American attitudes toward cannabis varied for centuries between indifference to applause to outright rejection. Now, a solid proportion of the nation is in favor of making medical cannabis more accessible to patients who need it. Many Americans are even in favor of legalization.
This new wave of social and political acceptance and increased access has left medical and recreational consumers wondering what the future holds. Let’s take a brief look at where cannabis came from for a better understanding of where it may be going.
In the Beginning
Cannabis cultivation in America dates back to the early colonists. In the 17th century, hemp production for fabric, rope, and paper was thriving. With its low THC content, hemp had no other real use.
By the late 1800s, however, scientists had discovered THC’s medicinal properties and pharmacies began selling cannabis extracts to treat stomach pain and nausea. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that another species of the plant called cannabis sativa grew popular for recreational purposes.
During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, refugees crossing the southwestern border into U.S. brought with them the practice of smoking the plant. During the Great Depression, social unrest fed fears of Spanish-speaking newcomers. As Mexicans became associated with cannabis, it became synonymous with violence and prejudice. Political and racial divides pushed 29 states to outlaw cannabis, the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (the first federal law to criminalize all but industrial uses of cannabis), and decades of national propaganda against the “evil weed.”
During the 1960s, the political and cultural climate brought more lenient attitudes toward cannabis. Now appealing to white upper-middle class college students and scientists who refuted links to violence, cannabis lost some racial connotations. But a nationwide parents’ movement for stricter regulation, supported by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), created a second wave of public opposition. The DEA-backed effort eventually led to the infamous 1980’s War on Drugs.
Where We Are Today
Now we know that anti-cannabis initiatives weren’t grounded in scientific evidence, but stereotyping. California became the first state to legalize medical use of cannabis in 1996 for severe and chronic diseases, and another 28 states have followed suit. At last estimate, the medical cannabis population had exceeded 2.6 million.
In 2018, as a result of recent historic election cycles, recreational cannabis will be available to legally buy from licensed dispensaries in eight states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington State (Maine’s bill was just thrown out). Washington D.C. prohibits commercial sale but allows home-grown recreational product.
Ultimately, 95 percent of the population occupies states where cannabis is legal in some form. But we aren’t out of the woods yet. The Controlled Substances Act still classifies cannabis sativa as a Schedule 1 drug with high risk of abuse and no medical benefits. Federal restrictions not only make cannabis and its evolving legal status a subject of controversy, but limits funding and approval for research on its medical potential. For each patient to get the care they need, research is key.
Will Research Improve?
Things are looking up in a couple of ways. While the DEA declined to re-categorize cannabis to Schedule 2 last year, it did ease up on access to the plant for research purposes, and U.S. Health and Human Services has reduced the number of steps to get research approved.
Another factor that could play a major role in our future is the Israeli research industry. Israel is the global leader in medical cannabis research. It's home to the world’s best cannabis scientists and largest medical cannabis facility. In fact, Israel is one of only three countries conducting government-sponsored clinical trials. The Israeli government wants to improve access to medical cannabis for its own patients and export to patients around the world, including the U.S. At the same time, U.S. companies are capitalizing on Israel’s research process and setting up clinical trials there.
The future of the American cannabis industry depends on continued research, which can debunk stigma and make a stronger case for medical benefits. Thankfully, as things improve on the regulation front, attitudes are changing for the better, too. Unlike the baby boomers before them, parents are now campaigning for CBD to treat seizures. New consumption methods, such as microdosing, are relieving concern about unwanted psychoactive effects. Even the NFL is considering cannabis’ potential for pain management.
This is an exciting time for the medical cannabis industry. It’s already proven itself important to a lot of patients around the country, and with a renewed boom in research and advocacy, medical cannabis is set to become an unshakable part of American culture.