Guest Blog: By Elliot Bean, BSc (Medicinal chemistry)
 

Let us take a moment to turn back the wheel of time to 1920’s America. Alcohol prohibition was in full swing, just like the war on cannabis currently is in New Zealand.

Before prohibition, popular drinks were primarily beers and diluted spirits. As prohibition came into force it was less profitable, yet as risky to produce, transport and sell lower alcohol beverages as it was to deliver drinks with higher toxicity.  As prohibition continued alcohol content gradually increased, particularly when organized crime took control the black market.

Less than a decade into prohibition, spirits were now the dominant product and this introduced a new era of alcohol related illness.  Drinkers were consuming more alcohol, while milder alternatives were not available.

The same problem now plagues the New Zealand drug  market. Demand has not been affected by prohibition, the only change is the shift towards more potent and dangerous products.  While like under alcohol prohibition, drug profits are funneled tax free, into the hands of organised crime.

So how has prohibition affected cannabis potency over time?

Cannabis is made up of two major components. The first is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principle psychoactive component. THC is the molecule that acts on the central and peripheral nervous system producing effects like pain relief, appetite stimulation, impairment, and pleasure. THC is the cause of the typical “high” that cannabis consumption elicits.

The other important component is cannabidiol (CBD), a similar molecule that has very different effects. Unlike THC, CBD causes no impairment or “high”, it instead lowers anxiety, aids sleep, helps with nausea, treats depression and evidence suggests may be a safe treatment for epileptic seizures. Additionally, CBD, when taken alongside THC mitigates some of the effects of THC, especially side effects like paranoia.

Since the start of cannabis prohibition, the relative quantities of these two chemicals has been changing.  From 1995 to 2014, the THC content of cannabis flowers rose from 4% to 12%, while the CBD content dropped from 0.28% to 0.15%. This means the THC to CBD ratio in cannabis gone from 14:1 to 80:1 in the span of just 2 decades.

THC vs CBD ratios. Source: Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand https://www.facebook.com/MCANewZealand/photos/a.693340944103151/2966162886820934

What are the health effects of this change?

Its widely assumed, though not supported by available research, that THC causes mental illness in its users. Instead CBD is seen to have a countering effect, mitigating the risks of THC in at risk individuals.   With the shift in THC:CBD ratio, cannabis sold today is less balanced then it would have been 100 years ago.  

With the increased potency of modern cannabis, it is difficult for people to limit their consumption.  Just like under alcohol prohibition, you can unintentionally get way higher than you wanted to.  This presents a significant problem for people who consume cannabis to help with chronic pain or illnesses; to get the CBD in effective amounts they also have to consume increasingly higher levels of THC.

So how does legalization solve this problem?

Firstly, just like after the repeal of alcohol prohibition, less potent strains of cannabis will become profitable again.  Milder strains will be able to reach those who desire a more subdued experience.

Secondly if cannabis is legalized the market will be subject to regulation.  A minimum CBD content, for example, would mean commercial cannabis would have a safe balance of THC to CBD, greatly reducing the risk of adverse effects from consumption.

In economic terms of course we would also be better off, eliminating the $400 million dollar cost of enforcing cannabis prohibition annually and generating tax revenue in its place. This huge boost to our economy and government budget can fund effective programs like public health education. 

Finally, as cannabis is illegal it has been difficult to study.  New Zealand has a thriving scientific sector.  All of our major universities are globally acclaimed. Should cannabis be legalized, research will allow us to expand our understanding on the effects and safety of cannabis, providing New Zealand the opportunity to become world leaders in a virtually untapped field of medical and chemical research.

Prohibition is not merely ineffective; it is actively harming our country. To vote to keep the current laws in place is to condemn out beautiful country to continue the cycle of destruction that has plagued us from the beginning of the futile ‘war on drugs’ campaign.

The only way for us to move forward to healthier, more stable and safer communities is to cast off our archaic laws.  Laws drafted in a time of ignorance and fear and push forward to an ivory tower of understanding.

Vote YES in the 2020 cannabis referendum and we can all reap the rewards of progress

Elliot Bean, BSc (Medicinal chemistry)