Me, Obama, and Marijuana

To be clear, I have never simultaneously been in a room with Barack Obama, and marijuana.  I have been in a room with Barack Obama on a number of occasions.  I have been in a room with state-legal marijuana on a number of occasions.  Never at the same time.  Ever.

But POTUS and cannabis loom large in my life.  More importantly, the President’s two terms have directly led to the current state of affairs with marijuana legalization.

I first met Barack Obama in 2003 after being invited to a fundraiser by one of his University of Chicago law students.  Tickets were $20 each.  Seriously.

Obama was running for U.S. Senate in Illinois, and the fundraiser was at a beautiful home in Chicago’s Gold Coast.  We met.  We talked.  I passed out.  Not from being so impressed with him that I fainted (though I was so impressed I seriously considered dropping out of law school to go volunteer for his campaign), but from drinking wine on a hot and humid day while wearing a suit.  It was a great first impression to make on the future President of the United States of America.

Fast-forward to 2007 and Obama announces a run for the Presidency.  I was all-in.  Fired Up, Ready to Go.  Bob & Obama Announcement1

I started by raising money for him with young professionals in Chicago, moved into healthcare policy committees, and decided to bite the bullet by taking a leave of absence from my job to help manage Jewish community outreach in Florida (see “The Great Schlep“).

Yada yada yada, Obama wins Florida in ’08 (you’re welcome, Barack).

Eight years later I am proud of many of his accomplishments, and have strongly disagreed with some of his policy decisions and actions.

Still, my biggest disappointment in President Obama has been his inaction on pot.  He has nibbled around the edges with criminal justice reform, and it is well documented (admitted in his own biography) that he used marijuana and cocaine in his youth.  But after seven years, thirty-four days, nine hours, eighteen minutes and counting, the President has made it clear that he will not be stepping into to the fray and using his Executive Power to reschedule or deschedule marijuana from the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.  For background, marijuana is defined as a “Schedule 1” drug.  This means it “has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”  Marijuana, Heroin, Quaaludes.  All Schedule 1.

Is it within the power of the Presidency to fix our backwards marijuana laws?  And if yes, should he?

The answer to first question is clearly a “yes.”  The U.S. Attorney General (who reports to the President, of course), “may by rule remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule.” 21 U.S.C. 811(a)(2).  The U.S. Congress also has the ability to change the Schedule 1 status of marijuana through legislation – and it actually could happen in the coming years despite our dysfunctional legislative branch.

The question of whether POTUS should reschedule marijuana to a less-restrictive Schedule or remove it altogether is a much more difficult question – one that is more political science than Neil deGrasse Tyson science.

Government executives make decisions based on prioritizing issues while considering available political capital.  Obama can’t do everything he wants on every issue he cares about: he has to choose.  He chose to fight for the expansion of healthcare coverage, he chose to invest in passing the most sweeping financial banking reform since the Great Depression, and he chose to shift our international focus away from military intervention and towards peacekeeping multilateralism.  He decided not to push for single-payer healthcare, he didn’t break up the largest banks, and he didn’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He did not try to reschedule marijuana.

His overall record has been mixed – and to me that is not good enough.  On the bright side, his administration has generally allowed Colorado and Washington to play out the recreational marijuana experiment (with Oregon and Alaska right behind).  That said, his U.S. Treasury guidance has been halfhearted for banks considering whether to maintain cannabis business accounts, and his DEA enforcement has been overly aggressive against some using and growing medical cannabis.  Research projects continue to face unnecessary bureaucratic delays, Obama has done little to change federal mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately imprison minorities with petty marijuana convictions.  On the whole, marijuana policy reform has progressed in spite of, not because of, Barack Obama.

Bob & Obama & BidenI’m not saying I want my $20 back from the 2003 fundraiser, but I am saying the President will hear my objections the next time I get to talk to him.  If I don’t faint, of course.

Word(s) of the Week – “Bona Fide” (Patient-Physician Relationship)

Bona FideAdjective.  Genuine, real.

Used in a sentence: Dr. Morgan certified 50,000 patients for the Illinois medical cannabis program, but may lose his medical license because he did not have a Bona Fide Patient-Physician Relationship with all of those individuals.

“Bona Fide Patient-Physician Relationship” is a phrase used often in the medical cannabis world.  Generally it refers to a legal requirement that someone must have a true relationship with their physician before they can participate in a medical cannabis program (along with other requirements).  Simply put – lax enforcement leads to a state like California (over 500,000 patients), and strict enforcement looks something like Illinois (4,400 and counting).

If there is true enforcement, how many visits are enough to make it a “bona fide” relationship?  1 visit?  5 visits?  How much time must pass after the first doctor’s visit?

Arguably, it is one of the biggest reasons the number of registered patients in Illinois is so low – but Illinois is not alone and is not the most restrictive.  States like New York require doctors to take special training, Florida requires physicians to specifically register with the state, and even California’s new law requires a prior good faith examination by a physician (that’s right, California).

This issue is complex, and affects the lives of many suffering from serious medical conditions.  How do you prove a bona fide relationship if you are newly diagnosed with cancer?  What if your longstanding physician is not open to certifying you as a patient and you need to find a new specialist?  What if one doctor certifies a large number of patients?  What medical training or specialization must a doctor have to treat a patient’s specific medical conditions?

There is much more to discuss about bona fide relationships – but we’ll revisit this in a future post!

Super Bowl High – Did the Bronco’s unwittingly boost the marijuana industry?

Over 110 Million Americans watched Super Bowl 50, saw Cam Newton hop away from his own fumble, and witnessed Beyoncé and Lady Gaga fight for the title of biggest pop star (it is clearly “Bae” “Bey”, but Gaga sure did crush the National Anthem!).  But what if the biggest news from the Sunday game was how Denver’s marijuana experiment has successfully gone mainstream – and Peyton Manning was the unwitting promoter of the marijuana industry?

I admit it is a stretch – not a single marijuana commercial aired during the game, the Broncos have not endorsed any local dispensary, and the “Mile High” Broncos stadium is referring to the altitude, not the reefer.  But hear me out…

A colleague of mine first broached this idea, and the more I’ve considered it the more I think he is on to something.

A pivotal moment in the recent evolution of cannabis policy came on August 8, 2013.  On this day, one of the country’s most well known and respected physicians, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta, stepped forward to admit that he had been wrong to doubt the medical health benefits of marijuana.  Not only was he wrong, he was now a true believer of its clinical properties to help ailing adults – even children.

“[The DEA] didn’t have the science to support that [marijuana had no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse], and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works. Take the case of Charlotte Figi, who I met in Colorado. She started having seizures soon after birth. By age 3, she was having 300 a week, despite being on seven different medications. Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to 2 or 3 per month.

We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”

That episode, and subsequent follow-up episodes, sent the country’s support for medical marijuana through the roof.

At the time Gupta’s first episode aired, I did not foresee a dramatic impact.  After all, medical marijuana already had strong American support (polls showed 77% support already in 2011).  As a topic that I am passionately involved in, I’ve lost some perspective of how much the general public will absorb pot news. But this reached the hearts and minds of millions of viewers.  Gupta’s admission had significance – it provided the general public (and politicians) with the science to support their emotional ideology.  This was what Joe Biden would call, a “Big F***ing Deal!”

Three years later we have almost 40 states that have recreational use, medical cannabis, or “CBD-only” laws.

That brings us to the Broncos.Broncos - .sanden.

The impact of Denver bringing home a “W” is obviously less blatant or direct than Gupta’s TV specials.  Yet the Bowl has a significantly larger audience.

The most stark impact of Denver winning the Super Bowl is that absolutely no one covered the game by describing Denver as a “pot town,” or ravaged by “criminals,” or endless jokes about the town having collective munchies.  There were a few local media stories about dispensaries near Denver’s football stadium and local venues for Colorado fans to smoke weed and watch the game – but they were barely a blip on the radar.

Colorado has performed admirably under the world’s microscope, and proven the there is far more upside (medically, economically, non-violent imprisonment, etc) than risk associated with cannabis. The Broncos benefit from the media attention (I suppose their talent has something to do with it too), and have shown the country that recreational marijuana use is a non-factor for a pro football team town.

The significance of Super Bowl 50 is how Denver’s widespread and well-known cannabis culture had absolutely no significance for the 110 million viewers of the game.  And that, my friends, is progress.

Photo courtesy Flickr user .sanden. under this Creative Commons license.

Kosher Kush (it’s a real thing)

Cannabis1 - Theo Star of David - MAMJODH12959548834_ebd8c1d19a_m

There is an insatiable press appetite to write stories about cannabis.  That appetite quickly turns into an obsession when you add another hot topic into the mix – pot and guns; pot and cash; pot and politics.

The latest odd combination?  Kosher pot.  That’s right, it has come to this.  We now have national press stories extolling the kashrut elements of reefer.  Predictably, the press jumped all over the story as if Donald Trump had said…well, anything.  It was covered in Newsweek.  Vice had a piece.  Even a local Chabad weighed in.

A number of the cultivation centers and dispensaries in Illinois have Jewish owners or investors, leading me to wonder how soon we will see a hechshered Purple Kush?  I hear some Kosher Kush is already on the shelves.

Full disclosure: although I’m Jewish, I don’t keep kosher.  Yet again, I don’t eat pork (it’s long story – but I do make an exception for the Zuppa Toscana soup at Olive Garden, and anything in France).  Along comes Kosher cannabis – it’s hard to conceive a more salacious topic for me to delve into.

zuppa toscana - queennepy
Zuppa Toscana – YUM!

For those of you that don’t know, “kosher” generally refers to whether the ingredients within a product meet Jewish food preparation restrictions.  Big Mac = not kosher (mixing milk and meat).  Sausage pizza = not kosher (despite how good it tastes).  Lobster Bisque = big no-no.  But what about cannabis?  In general, a cannabis plant would be “kosher,” but it gets more complicated when you add in processing equipment, and especially when you introduce cannabis-infused foods and the ingredients have to pass muster.

I appreciated River North Chabad’s take, delving into the broader issue of Judaism’s approach to a banned substance used for medical purposes:

“Obviously, none of these reasons [of forbidden drug use] would apply in a case where a patient takes these substances following the ruling of their doctor in a controlled and legal environment. On the other end of the spectrum, they would most certainly apply to youths using illegal drugs. For those in the middle, it would be advisable that the individual present his or her case to a competent rabbi before proceeding.”

It struck me as a similar analysis that we are seeing more broadly with cannabis.  On one hand, use is still strictly prohibited by the federal government.  The U.S. Controlled Substances Act makes clear it is “not kosher.”  But if we are to consider cannabis for its medical benefits, shouldn’t we consider it “kosher” in the broader sense?

Pragmatically, there is only a sliver of the population that will be impacted by a kosher designation on pot, but I am pleased to see the dialogue intersect my religious world (Judaism) and professional world (cannabis industry).  It is a conversation I look forward to having in Illinois as the industry matures – so long as we have the conversation at the nearest Olive Garden.

Photo courtesy Flickr users Theo, MAMJODH, Quennepy, and Cannabis Culture under this Creative Commons license.

Word of the Week – “Budtender”

Budtender – Noun.  An employee who assists customers buying cannabis (medical or adult-use) at a retail store/dispensary.  The budtender helps a customer select the best strain, amount, and delivery method for what they are looking for.

Still confused about what a budtender is?  Think of a bartender serving alcohol – just substitute pot for liquor, and instead of someone who can’t tell you the difference between Jack Daniel’s and Pappy Van Winkle, a budtender generally is going to be quite knowledgeable about which strains are best suited for what ails you.

The earliest reference to “budtender” that I could find was a High Times article from March of 2000 detailing the history of the Cannabis Cup, but the term has only gained mainstream prevalence in the last few years.  We’ve come a long way – there is even a “Budtender Society.”  Who knew?

thatsgoodweed: Budtender (n);        The person at a medical marijuana “dispensary,” or “clinic,” who tends to the patients’ medicinal needs. He/she works with you and helps you decide what will be the ideal medicine for you to purchase, and in what quantity.          These are also some of the luckiest motherfuckers on the face of the earth. Despite that, you should still tip them as heavily as you can possibly afford to. via Urban Dictionary