coordination.
A regular marijuana smoker may have little to no loss of coordination after ingestion, even with a high dose, whereas a new smoker on a similar dose may barely be able to walk, let alone drive. Again, this is a complex issue and an issue that lawmakers will hopefully be able to make intelligent policy on. Much like workplace drug testing, blood THC is not a reliable indicator of intoxication and is too simple a measure to determine whether someone is fit to drive or work.
Germany for example, has particularly strict laws in regards to THC and driving. Fines and loss of license are possible even if the marijuana was consumed days prior and even if the consumer is nowhere near a car - laws which essentially control what people may do responsibly in their spare time and don’t reliably line-up with the outcomes they are trying to achieve. Many believe this type of legislation is too heavy handed. Perhaps they are right as there is now a thriving market for fake penises filled with clean urine.
Colorado seem to have a more balanced approach. Using tax money from the marijuana industry, Colorado have invested in police specialisation in marijuana intoxication in combination with subsequent blood tests to better determine whether someone is fit to drive. And in Colorado they have a blood THC limit, similar to blood alcohol limits.
Bottom line: People shouldn’t risk themselves and others if they are impaired in any way.
Be that from drugs, tiredness, disease etc...even if they have a self driving car. And police need good tools to determine whether people are too intoxicated to drive without impacting what they may have done days earlier.
There is debate as to whether marijuana contributes to higher incidences of psychosis and schizophrenia. Heavy use is linked with depression but with no evidence to suggest it is the cause. Rates of psychosis and schizophrenia have not increased alongside increased prevalence of marijuana use although there are studies correlating the two in chronic users, and bad outcomes may be influenced by genetic factors. Psychosis and schizophrenia still remain extreme edge cases with <5% of incidence in the general population.
Personally I know several people that have suffered severe consequences from chronic marijuana abuse, especially those that began as a teenager. And on the odd occasion I have personally felt states which could be described as close to psychosis while intoxicated.
NZ seems to have very high THC marijuana which may be an issue. Strains with higher CBD may be useful in helping prevent psychosis as there is also evidence that using marijuana with a higher CBD/THC ratio is associated with a lower risk of psychotic disorders.
Here is Jack Reed, author of the impact report:
Like cancer, and many of the other issues, this one is still an unknown and definitely needs further investigation, which again, is harder to do in an unregulated black market.
Prevalence in this case speaks to how commonly marijuana is used.
There are concerns that with legalisation, prevalence will increase.
And this seems to be the case in Colorado with past 30 day use in adults increasing from 13.6% to 15.5% and daily or near daily use increasing from 6% to 7.6%.
Regular users might use once a week or more, whereas lifetime users may be regular users, or may have only tried marijuana on one occasion. However problem use is more difficult to define.
Much in the same way Aunt Susan enjoys a glass of red wine in the evening probably wouldn’t be considered an alcoholic, but smelly Uncle Bart who drinks cheap scotch all day from the moment he wakes up definitely is, regular, moderate marijuana use doesn’t necessarily equal abuse.
Like most drugs, there are serious problems with abuse and addiction and like most drugs, these issues are often tangled up with mental health issues, poverty, trauma etc.
It becomes a chicken and egg scenario. Something tax money from marijuana sales could be invested into examining.
Despite the small increase in prevalence in Colorado’s regulation, prevalence may be generational and cultural more than legislative. The Netherlands has had decriminalisation in several forms since the 70s and research from the University of Amsterdam concludes that “...regulating the marijuana market through law enforcement has only a marginal, if any, effect on the level of marijuana consumption.”
Youth / Education
Here are some stats from Colorado:
The youth marijuana rate reported via the National Survey on Drug Health and Use for the 2015/16 school year (9.1%) was the lowest it’s been since 2007/08 (9.1%).
According to Healthy Kids Colorado Study (HKCS), the proportion of high school students reporting using marijuana ever in their lifetime or reporting past 30-day use remained statistically unchanged from 2005 to 2017.
According to HKCS, the proportion of students trying marijuana before age 13 went down from 9.2% in 2015 to 6.5% in 2017.
Alcohol was the most common substance students reported using at any point in their lives (59%) followed by e-cigarettes (44%) and then marijuana (35%).
Impact on education outcomes:
From the Colorado report...
Graduation rates rose and drop-out rates fell since 2012. The Graduation rate rose steadily from a 10-year low point of 72 percent in the 2009-2010 school year to 79 percent in the 2016-2017 school year. Over that same time period, the drop-out rate decreased from 3.1 percent to 2.3 percent. (source)
Apathy, laziness and loss of interest are widely reported consequences of marijuana use and there is some evidence for this - adolescent abuse and severely dependent users produce less dopamine (a neurotransmitter strongly associated with motivation, inspiration etc).
However mild to moderate use showed no change, and it should also be noted that dopamine changes are also present in alcoholics, and those with heroin or cocaine dependence.
Anecdotally there are many instances of talented young people losing their drive due to marijuana dependence (this can also be the case with alcohol, methamphetamine and a number of other drugs).
In the age of the internet, old-style fear propaganda such as what I received as a young person is likely to do more harm than good. Colorado seem to be doing a good job and have invested marijuana-tax revenue in fact-based youth education and prevention.
Apathy seems to be an issue with heavy regular use much like abuse of other common drugs. It doesn’t seem to be an issue with moderate to mild use.
In 2017 alone Colorado made ~ $250 million from taxes, licenses and fees from the marijuana industry. In the same year Washington state gathered $319 million in taxes while in 2018, California were upset they only pulled in $387 million.
In the five years since legalisation total sales in Washington surpassed a billion dollars.
And the states are putting the money into much needed areas.
Colorado spends a good portion of the revenue ($67 million in 2017) on school construction and funding while Washington spends on state health insurance and substance abuse and treatment programs.
A report by Leafly suggests that 44 000 jobs have been created by the marijuana industry in Colorado alone and upwards of 290 000 nationwide in the US.
And it seems these figures could be higher.
High taxes and expensive heavy regulation seem to be taking their toll on California which still has a thriving black market. All told, taxes for distributors (and customers) look to be as high as 45%. This makes it very difficult to generate profit as a grower, and provides incentives for customers to buy cheaper goods elsewhere. People tend to follow the money.
Here in New Zealand, we are already seeing a black market emerge for tobacco which will undoubtedly grow if we keep increasing the taxes.
Taxing weed is definitely the way to go and the prize is tremendous amounts of tax revenue. This can be invested into much needed areas - perhaps the areas where the public is most concerned with marijuana-related harm. But if NZ taxes too highly we may miss out on much of that prize. And if we regulate too strongly, we may only see huge monopolies taking most of the profit from marijuana with small business owners being out-competed. An opportunity to spread a large amount of wealth between many small businesses (like the vast craft beer industry) may very well be lost if taxes and regulations are too tight economically.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation spoke in 2013 to the alarming amount of non-violent minor drug offences filling up the courts, draining police resources and costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. And like African American populations in the US, Māori seem to be disproportionately convicted.
While police resources would move away from petty crimes, new avenues of crime related to the industry would need to be addressed, namely that of enforcing the new licenses and regulation and theft of product.
Colorado has seen large new black export markets emerge, serving adjacent states where marijuana is still illegal. This is unlikely to be an issue in the island nation of New Zealand as illegal export is much more risky and difficult to pull off.
Legalisation vs Decriminalisation
Those for decriminalisation would prefer that police resources are not wasted on nonviolent petty possession but are worried that legalisation would do more harm than good. Legalisation proponents argue that the industry creation, tax money and education would be very positive and would reduce potential problems that could arise due to legalisation.
Marijuana is indeed a complex issue. Smart legalisation with laws and investment that tackle the issues that have arisen in other nations seems like the best path forward.
New Zealand has a unique opportunity to do this well. Colorado have a similar population base to NZ and they have made billions in revenue along with the other legal states. We could export 100% pure NZ marijuana. Environmentally it’s a boon, marijuana and hemp are far less destructive than dairy.
We need to identify the main issues NZers are concerned about when it comes to use. These are probably youth use, apathy, mental health and stoned driving. Once identified, we could commit significant amounts of marijuana tax revenue to these areas. We could very well end up with better resourced facilities than we have currently.
Regulation on synthetic marijuana and party pills was disastrous. We need to do a much better job when we regulate marijuana, preferably with input from those that understand the issues - not politicians that are drug naive.
New Zealand needs to look at how it is collecting data if it wants to accurately measure the impact if marijuana is legalised. We need to start collecting useful data now so that we can adjust and reduce harm as much as possible.
Ultimately, as long as one is not causing harm to themselves or others I fully believe in personal freedom and the 80% of kiwis that have tried marijuana probably agree with me.
New Zealand is one of the freest nations in the world. As long as marijuana is properly understood and used responsibly there is no reason why we cannot share a similar attitude toward it as when we might enjoy a beer on a Friday evening - while simultaneously creating wealth and funneling support to those that need it.