In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.
The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.
In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.
Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.
The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.
Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, chief scientific officer and partner at C4 Laboratories, is currently researching some of the lesser-known molecules in cannabis, and he’s on to something. His research focuses on discovering new molecules, determining their therapeutic effects and expanding our understanding of the constituents of cannabis.
Dr. Hildenbrand received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at El Paso where he researched the molecular architecture involved in hormone-dependent cancers. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, his post-doctoral research contributed to the development of a novel therapy for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, a blood-borne cancer that afflicts small children. He has published over 25 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and hopes to do the same with his research in cannabis.
After a career of scientific consulting, Dr. Hildenbrand met Ryan Treacy, founder and chief executive officer of C4 Laboratories, in 2015 when Treacy launched the company. In June of 2015, the laboratory began operations, providing Dr. Hildenbrand the opportunity to embark on a new and exciting field of research- cannabis.
They currently collaborate with Dr. Kevin Schug of the Shimadzu Center for Advanced Analytical Chemistry (SCAAC) at the University of Texas, Arlington and together Drs. Schug and Hildenbrand are pursuing a DEA license to expand their current cannabis research. The SCAAC is a $10.0+ million analytical laboratory with instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world has access to.
C4 Laboratories, based in Mesa, Arizona, currently offers a range of services for cannabis analysis including terpene and cannabinoid analytics, microbial, pesticide, fungicide and insecticide testing. In addition to the standard gamut of tests, they also specialize in cultivation analytics like mold and mildew culture testing, viral detection with sentinel plants and comprehensive analysis of environmental conditions.
What makes their company unique is their multidisciplinary effort to characterize the therapeutic compounds found in cannabis, the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative. We sit down with Dr. Zac Hildenbrand to talk cannabis science, his research and what they hope to accomplish with the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What is the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative?
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand: The C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative is an open collaboration between growers and scientists to discover new molecules in cannabis and to have a better characterization of individual cannabis strains based on the active constituents found in each sample. We are facilitating the collaboration of some of the world’s best cannabis growers with world-class scientists to find new information about the plant.
What we want to accomplish in this work is identifying novel molecules. Because of the [federal government’s] restrictions in researching cannabis, there is very little peer-reviewed literature on many of the compounds found in cannabis. We want to secondarily find out what those molecules do in the human body and thus make recommendations for strains targeting specific conditions.
We also want to understand the strains currently out there by determining the most established cannabinoids and terpenes via chemotyping. You hear a lot of people talking about the effects of an Indica or Sativa and making recommendations based on that. We want to find chemical signatures based on cannabinoids and terpenes and make recommendations based on that. There are a lot of problems at hand when discussing strain names scientifically. There are nomenclature issues- people calling the same strain different names, people giving multiple names to the same strain to make it appear that their strain portfolios are more diverse.
We can identify the chemical signatures in strains based on the major cannabinoids and terpenes. Based on the terpenes and chemical profile we can determine more accurate recommendations for patients as well as in recreational applications. All of this, again, discovering the new molecules, identifying the current strains, is so we can make more informed decisions regarding cannabis use. It is not a panacea but it is a very robust plant. There are a lot of terpenes with anti-inflammatory responses. Other molecules help with blood flow, sleep, regulating blood glucose, and we all know the cases of CBD helping children with convulsions and epilepsy. We want people to make sure they have the most up-to-date information.
CIJ: How is your collaboration with the SCAAC at UT Arlington contributing to this work?
Dr. Hildenbrand: One of the instruments we use there is a supercritical-fluid-extraction supercritical-fluid-chromatography mass-spectrometer (SFE-SFC-MS). With that instrument, we can do the extraction on the machine with an extreme level of sensitivity. It is ideal for drug discovery and identifying molecules in the parts-per-quadrillion range. This particular instrument allows us to detect molecules with an extreme level of sensitivity without volatizing them during the sample extraction process.
We want to acquire samples of unique cannabis from growers that will work with us to discover new cannabis constituents. We are in the process of getting a DEA license so that we can send products across state lines to the center at UT Arlington to perform the advanced characterization. They have instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world have access to, which gives us the best opportunity to explore the unknown. When we discover new molecules, find out what they do on the molecular level, we can then isolate these compounds and ultimately use this newfound knowledge for the development of effective nutraceuticals.
CIJ: What molecules are you researching right now?
Dr. Hildenbrand: Some of the low-hanging fruit in our research looks at identifying compounds similar to the better-studied compounds such as THC and CBD. THCV has a very similar structure to THC, but has a shorter acyl carbon chain (3 carbons vs. 5).
THCV doesn’t induce a psychoactive response (like THC), but it does improve fat utilization, so it has remarkable potential for medicine. We are looking at what conditions are required for it to occur naturally. Cannabis doesn’t produce THCV in a high amount. 0.7% by weight is the most we have seen in Arizona. In Oregon, where craft cannabis has been refined to a much higher degree, we have heard rumblings of some strains containing up to 3% THCV. We want to find out if this is a possible weight loss tool. Our research in CBDV is very much the same.
CBL is the breakdown product of CBC when it is treated with ultraviolet light. We know absolutely nothing about what CBL does. If we find a strain that produces high amounts of CBC, we can then treat it with UV light and force the conversion to CBL, and then ultimately determine what it does. This is a good example of low-hanging fruit and the versatility of cannabis. Based on the biogenesis of the cannabinoids, we can alter the profile of cannabis products using a series of biochemical reactions.
For example, we have been helping clients in Arizona look for a quality sleep aid in cannabis. Certainly, Indica strains will help, but the molecule CBN helps specifically with sleep abnormalities. As CBN is formed as a byproduct when CBD or THC are oxidized, we see some producers using liquid nitrogen to oxidize CBD, leading to higher CBN levels. I would like to think we are in the age of understanding CBD, THC and the major terpenes,but there are a whole milieu of compounds that require our attention and THCV, CBDV and CBL are just a few that we want to devote our efforts to right away.
CIJ: What are your plans in the immediate future?
Dr. Hildenbrand: We are in the process of finalizing the documents to bring a C4 laboratory into Oregon where we can do quite a bit of research and where we’ll have access to some very unique cannabis. We will offer full compliance testing per ORELAP and OLCC regulations, but we also want to acquire samples (free of charge) from growers that want to collaborate with us to discover new molecules. We’ve been lucky enough to start working with growers like Adam Jacques and Chris West in Eugene, but we also want to be available to other growers who want to contribute to this research.
CIJ: What are your long-term goals with this project?
Dr. Hildenbrand: At a basic level, we hope to expand the current understanding of the cannabis plant. There is a lot of “bro science” and anecdotal claims out there. There is so much that we don’t know about cannabis that we cannot simply rely on anecdotal claims for each strain. We want to bring cannabis into the same light as any pharmaceutical-grade or biomedical research.
We need to be characterizing this plant with the same level of detail as other pertinent molecular therapies. In doing so there are a lot of potential discoveries to be made and we might be able to unlock the future of medicine. A drug like Marinol, for example, has been met with mixed reviews because its only one dimensional. Furthermore, we find that the terpene molecules are tremendously beneficial and this interplay between cannabinoids and terpenes is something that we want to explore further. All and all we wish to further illustrate the therapeutic capacities of cannabis within the contexts of specific ailments and medical conditions, while discovering the medicine of the future.
On August 11, 2016, the widely anticipated Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announcement on federal cannabis policy yielded fairly anticlimactic results. According to the statement, the federal agency denied two petitions to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted a scientific and medical evaluation that deemed cannabis “does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.” The announcement reiterates the agency’s previous statements on the matter, stating that they believe clinical trials under the investigational new drug (IND) applications and the drug approval process are how the FDA can assess the safety and effectiveness of cannabis-derived medicine.
This avenue for bringing a cannabis-based drug to market is extraordinarily cost-prohibitive, allowing only pharmaceutical companies with deep coffers in the space. The DEA did however make one announcement in the statement that has the potential to lift many barriers to researching the plant’s medical value. The policy change allows more institutions to grow cannabis for research, which was previously allowed only at the University of Mississippi under a contract with NIDA. This is a very significant policy change that could be viewed as a step in the right direction. There is plenty of research currently that proves cannabis’ medical value and its safety and efficacy, but allowing more research opportunities signals that the DEA could be open to revisiting a rescheduling recommendation in the future.
One can speculate endlessly about when the DEA may reschedule cannabis, but in reality, no one knows when that might happen, no one knows what a new administration would do, if Congress would act on it or if the courts would. It seems even the FDA and DEA are sitting on their hands as the federal government does what they do best– inaction.
However, one important ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit highlights the baby steps taken toward some form of federal acceptance of legal cannabis. The court ruled that the Department of Justice couldn’t prosecute individuals in states where cannabis is legal. More specifically, the court ruling “prohibits the Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their medical marijuana laws.” The ruling basically reaffirms the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which states that the DOJ cannot interfere with states where cannabis is legal, but this time also for those individuals complying with state law.
The DEA’s inaction on rescheduling cannabis should not be perceived as a loss to the legalization movement, rather as an upholding of the asinine status quo. Policy change in the United States is an arduous and very slow process. These things take time. One can look to the same-sex marriage movement and find striking similarities to the cannabis legalization movement. For example, Massachusetts and California were some of the first states to introduce legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and are also some of the first states that have introduced legislation legalizing cannabis. These states that are typically drivers of national policy have opportunities to pass important ballot initiatives this November that could have ripple effects throughout the country. Five states have ballot initiatives for recreational legalization and potentially up to eight states with initiatives for medical legalization, all being voted on this November.
What can the average citizen do to help with progress in cannabis legalization? For starters, you can vote. If you live in a state that has a ballot initiative for legalizing cannabis, show up at the polls and make your voice heard. If you live in a state where no such ballot initiative exists, you can still take action to get cannabis legalized. You can sign this petition or write your member of Congress to support the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act (S. 683). The CARERS Act, among many other important changes, would most notably reschedule cannabis to Schedule II.
So not all is lost with the DEA’s inaction. As more states legalize cannabis, we are seeing a rising tide lift all boats.
In a letter sent to lawmakers last week, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced plans to make a decision on rescheduling cannabis by mid-2016. The announcement could represent the culmination of a shift in the federal government’s attitude toward cannabis legalization.
Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic, meaning the government views it as lacking medical benefits and have a high potential for abuse. The rescheduling of cannabis has the potential to open the floodgates for research, including much needed clinical trials.
Derek Peterson, chief executive officer at Terra Tech, a cannabis-focused agriculture company, believes this bodes well for the growth potential of the cannabis industry. “From the perspective of quality and safety standards, I find it unlikely that rescheduling it would negatively impact the degree to which cannabis is examined,” says Peterson. “It’s unnecessarily high position on the DEA drug schedule does nothing but limit the industry’s potential for growth, stall any meaningful pharmaceutical testing and increase law enforcement’s ability to prosecute non-violent drug offenders,” adds Peterson.
The rescheduling could also potentially allow for the prescribing of cannabis for patients. Stephen Goldner, founder of Pinnacle Labs and president of Regulatory Affairs Associates, is hopeful this will lead to a greater shift in public attitude towards cannabis. “The DEA’s announcement is a clear message to all States and possibly even to United Nations policy makers: even the DEA is willing to reconsider cannabis,” says Goldner. “Since the DEA is reconsidering cannabis, state politicians and local police departments can also be flexible and move away from prohibition, towards the regulation of cannabis.”
The rescheduling of cannabis could have a tremendous impact on the growth of the cannabis industry, including more clinical trials, medical research and physician participation. It could also open the door for more federal agency involvement, as the Schedule I status inhibits any EPA research on cannabis pesticide use or FDA guidance on food and drug good manufacturing practices. When reached for comment, the FDA’s press office said they could not speculate on any involvement in the matter.
Twenty-four U.S. states now have some form of medical marijuana legalization on the books. These states allow patients with a variety of qualifying conditions to possess and cultivate cannabis lawfully as a treatment for such medical conditions. The number of states allowing medical cannabis is set to increase dramatically, as various additional state legislatures have bills or ballot measures pending on this topic. You can read more about this topic here.
The federal government surprisingly already has their hands in medical marijuana. The federal government sends free, pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes to a special, albeit dwindling, group of patients on a regular basis and they have been doing so since 1976. This is a product of the 1976 federal Investigational New Drug Program (Compassionate Access I.N.D.), which still operates, but was closed in 1992 to any new patients.
The U.S. Government holds a federal patent for therapeutic cannabinoid use (US6630507 B1). The patent, “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants,” (LINK) covers a method of treating diseases by applying a therapeutically effective amount of cannabinoids derived from marijuana. In addition, the White House website provides links to government-funded research projects involving medical marijuana. Presently, the links show 219 completed projects and 95 projects in progress.
On June 23, 2015, the American Medical Association adopted the formal position that marijuana is a form of medicine. Reliable scientific studies address the medical efficacy of the use of medical cannabis for an increasing number of conditions. Medical cannabis is here to stay and the health care industry needs to pay close attention.
Simply put, the health care industry has been resistant to beginning the study of medical marijuana. This does not bode well for health care systems that will see more patients utilizing various forms of medical cannabis. Moreover, this is not a sustainable health care business model. With an increased focus on alternative forms of medicine and treatment both by practitioners and health care insurance providers, it is imperative that the health care industry studies the facts.
The New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration began requiring employers and insurers to reimburse injured workers for medical marijuana when the state’s health care provider fee schedule took effect January 1, 2016. Workers compensation claimants can be reimbursed up to $12.02 per gram of marijuana for up to 226.8 grams of marijuana per year, according to the fee schedule. Such reimbursements were ordered after the New Mexico Court of Appeals had ruled three times since May, 2014 that medical marijuana should be classified as reasonable and necessary medical care for injured workers.
The same momentum is impacting Latin America. Brazil’s governmental health care agency, ANVISA, recently removed a component of cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), from the list of banned substances, meaning the marijuana molecule can now be prescribed by physicians for treating seizures, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and other ailments. As such, ANVISA has approved the importation of CBD from the United States.
More and more research studies are published every year. In the National Center for Biotechnology Information database of biomedical literature, 4,516 medical abstracts reference both cannabis and cannabinoids. Still the vast majority of medical schools do not educate students about the human endocannabinoid system.
Denis Petro, a neurologist and pharmacologist, researches cannabis as a treatment for multiple sclerosis. He founded Patients Out of Time, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and education on the endocannabinoid system. “At present, conventional treatments for spasticity are unsatisfactory,” Dr. Petro wrote, in an article, Indications for Therapeutic Use of Cannabis. “Based on scientific evidence, cannabis is a safe and effective alternative when compared to conventional treatments.”
Physicians in Colorado can recommend marijuana and the Colorado Constitution legally protects them (Article XVII, Section 14). The Colorado Constitution gives physicians immunity for advising a patient about the risks and benefits of medical marijuana for a debilitating medical condition, and for recommending medical marijuana to a patient.
Moreover, physicians have a duty to care for their patients, and that includes considering medical marijuana if it would help that patient. Consequently, by understanding the health benefits and the particularized sources of liability, physicians can lend clarity to the medical marijuana industry.
While medical marijuana policy changes may lead to uncertainty, most questions about the marijuana industry, including the risks and its related legality, have answers. The problem is that health care providers and insurance companies do not know where to turn for this information.
I delivered a number of presentations concerning this topic to various provider and insurance-related entities across the country serving our health care system. It is evident that many of these health care related entities can move forward with a better understanding of the risk implications and devise better informed strategies to incorporate medical cannabis into their operational plans, whether for now or in the near future.
An understanding of the researched health benefits of medical marijuana is increasingly necessary for physicians and other members of our health care system. A conservative approach is certainly advisable, but it is more than just a good thing to learn about; it is a necessity in this day and age to remain relevant and informed. This needs to happen now. And the providers that take appropriate steps soon will be better positioned to deal with these issues as they become increasingly prevalent.