2019 proved to be quite the year for scientific discoveries in weed. Many of the biggest studies confirmed things we already knew, like cannabis works great for migraines, it kills some cancer cells, or that legalizing weed leads to lower opioid abuse rates. While some studies challenged our most persistent academic understandings of ancient cannabis use, others gave us deeper insights into the plant’s evolutionary origins.
Following the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp production, transport, and trade bloomed across the US, giving insiders confidence that at least once facet of the cannabis industry was on safe ground. And while total federal legalization is still out of reach, the year’s many political events hint that it’s on the horizon.
So while not quite the crescendo to the ‘post-prohibition decade’ many were hoping for, 2019 still plotted a steady course towards a more momentous future. To understand how far the industry has come, we looked back on the leading stories of the year.
CBD for childhood autism
One vastly underreported study this year looked at cannabis as a potential treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and for the first time produced clinical data showing clear benefits in pediatric cases.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, included 53 patients with a median age of 11 years old, and attempted to gauge improvement across a varied set of symptoms related to ASD after administering a daily does of THC and CBD.
Patients showed significant improvement in hyperactivity symptoms (68.4%), self-injury and rage attacks (67.6%), sleep problems (71.4%), and anxiety (47.1%)—with 74.5% reporting overall improvement and less than 4% reporting worsening of symptoms.
The illicit market stands its ground
Everyone can agree that prohibition has its problems, no matter which side of the legalization debate they fall under. From discriminatory arrests to human slavery, some of society’s worst offenses can be traced back to the war on drugs. Legalizing cannabis, advocates say, will curtail these ills. They’ll fall by the wayside as society transitions into a cleaner post-prohibition age. Well, that was the plan.
If 2019 taught drug reform advocates anything, it’s that they’ve got to have patience. Because nearly two years on from its legalization of recreational cannabis, over two thirds of California’s marijuana market still belongs to illicit trade. And over the border in Canada, the ratio isn’t any better.
“If you look at the amount of [Canada’s] cannabis market that is now within the legal regulations, it’s still, for some people, disappointingly small,” Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at Transform Drugs Policy Foundation, told Analytical Cannabis.
The problem? While it’s difficult to be conclusive, Rolles and other experts have blamed the slow roll-out of retail stores, the high costs of legal products, and a reticence from customers to leave their traditional suppliers.
“A lot of people – if they don’t have immediate access to retail stores – they’re going to stay with their existing dealers. Why would they shift?” Rolles asked. “Especially given the fact that legal cannabis is more expensive than illegal cannabis.”
It’s hard to see a way beyond this slow start, especially with cannabis tax hikes in California on the horizon. But the hope is that with increasing social acceptability, autonomous regions will license more businesses, which will bring over more customers and further dwindle the illicit market into obscurity. There’s certainly hope yet for a fully fledged legal model.
“I feel fairly confident that the problems that have arisen are mostly short-term teething problems that will be ironed out in the coming months and years,” Rolles added.
Flushing cannabis may do nothing for its flavor or burnability
OK, so, admittedly, this first discovery was the least scientific compared to the others mentioned in this article. Nonetheless, it challenges some long-held beliefs about cultivation, and whether cannabis connoisseurs really possess the sensitive palates they claim they have.
In December, RX Green Technologies conducted its own in-house study to see if cannabis critics could tell which buds got properly flushed and which ones didn’t. Flushing is a process where growers feed their plants pure water to wash out any excess nutrients that may have built up in the plant’s tissue. The general rule of thumb is to flush plants for a good week or two before cutting them down and hanging them to dry.
RX Green Technologies’ study not only found that most participants were incapable of telling flushed from unflushed buds, but also most of those in the study preferred the flavor of unflushed buds. Additionally, chemical analyses of the flower showed no discernable differences between flushed buds and unflushed ones, nor were there any detectable differences regarding how the buds burned or ashed.
Of course, RX Green Technologies manufactures two popular chemical feeds for cannabis — GROW and BLOOM — so the company’s study may be biased. Furthermore, the study wasn’t peer-reviewed or submitted to any journals, so it hasn’t been subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as the other discoveries listed below.
Nonetheless, RX Green Technologies’ findings should kickstart discussion on what makes high-quality weed, and whether cannabis critics really know what they’re talking about.
International calls to end prohibition
There’s nothing that excites legalization advocates quite like the sound of crumbling international drug accords. And while no global prohibitionist legislation has fallen yet, if you listened closely this year, the trembles were plain to hear.
The first sign? Back in January, one of the oldest and most influential groups in the UN endorsed the decriminalization of drug possession and use. Then in February, in a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, a WHO committee advocated for marijuana to be removed from the strictest classification within an international treaty on controlled substances.
And on frontlines, Luxembourg ministers have cemented their commitment to legalizing cannabis for their citizens, while the New Zealand government recently previewed its draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill ahead of the country’s cannabis referendum next year.
As 2019 comes to an end, Canada and Uruguay are the only two countries in the world holding the line against prohibitive international treaties. But with Luxembourg and New Zealand waiting in the wings, 2020 could see that number double. And with four democracies standing together in defiance of draconian treaties, how much longer can such legislation last?
Dr Mechoulam does it again
No living scientist has a fanbase quite like Dr Raphael Mechoulam’s. Making a rare appearance at CannMed 2019 in Pasadena, California, ‘the Godfather of Cannabis’ was greeted by a throng of enthusiasts, proudly wearing his face on their t-shirts and thrusting cannabis cuttings out to him like babies to the pope. But Mechoulam didn’t come for the adoration. He had science to discuss.
Taking to the podium, the organic chemist who first synthesized THC back in the ‘60s announced his latest creation: synthetically stable cannabinoid compounds fit for clinical use.
It might not sound revolutionary. It might not even sound interesting. But if Mechoulam’s legacy was ever in doubt, the announcement will cement his name in the top tier of cannabis scientists.
Now, for the first time, there’s hope that unstable cannabinoids, previously unusable in clinical settings, can bring their benefits to patients. Compounds like CBDA, which can bind to a particular serotonin receptor a thousand times more effectively than CBD. Thanks to Dr Mechoulam and his team, a new form of CBDA, stabilized by a methyl ester, is now “a potential medicine for treating some nausea and anxiety disorders.”
There’s still some way to go before these stabilized cannabinoids could be benefiting patients, but if Mechoulam’s track record is anything to go by, the medical cannabis community have a lot to look forward to.
The most potent painkillers in cannabis are its flavonoids
While the masses are riding high on the CBD craze, researchers discovered that neither THC nor CBD are cannabis’s primary painkillers. Instead, they found that two other flavonoid compounds — cannflavins A and B — actually possessed the greatest pain-killing potential, with analgesic properties estimated at 30 times stronger than aspirin. They published their results in this summer’s edition of Phytochemistry. The results will impact our understanding of cannabis as a pain management treatment, seeing as chronic pain is the number-one reason why Americans get medical marijuana cards in the first place.
Here’s the wildest thing about cannflavins A and B: They’re only found in cannabis. No other plant species are known to naturally produce these two flavonoids. So, while scientists remain fixated on THC and CBD, the scientific community may be ignoring flavonoids and polyphenols — two prominent chemical classes in cannabis that are often overlooked in favor of the cannabinoids’ novelties.
But what about CBD, the chemical that truly brought cannabis to the mainstream? Well, it was a mixed year.
On the economic side, the compound was a goldmine. The American CBD market alone was worth $270 million this year, and predictions place the global market over $2 billion by 2024.
But on the regulatory side, things were a little less rosy. Several US companies were issued warnings about their egregious medical claims – which extended to an advertised anti-Alzheimer’s effect – and tests in the UK revealed that 62 percent of popular products didn’t contain the CBD content promised on the label. One product (retailing for £90) didn’t even contain any amount of the key cannabinoid.
To cap things off, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just warned consumers last month that CBD-containing products “have the potential to harm” consumers. And although the World Health Organisation has found “no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD,” products claiming to be CBD do have their high risks. Between December 2017 and January 2018, synthetic products marketed as CBD were responsible for the poisonings of at least 52 people in Utah.
To avoid another such disaster, more regulation will be needed. In the UK, that progress is being driven by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis, which has launched a charter that commits any signatory CBD company to work with accredited laboratories, prohibit any inaccurate labelling and reference to medical claims.In the US, the FDA is still re-evaluating its regulatory framework for CBD, but has indicated that it cannot conclude CBD to be generally recognized as safe to use in human or animal foodstuffs.
It’s going to be a bumpy road towards full regulatory compliance. But for the sake of consumer safety, it’s the only road to take.
The vaping crisis
Unfortunately, the biggest cannabis story of 2019 isn’t a victory for the legalization movement. But it isn’t exactly a detriment to it, either.
Like an epidemic outbreak, the vaping crisis burst across the US at the tail-end of the summer. By September 13, 6 people had died and 380 were suffering from lung injuries. Three months later, the figures had shot up to an alarming 48 dead and 2,291 injured. And still no one knew the definitive cause.
There are theories, of course, backed up by hard evidence. Vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent commonly used in the illicit vaping market, is still the chief suspect. In October, two separate studies from commercial testing labs found that the thickening additive was entirely absent from the legal cannabis vaping market in California, while one study detected it in 9 of the 12 illicit products tested.
Some still have their concerns over the legal market, though. In December, Massachusetts authorities claimed that six patients with suspected vaping injuries has “probably” purchased THC products at licensed marijuana dispensaries. But the vast majority of hard evidence still links the outbreak to the unregulated market. All of which, some analysts say, only strengthens the arguments for a federally legalized system.
“Vitamin E acetate is very heavily used in the illegal vaping market; 20, 30, 60 percent of a cartridge could be vitamin E acetate,” Dr Swetha Kaul, a cannabis testing advisor, told Analytical Cannabis.
“The safer option is to shop [for] legal, tested products. I feel like that’s the messaging that might resonate,” she said. “Because if you just tell people to stop vaping, they’re just going to ignore the entire message. So how about giving them a route where at least their chances of staying safe are higher and better?”
Fortunately, the vaping crisis seems to be abating. The proportion of hospitalized EVALI patients reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention declined from 58 percent on November 12 to 30 percent on December 3. But this moment of calm shouldn’t be squandered. Given the existing facts, it seems that quashing the illicit cannabis market would the most effective step towards averting another outbreak. And how best to do that? Well, establishing a nationally legal, accessible, and regulated market could be a good start.
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