by erin Lentz with additionaL reporting by doug brown | November 19, 2014 | Lifestyle
Nearly half of all states have legalized medical marijuana, with Colorado and Washington serving as bellwethers for recreational use, and the US is amid an end to a prohibition on par with that of alcohol. But just how will the Green Rush grow? And why is it attracting some surprising advocates among doctors, entrepreneurs, politicians, attorneys, and businesspeople?
Weed. Ganja. Marijuana. Pot. During the opening session of the heady 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival held in June of this year, references to the potent plant were the keynote kicker. An intellectual with enviable wit, David G. Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Company, delivered an opening monologue that imagined some 250, type-A festival speakers high on Colorado cannabis, enlivening a crowd of CEOs, politicians, doctors, and thinkers with scenarios such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pulling her tempted husband into a car with a reference to her memoir, “We’re making hard choices, Bill.”
But all jokes aside, this international platform—which eventually staged a very serious conversation on marijuana between Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Katie Couric—is illustrative of an escalating national debate embracing medical marijuana and its rapid-fire industry growth. And for many close to the cause, weed is no laughing matter, posing hard choices indeed.
Pot chatter is pervasive throughout the US, whether at dinner parties or on the floor of Congress. In Atlanta, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, who was once vocally anti-pot, passionately discusses the benefits of cannabis in his second documentary film, Weed 2: Cannabis Madness. In Nevada, State Senator Tick Segerblom and Congresswoman Dina Titus are championing bills that favor post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) medical marijuana research and protect the rights of legal users. In Los Angeles, former talk-show host and celebrity Ricki Lake is producing a new documentary, Weed the People, which follows cancer-stricken children and the use of cannabis as medicine. In Denver, Tripp Keber, founder and CEO of Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, is launching his latest edible product, Dixie One. And just a 20-minute drive from Keber’s new 40,000-square-foot Colorado headquarters, Governor Hickenlooper is repeatedly quoted as stating that we are in the midst of one of the “great social experiments of the 21st century.”
On late-night talk shows and in countless political jokes, the enduring dope-fiend stereotype propagandized in the 1936 film Reefer Madness is perpetuated, but in fact, the growth of the marijuana industry is predicted to outpace smartphones: A projected $2.34 billion worth of legal weed will be sold in the United States in 2014, according to the book State of Legal Marijuana Markets (2nd Edition) produced by ArcView Market Research. The same report projects a whopping $10.2 billion market by 2018.
In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 215, a milestone ballot that legalized cannabis for medicinal use. Since that time, more than half of all states have either followed suit—in July, New York became the 23rd state to sanction medical marijuana—or taken steps to decriminalize the substance, making possession of a small amount on par with a traffic ticket. And referendums on legal recreational use of marijuana are cropping up on ballots nationwide since Washington State and Colorado voters approved the practice in 2012. In fact, residents of Oregon, Alaska, and the US capital voted to legalize marijuana on November 4, as this issue was going to press. The Oregon and Alaska measures would legalize recreational pot use. A less far-reaching proposal in the District of Columbia to allow marijuana possession but not retail sales won nearly 65 percent of the vote.
Here at home, Mayor Michael A. Nutter made headlines for a bold move to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana—30 grams or less, to be specific. Those caught in possession will receive a Notice of Violation and a $25 fine; for public use, there is a Notice of Violation, $100 fine, or up to nine hours of community service. The decision has been a few years in the making, meant to serve the dual purpose of freeing up the city’s overloaded court system and ensure equality for low income citizens that would otherwise have a criminal record for possession. Nutter spoke bluntly about the move, saying, “I do not condone marijuana use; it is illegal. But the punishment needs to be proportionate to the crime, and these are common sense changes that will have a positive impact on many Philadelphians.”
Simply put, we are witnessing an end to a prohibition on par with that of alcohol. As Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, says, “It is the most exciting political change I’ve seen in my lifetime. You almost can’t keep up with the change that’s going on.”
But first, the power of a plant.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta with Josh Stanley at his family’s booming Colorado grow house, in a still from Gupta’s new documentary, Weed 2.
The preferred scientific term for this lauded and condemned botanical is cannabis, from the Greek word kánabis. It relishes sunlight, is an annual, and can flourish in nearly any environment, thus the slang, weed. According to Martin A. Lee’s book Smoke Signals, most scholars agree that cannabis arrived in our neck of the woods during the 16th century. Ships carrying slaves, explorers, and immigrants were outfitted with rope, sails, and netting made of hemp, while slave passengers also carried seeds for marijuana (hemp’s psychoactive cousin) in their pockets.
“Sir Francis Drake, Christopher Columbus, and Ferdinand Magellan all sailed ships equipped with hemp products,” Lee notes. “And in 1619, eight years after colonists first planted hemp in Jamestown, the Virginia assembly passed a law requiring every household in the colony to cultivate the plant because it had so many beneficial uses. Hemp farming and processing played an important role in American history (as evidenced in the name of towns from the Atlantic coast to the Midwest, Hempstead to Hempfield). Several of our Founding Fathers, in fact, were hemp farmers, including George Washington.” By the 1850s, hemp was the third-largest crop behind tobacco and cotton.
As the plant made its way across the globe in many forms—and was ingested via inhaling, tinctures, and medical experiments among varying societal ranks—it gained a particular stronghold in Mexico, where, according to Lee’s research, farmers discovered the power of “Rosa Maria.” During the Mexican Revolution, smoking weed was prevalent in Texas border towns like El Paso, which in 1914 became the first city to ban both the sale and possession of marijuana. Thus, the national debate on this botanical’s potent power began as a murmur, which has since evolved, at times, into a screaming match. Today, though new state laws are being enacted rather quickly, on the federal level, cannabis remains a Schedule I substance, which is defined as “the most dangerous” drugs “with no currently accepted medical use.”
Prior to 1906, the federal government had yet to regulate any psychoactive drug. During that year, Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first legislation that included cannabis among ingredients that had to be noted on a product label. By 1914, the Harrison Act tightened narcotic control, stating that a nonmedical user could not possess cocaine or opiates; with this, the first line was drawn in the sand between medical and recreational drug use.
Though alcohol prohibition occurred all at once on the national level, marijuana prohibition was enacted in stages. By the mid-1930s, cannabis was regulated as a drug in every state. It was around this time that Harry Anslinger helmed the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), a post he held for 32 years. Many allege that Anslinger’s anti-marijuana campaign was fueled by a desire to increase his department’s budget: If he could successfully vilify weed, his bureaucratic power would result in further funding for the FBN. There are also scores of reports that pot prohibition was fueled by big business, a premise referred to as the Hemp Conspiracy Theory. It is reported that the Hearst and DuPont empires felt that hemp would threaten the sales of their wood-pulp paper and nylon products, and the theory thus played a major role in campaigns and propaganda against pot in all its forms.
Love him or hate him, Anslinger was central to the American public’s perception. He coined the term “Devil’s Weed,” championed such anti-pot propaganda as Reefer Madness (today a cult comedy classic often watched ironically by college students as they get high, along with its musical 2005 parody version), and was instrumental in the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act, which heavily regulated the plant and served to drastically limit doctors’ ability to legally prescribe cannabis.
Today, many physicians, including the outspoken Gupta, are realizing that this little green plant could have a huge impact across several medical fields. “This is legitimate medicine,” argues Gupta.
Tripp Keber at Dixie Elixirs and Edibles.
“I am not backing down on medical marijuana; I am doubling down,” proclaimed Gupta in a March CNN column. When asked to explain his 180-degree turn on the benefits of cannabis, he’s quick to explain, “The tipping point was when I started to look at the research coming out of other countries and smaller labs. [When] I started to spend time with patients who were convinced it was helping them, I realized it was a very large group of patients who seemed to be getting objective benefits. And that’s what really started getting me researching it again.”
His research led him to Charlotte Figi, the central figure in his provocative film Weed. Charlotte has been plagued with complex seizures—nearly two an hour, at its peak—since she was an infant, and the film follows a harrowing family journey to save Charlotte’s life after she was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome. Also known as severe myoclonic epilepsy of infancy, this rare and catastrophic form of epilepsy was at one point causing Charlotte 300 grand mal seizures a week. As a last resort, the Figi family turned to medical marijuana, pitching Charlotte, then 5 years old, into the center of a national debate as the youngest medical marijuana applicant in Colorado. And though Charlotte’s story has become known across the country, what many may still not fully understand, Gupta explains, is that young patients such as Charlotte are not getting intoxicated. “This isn’t getting them high. [Particular strains of medical marijuana have a] high-CBD concentration; they may become a little bit sedated, like they would with other antiepileptic drugs,” says Gupta. “The biggest misconception is that kids are getting stoned or high or psychoactive.”
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the principal psychoactive component in marijuana, the form of cannabis responsible for euphorias, or highs, whether smoked or ingested via edible products. On the other hand, cannabidiol (CBD) is one of at least 60 active cannabinoids identified in cannabis, which, when isolated, can have a wide scope of medicinal uses, and does not get patients high like THC.
Charlotte was given a very specific, highly concentrated CBD strain cultivated by the Stanley brothers—one of Colorado’s largest marijuana growers—at their Garden of Eden grow house. The six brothers crossbred marijuana with industrial hemp, and the resulting strain, Realm Oil (which Charlotte would ingest under her tongue via an olive oil blend, not as smoke), was renamed by the Stanleys as “Charlotte’s Web.” It was so successful in combating Charlotte’s seizures that families with similar stories have relocated to Colorado in order to legally obtain medical marijuana. Today, 8-year-old Charlotte is reported to have about three to four seizures a month. The Stanleys have since created the Realm of Caring nonprofit, which provides free or low-cost cannabis therapies to families in need.
It’s not just celebrity doctors such as Gupta who are championing the potential of medical marijuana. Ed Bernstein, a prominent Las Vegas attorney and television show host, is applying for a dispensary license, with a 33 percent stake in La Casa Verde Operating. As a successful businessman, he sees opportunity, but the impetus for this new venture is his 25-year-old daughter, Dana, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 3. “She’s had about 200 hospital day trips,” explains Bernstein. “She’s had a couple of dozen surgeries. Over the years, she’s had her intestines removed. She is in constant pain, 24/7.” While living in California during high school, Dana applied for a medical marijuana license and discovered the drug significantly decreased her pain. Now a Nevada resident, it’s become difficult for Dana to obtain marijuana for medicinal use, thus her father’s quest to fight for her rights and open a dispensary.
“Medical marijuana has been legal here for a number of years, but there was no way to access it,” he says. “I am very aware of the legislation, and we immediately looked into getting a dispensary here.” Bernstein hopes to open a boutique that features quality medical marijuana, a shop “that has a welcoming environment, that can offer the very best strains scientifically possible. You want to be able to have strains of the highest CBD and a variance of those strains that work well with different medical conditions. We are going to focus on doing research with the strains, with universities, with hospitals. My partners all have the same interests in helping people who suffer.”
Both Bernstein and Gupta are quick to point out the harmful side effects of conventional painkillers (in Dana’s case, the opioid Dilaudid). Gupta adds, “The abuse of pain medications is the most tragic thing in our country. Someone dies every 19 minutes from an accidental prescription drug overdose. It’s now the number-one preventable cause of death in the US.”
Gupta also notes that epilepsy, pain, and multiple sclerosis are particularly responsive to cannabis-based medicines. Another hot topic in both medical and political circles is the effect of medical marijuana on PTSD. “We are following the trial of marijuana for PTSD among veterans,” says Gupta. “I think the initial research will be promising. Survivors of the Holocaust are being treated for PTSD with cannabis right now. It’s the initial drumbeat and very positive.”
As the medical benefits of CBD strains are further researched, there’s still considerable apprehension among medical experts (Gupta included), law enforcement, and politicians surrounding marijuana and young users. Now that teens may gain easier access to the drug, potential for abuse and the effects on the young brain are a particular concern.
A groundbreaking study published by The Journal of Neuroscience in April is the first to show that frequent use of marijuana is related to major brain changes. Researchers—including experts from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital—conducted MRIs on 40 people: 20 recreational users who smoke an average of 11 joints per week and 20 nonusers. The scientists found that the shapes and sizes of two neural regions essential to motivation and emotion were significantly altered in users.
Concerns about marijuana’s negative impact on the growing brain has spurred leaders to create forums, such as the Aspen Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo’s Valley Marijuana Council, to discuss the impact and warn young users of the dangers. Though supportive of the legalization of both medical and recreational pot, during an address to the annual NORML Legal Seminar in Aspen, Sheriff DiSalvo stated, “Marijuana is not a product for brains under construction. The message we are giving students is delay, delay, delay. The longer you delay, the better your chances of not compromising a brain under construction. We want to increase awareness and lower adolescent drug use.”
Governor Hickenlooper is in agreement. “We have a moral responsibility to regulate it properly,” he says. “That means making sure kids under 21 don’t get it. But kids think because it’s legal, it’s less dangerous. We are arguing caution.”
So just how does the industry tackle potential abuse among young users, and even adults? Certainly there are scores of medical marijuana licenses issued to “patients” who are, in fact, using medical marijuana licenses to simply get high. As with alcohol, or any substance for that matter, abuse is inevitable. When asked how this will be navigated, most advocates suggest extensive educational outreach.
In August, a controversial Colorado public education campaign titled “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” was driven by the Colorado governor’s office. Human-size rat cages were dropped around Denver in an effort to warn teens that Colorado is a testing ground for medical marijuana legalization, and there is still uncertainty involved in relation to pot use and the young brain. Additionally, though Governor Mark Dayton passed legislation allowing medical marijuana in Minnesota, the state’s strict new law bans smoking marijuana and home cultivation, and allows for only two cannabis dispensaries statewide.
“The only thing consistent in this industry is change,” says Tripp Keber. “It’s at hyper speed.” Standing in what will soon be a sleek reception area of his new 40,000-square-foot headquarters in Denver, the founder and CEO of Dixie Elixirs & Edibles has recently hyped himself on shows such as 60 Minutes and HBO’s Vice. Keber describes the booming marijuana business as having experienced “hockey stick growth,” from completely flat to straight on up.
While leading a tour of his impressive new facility, he candidly explains, “We are not marijuana people. We are businessmen and women who have applied what we have learned professionally to the cannabis space. There has never been a nationally branded line of THC-infused products like Dixie. Our intention is taking this company not only national, but public.”
A successful entrepreneur who served in the Reagan administration, Keber has been called the “Gordon Gekko of Ganja.” But nicknames aside, he helms a serious, and seriously lucrative, business, squarely in the spotlight of edible entrepreneurs (the industry is moving so fast that at a recent Las Vegas “cannabusiness” convention, one business proposal was a Domino’s-esque pot delivery service).
Founded just four years ago, Keber’s Dixie Elixirs has grown from a 400-square-foot office with two employees who made one product (an orange elixir) to what can only be called a marijuana industrial “mansion” that currently houses some 50 employees and serves as the assembly line and grow house for the more than 40 Dixie THC-infused products and 100 different SKUs. Most cannabis sold in Colorado dispensaries comes in four forms: as the buds of the plant; as liquid extractions meant to be used in vaporizer pens; as edibles, such as gummy candies, chocolates, and sodas; and as salves and lotions for rubbing into sore muscles and joints.
The latest Dixie Elixir? Dixie One, a soda that, unlike most edible products, offers a single, measured 5mg dose of THC. Which raises the question—as the fast-paced edible business booms, how does one properly package and regulate dosage amounts? This growing debate among edible entrepreneurs, marketers, and state legislators was further thrust into the national spotlight when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd alleged in her “Don’t Harsh Our Mellow, Dude” column back in June, that she, unaware of the potency, accidentally ate too much of a THC-infused candy bar, resulting in a panic-stricken hotel stay in Denver.
Commenting on this, Joe Hodas, Dixie’s chief marketing officer, wrote a reactive op-ed in The Times), Keber says, “Dosing is the single-greatest focus that we should be looking at as an industry. Now you have your average soccer mom from Ohio who may or may not have had a relationship with cannabis in 20-plus years, and [today] cannabis is dramatically different. What was previously 3 or 4 percent is now 23 or 24 percent [THC].” As a potential answer to the growing concern of packaging and marketing dosing amounts, Keber and his team developed Dixie One to eliminate the guesswork: one soda, one dose.
Keber touts his new headquarters’ state-of-the-art security, a necessary feature at a time when few banks have been willing to provide accounts and other services to marijuana businesses because of its federal Schedule I classification, so most dispensaries have to conduct business in cash. He notes that two dispensaries in his area had recently been robbed. But his sometimes-risky business also means serious tax revenue—numbers, he opines, that can not be ignored by the government on both the state and federal level, given the potential funding for education, city infrastructure, additional medical research, and much more. And headway is being made, particularly in Colorado, with banking institutions and the marijuana industry, as politicians and banking co-ops are quickly realizing reform is inevitable in regard to banking and buds.
In February of this year, Governor Hickenlooper stated that taxes and fees from recreational and medical marijuana sales would be $134 million in the coming fiscal year. And though some may criticize his choice of industry, Keber says, “You cannot argue with taxes and jobs. The revenue reported from April  was up 17 percent from the month before, and up 53 percent since January.” There’s no doubt he believes in the industry’s skyrocketing potential. “You are seeing this real steep growth. Sometimes we feel like we have a tiger by the tail.”
photography by tom schierlitz/trunk archive (leaf); illustration by luke wilson (portrait); by theo Stroomer (Keber); film still courtesy of cnn