There are few words that wield the ability to sharply divide so many. “Marijuana” is one of those words. The notion of its use—be it medicinally or recreationally—has polarized our country’s lawmakers and voters, and continues to muddy the ways in which federal, state and local laws are carried out. But one thing is for sure, the marijuana plant (more appropriately termed “cannabis”), like most other botanical plants, has been around for a very long time and with a growing number of states yielding to the will of their voters to medicinally legalize it, the thorny problem about what to do with cannabis continues to be front and center.
The problem with the use of medicinal cannabis, especially in areas where it’s been legalized, is that it’s largely unregulated from a purity and quality standpoint. This looming and potentially dangerous gray area is what inspired the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), Silver Spring, MD, to charter a Cannabis Committee. Not to be erroneously dubbed “the pot group,” the AHPA committee was formed in an effort to enact a neutral basis of oversight for medicinal cannabis and hemp products, just as it does with every other botanical product that falls under its jurisdiction. Officially, the committee stated its goal was “to promote and protect responsible commerce in hemp products, and to address legal issues related to hemp agriculture and the emergence of medical cannabis as a legal product in numerous states.”
“In making the decision to form the committee, the AHPA board acknowledged that emerging issues related to legal articles derived from cannabis species have relevance to AHPA members, including analytical labs that test such articles and cosmetics manufacturers that use hemp-derived ingredients in body care products,” explained Elan Sudberg, CEO, Costa Mesa, CA-based Alkemists Pharmaceuticals, a founding member of the AHPA Cannabis Committee charter.
There are some 500 compounds found in the cannabis species, with only about 80 cannabinoids currently identified. Not all of the cannabinoids are psychotropic. The two cannabinoid compounds in medical cannabis that have been the main focus of research are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a psychotropic compound, and CBD (cannanbadiol) which has shown effectiveness in pain management.
“There have been several contemporary studies published regarding the use of this plant for various medical purposes, including for symptomatic relief of multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, glaucoma, asthma, cardiovascular conditions, chronic neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and as an anti-emetic,” explained Sidney Sudberg DC, LAc RH (AHG), lab director of Alkemists Labs. “It is now recognized that it is these effects that are related primarily to cannabis’ non-psychotropic phytochemical content. Although, it has been found that commercial extracts that use isolated compounds from the plant tend to not be as effective as when the whole plant form is used.”
There are also two common species of the plant that yield different effects due to different phytochemicals present in each species. Cannabis sativa is reported to have higher THC levels which is more for cerebral-related medical conditions, whereas Cannabis indica is reported to have the compound CBD in greater quantities, which is useful for its anti-arthritic/anti-inflammatory properties. “People with certain ailments might want to focus on a specific species of cannabis plant,” said Mr. Sudberg. “This is important for dispensaries to know. If the intention is to treat an ailment, they should have access to information on which of these compounds are present and at what levels.”
What’s even more compelling than the volumes of research compiled on the various benefits of medical cannabis is the fact that the U.S. government holds a patent on some of the components of cannabis for its anti-arthritic/anti-inflammatory properties. “The U.S., and specifically the Department of Health and Human Services, has recognized the powerful medicinal importance of cannabis,” said Mr. Sudberg.
The problem stems from the botanical’s history and negative baggage. “The plant does have psychotropic effects, but the recent focus on medical usefulness is attempting to set that aside. And people are speaking out and voting for this issue,” said Dr. Sudberg. “There’s much more awareness now that 14 states have established legal status for medical cannabis. And at some point some government agency or somebody with authority has to take responsibility for controlling the quality and safety of the material that’s entering the public market.”
To a large degree, the purity and quality of medical cannabis are not currently being considered by any industry. “There are a handful of labs that conduct analyses to test for pesticides and purity and levels of CBD and THC…but these labs are arguably operating illegally under federal law until current policy is changed, so they don’t know if or when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will come shut them down,” commented Mr. Sudberg. “People who have conditions need to know which one to take and which ones not to take to avoid adverse events. Not to mention agrochemicals—we have no idea what’s in these materials. There’s no oversight right now mandating quality control, or guidance telling anyone what the suggested or accepted methods of analysis are."
Given the tempestuous climate surrounding medical marijuana, the herbal products industry must walk a fine line in order to both maintain its credibility while at the same time treating cannabis with the same respectful concern given to other herbal products. “Fourteen states are moving forward, albeit in different directions,” said Mr. Sudberg. “Federally, cannabis is illegal, state-wise in California it’s legal. At the city level it varies. It’s all based on city ordinances, zoning, etc. and there are a lot of conflicting, fuzzy laws.
“AHPAs purpose is to look at this as just another botanical that needs to fall under someone’s guidance,” he went on to say. “I hope it’s not the pharmaceutical model because that would turn it into a drug. Ultimately my thoughts are that it should fall under GMP regulations as an herb. The quality control has already been written into those regs. We know what we do when we process ginkgo and St. John’s Wort, and Cannabis should be treated the same way. I honestly don’t know what other organization or industry would cover it as adequately or appropriately. The question is—is it a food, a dietary supplement, or a drug? It’s all of those. Fortunately there’s plenty of research to back up this plant.”
As to how this all might pan out, Dr. Sudberg said that because of cannabis’ history, the next several years will entail “trying to get a fix on what’s myth and what’s reality and how and who is willing to take the responsibility for its potential for abuse. We have to carefully scrutinize it as objectively as possible.”
The AHPA committee is currently comprised of five members hailing from the hemp industry, as well as manufacturers of soaps, cosmetics and textiles. There are also analytical members like Alkemists Labs. “I’m trying to get the other 'pot testing labs' from Northern California and in Colorado to join as well,” said Mr. Sudberg. “Currently they’re doing their own thing and don’t seem to see the need to join. Ten years ago in the botanical industry we all shared a similar mindset.”
Hindering progress, he said, is the stigma of association. “As a testing lab, no one has said we’ll be busted if we touch Cannabis, but it’s been alluded to. For us and other established labs with an employee base and history of testing natural products, that’s a risk we don’t feel worthy to take yet.”
Dr. Sudberg likened the issue to a fallen power line with a loose live wire just sitting out in the open. “In the April 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, there was an article called ‘Medical Marijuana and the Law’ in which a couple of attorneys wrote, ‘In states debating new legislation, policy makers are grappling with questions that only scientific research can answer. For what conditions does medical marijuana provide benefits? Are there equally effective alternatives? What are the appropriate doses for various conditions? And how can states ensure quality and purity?’
“Whether or not the individual states or the DEA are thinking about this yet is not clear, the fact is this live wire has the potential to hurt people,” he added. “Regulation and responsible oversight are needed to make it safe, and by utilizing its medicinal potential and effectiveness.”
One of the key issues for safety is quality control, from the lab perspective. Efficacy is another complex issue that needs to be sorted out. “There’s more than meets the eye here,” surmised Dr. Sudberg. “It’s more than just a couple of kids getting ‘stoned’ in the park. It has evolved to responsible people benefitting from something that they’re being prevented from dealing with due to all of the issues of the past surrounding this potentially beneficial natural medicine. At this moment there appears to be a definite shift in the attitude and focus of the public, private and government sectors regarding what it is now and where it could very well end up in the not too distant future."