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How to Break the Government's Cruel Blockade on Cannabis Research

Oakland's Harborside Health Center is conducting a groundbreaking survey, using its own patient pool to catalog the research potential of cannabis.
 
 
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Steve DeAngelo, co-founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif.

 
 
 
 

An assistant with facial piercings and rainbow-streaked hair presses her thumb to the digital fingerprint scanner outside of Steve DeAngelo’s office, and the door opens. A pint-sized dog named Goliath bounces toward the visitors. DeAngelo is the co-founder of Harborside Health Center (HHC), and his business is the distribution of medical cannabis to more than 100,000 patients from this Oakland, Calif. medical marijuana facility.

We sit around a white particleboard table. DeAngelo brushes two characteristic braids behind his shoulders and straightens a fedora on his head before retelling the history of cannabis prohibition—from its Depression Era beginnings to the onset of the U.S. War on Drugs and federal crackdowns. He recites the details with emotion, from memory. His intonation makes it clear to any listener that, for him, this subject runs deep; four decades deep that is, as the middle-aged DeAngelo has been an activist and advocatein the cannabis reform movement since his early teens.

The story of cannabis prohibition culminates in many ways in the work DeAngelo is doing—along with other dispensary owners in states like California where medical cannabis is legal—to resist federal crackdown on the distribution of the herb.

For DeAngelo the battle is immediate and immensely personal. He’s currently entangled in a legal battle with federal prosecutors that aim to shut his business down. HHC is the target of a federal crackdown, as U.S. prosecutors filed a forfeiture case to seize its building in 2011. They claimed the dispensary—which distributes more than 70 strains of cannabis—was a "superstore" serving 100,000 customers in violation of federal law, but in an unprecedented move, the city of Oakland came to the defense of the local dispensary as the first California city ever to challenge federal threats on a cannabis facility.

In City of Oakland v. Eric Holder, Oakland sued the federal prosecutor to block Harborside's closing. On July 3, Judge Maria-Elena James granted a motion to stay by the city of Oakland that effectively delays the feds' case against Harborside for more than 15 months, at which point DeAngelo may have to face a jury, risking his life’s work and livelihood.

So, why would anyone put their very freedom at stake and choose a mode of business that involves so much risk and strife?

DeAngelo’s answer comes with a crash as he slams the book CHI (Cannabis Health Index) down on the table.

“Look at this,” he says. “This is an index of all of the studies this guy could find on cannabis.”

Each chapter in the book begins with a particular ailment, discusses how that ailment interacts with cannabis, and unveils a tremendous number of studies to back up those claims. The studies come from accredited research universities and cancer centers, and each is backed up with a link to the study online.

“They’ve established the fact that cannabis is tremendously effective against cancer,” he says. “If that’s all they discovered about cannabis, that would be immense.” He leafs through the stack of bound pages and points to research from around the world showing cannabis’ successful treatment of everything from night sweats and epilepsy to bone cancer, throat cancer and leukemia.

“You can just go through this thing and almost every single major disease that still plagues mankind can be at least alleviated, in many cases prevented, and oftentimes cured with cannabis medicine," he says.

The reason cannabis has an anthology’s worth of health benefits, both curative and palliative, DeAngelo says, is the way it interacts with the brain. Cannabis works with receptors already in existence in the human brain—the endocannabinoid system. This is the same group of neuromodulatory lipids and receptors that control physiological processes like pain, mood, memory and appetite.

“We’ve heard innumerable jokes about how, 'You hippies think cannabis good for everything from cancer to hangnails,'” he says. “But the fact of the matter is the endocannabinoid system is believed by some to be the largest neurochemical system in the human body and regulates and modulates the chemical balances in a tremendous number of our central life support systems.”

The central nervous system, the immune system, the circulatory system, and microcirculatory system are all regulated by the endocannabinoid system.

“What other medicine can we think of that is also produced by our human body?” DeAngelo asks.

He continues, “[The endocannabinoid system] is a critical part of human health, and one day not so long in the future the rediscovery of cannabis medicine and the discovery of the endocannabinoid system are going to be looked upon as just as important as the discovery of germ theory.”

Breaking the “Federal Research Blockade”

Because of the war on drugs and resulting classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance (meaning a substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration), national research on cannabis has been severely limited. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a stronghold on the supply of cannabis available for research, and the DEA continually refuses to allow researchers to grow their own plants.

However, DeAngelo says, HHC has broken “the federal research blockade,” on cannabis by using their more than 100,000 patients to conduct a groundbreaking survey, "Cannabis Study," that will catalog the way different types of cannabis impact different symptoms. 

 “We’ve been caught in this Catch 22 with the federal government—and prohibitionists in general—where they keep saying, ‘You need to study cannabis more,’ but at the same time they will not give licenses to people to possess the cannabis to actually study it,” DeAngelo says.

So, HHC decided to take advantage of the fact that their patients provide a large, diverse pool of medical cannabis users for a long-term research survey.

The survey project is part of an HHC effort in alliance with the University of the City of London and the drug policy research group the Beckley Foundation, to compile a database based on the survey results that will let medical cannabis users look up which strains of cannabis are most commonly preferred to treat particular ailments.

In order to do this, HHC developed a questionnaire that asks patients about the cannabis they’re using and their symptoms. It also asks patients about their use of pharmaceutical drugs to treat those symptoms.  

HHC and its partners plan to key the questionnaire answers to the results of the extensive tests HHC has already done to categorize the various types of cannabis that come through their facility. The cannabis study project is still in its early data collection phase, but the hope is that the eventual result will be an easily accessible categorization of each strain of cannabis, and its customer preference status in treating each particular health problem.

Same Seed, Different Strains

This is where things get tricky. In their testing, HHC has found that the cannabinoid profile, even within any given strain of cannabis, can vary markedly depending on the grower and growing conditions of the plant.

“There’s a whole esoteric question about what is a strain of cannabis and what makes a strain of cannabis a particular strain,” says DeAngelo. “You can take two clones that came from the same mother plant, give one to grower A and one to grower B and they’re going to come back with plants that have a different cannabinoid profile.”

So, HHC’s survey takes into account not only the strain of cannabis each patient is using and evaluating, but also the particular batch of cannabis and the unique cannabinoid profile.

“For example you would have a questionnaire where somebody would be evaluating Purple Kush—that’s not just Purple Kush but a particular batch of Purple Kush,” says DeAngelo. “Every batch of cannabis that comes through here gets a unique identifier.”

He notes that the question of what gives cannabis such a therapeutic effect is something that is only beginning to be analyzed as there are more than 65 identified cannabinoids, and those can combine in an almost infinite number of ratios, one to another.

In theory, he says, over the course of two, three, four years of implementing questionnaire responses, the resulting database will allow the user to ask things like: “What did the largest number of multiple sclerosis patients prefer? Which strain did they prefer least? What’s the chemical difference—what’s the difference in cannabinoid profile between those two different strains of cannabis? So that we can start developing an actual, objective way of at least identifying cannabinoid profile with symptoms.”

In addition to asking patients to evaluate cannabis against other cannabis, the survey asks patients to evaluate cannabis compared with pharmaceutical drugs they’ve used to treat the same symptoms.

“So, we’ll also be able to go [into the database] and ask questions like, ‘Find all of the patients who used narcotic painkillers prior to using cannabis and identify which strain of cannabis was most preferred by those patients as a substitute, or as a way to wean themselves off of the dependent medicine. There’s obviously huge, huge research potential for dependency issues there.“

April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.