Via America’s Lawyer: Mike Papantonio discusses the reasons why the marijuana legalization effort failed in Arizona and speaks with Justin Strekal, Political Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, about what pharmaceutical companies have to gain from keeping marijuana illegal.
Transcript of the above video:
Papantonio: The marijuana industry has a lot of enemies. The tobacco industry wants cannabis out of the way because it hurt’s their profits. The private prison industry even lobbies against legalizing marijuana because it would reduce the number of prisoners they receive each year. Even billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has donated millions to fight legalization efforts across the country. But one of the biggest enemies that the medical marijuana community is facing today is big pharma. The drug industry is terrified of medical marijuana because of what cannabis is able to do for patients.
In 2012, the study by the American Medical Association of over 5,000 young adults, found that occasional marijuana users actually performed better on lung tests than nonsmokers and cigarette smokers. Studies from the early 2000s have shown that cannabis can reduce the occurrence of epileptic seizures and seizures from a very serious condition known as Dravet’s Syndrome. It can relieve pain and reduce dependence on opioid painkillers. It can help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. It’s been shown to be a possible treatment for veterans with PTSD and people suffering from severe anxiety. There are countless other conditions where medical marijuana has shown to be a remarkable help for patients. But for every condition that’s treated with medical marijuana, a few more dollars are diverted away from the pockets of big pharma CEOs and that’s why they’re spending big money to legally stop states from legalizing cannabis.
It’s a legal war. The best example of how ruthless drug companies have become in their anti-marijuana pursuit occurred in Arizona in the run up to the 2016 elections. The state had a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana and as election day inched closer and closer, campaign records showed that a half a million dollars were suddenly pumped into the anti-marijuana campaign in that state. This money was shelled out by a company called INSYS Therapeutics. INSYS makes a synthetic opioid painkiller called Subsys which is supposed to be almost 100 times more potent than morphine. In fact, their drug is so strong that the DEA actually classified it as a Schedule II narcotic, the same class as drugs like cocaine. But ironically, classified below marijuana itself, which is a Schedule I drug. But Subsys was only a small part of the bigger story.
The Arizona story is just a microcosm of the corporate assault on medical marijuana. For more on this story, I’m joined with Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Justin, from what we’ve learned since the election, why do you think companies like INSYS poured so much money into anti-legalization efforts in Arizona? What was going on there? Why? It was all about money, but how was it all about money?
Justin: Well, there’s two main reasons. One is motive, which is the profit that the pharmaceutical companies stand to lose if we see a proliferation in the legalization of marijuana. And two is opportunity. It’s the fact that right now, pharmaceutical companies who stand driven by the profit motive, are threatened by it. So they will spend $500,000 against legalization in Arizona. It’s something that we’ve known for a number of years but now we’re starting to see it really amplified as the pressure to reform our marijuana laws comes to a head at the national level.
Papantonio: Justin, that’s a drop in the bucket. 500,000 compared to what they’re spending that we don’t know about, that’s the real issue. INSYS argued during the campaign, we’ve seen this argument all over the country. They argued during the campaign that legalization measures failed to protect Arizona’s children. It was children, children, children. What’s your response to that argument that we’re hearing all across the nation?
Justin: Think of the children. No, a lot of opponents of the legalization in Colorado said the same thing and we saw no statistically significant increase in youth rates. If anything, over the course of … And again, it’s a short amount of data that we have tracked so far since legalization in Colorado but we’ve actually seen a decline amongst some age brackets who are under 21. So it’s a strongman argument. It’s something, that again, prohibitionists for over 80 years now, have been saying, “Think of the children.” It’s been driven off of fear mongering, off of racism and xenophobia, and it’s just another tool in their kit as they try to oppress the rights of an individual to enjoy marijuana.
Papantonio: INSYS also manufactures Fentanyl. It’s a fentanyl-based drug. A pain medication proven to be partially responsible for the opioid crisis by the way in the United States. If you were to track it, it is Fentanyl that is really the big problem. But how does the battle over marijuana legalization play into this opioid crisis? What’s your take on it now? What are the two spins or the several spins on this part of the story?
Justin: There’s a lot of different pieces there. We’ve seen Medicare Part D study that showed in medical marijuana states there was a dramatic decrease of the number of prescriptions for opioids issued by doctors. Just in February in Canada, a few universities put together a study that showed there was 64% decrease in the number of patients seeking treatment alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs and they preferred cannabis.
The reason why they said they prefer cannabis, and of that 64%, 37% of the respondents said they prefer cannibis to opioids because they felt it better managed their symptoms and it gave them greater control to be able to … For ingestion of their medication.
Papantonio: So let me take the legal aspect of it. They’re coming at the industry, the legalization industry of marijuana. They’re coming at it with a whole cadre of laws, that most of the laws they’re manipulating and they’re doing a very good job lobbying to manipulate these laws, are taking place from a standpoint of criminal effect. I think that’s what we’re going to see more of. Isn’t it, now we’ve got a A.G. Sessions who wants to make this into a big, criminal story. That’s the way I see this developing. What is your call on that?
Justin: I think there’s one other thing that you have to consider and that’s the proliferation of medical marijuana at the state level and efforts to try to block herbal cannabis and the legal ability for people to grown their own marijuana at home. Just recently, the West Virginia state legislature had a very robust medical marijuana bill that we supported, get a vote, and then it went to the state house. There was strike amendment that replaced significant portions of the bill which then banned the use of herbal cannabis and banned … And struck out the ability for people to be able to grow their own drugs.
It’s just yet another way that … Just as the pharmaceutical company recognizes the threat to their bottom line and their ability to deliver to shareholders in the future, given the current model, INSYS has recently been developing drugs as a THC alternative that would be in the form of oils or pills, which they would be able to control. So if we see medical marijuana bills getting passed, that don’t include herbal cannabis, that do not include the ability for people to grow it at home, it’s essentially, locking pharmaceutical companies into the market. They recognize there is a way for them to profit off the legalization, but it has to be tightly controlled. That’s something that we’re seeing. We saw similar efforts in Arkansas, in North Dakota-
Papantonio: Yeah, I’m just … Justin, Justin, Justin. I haven’t handled every kind of iteration of pharmaceutical cases in the country. I’m just telling you that probably, if I’m to guess, the way that they’re going to keep tapping away at it is coming through criminal types of sanctions. That’s what we’re going to see more and more of, is this specially … As big pharma understands that they’re losing a huge market. They now have people that going to be using marijuana rather than some of the synthetic garbage that the pharmaceutical industry’s putting on the market.
So we’re going to see this picking up more and more. I guess you all are prepared for that. I would think, normal is somebody that knows this is coming down the line and you probably see it already happening. What’s your take?
Justin: And that gets to the second point of your previous question too which was about the Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Jeff Sessions was a militant prohibitionist. During the 80s, he advocated for the execution of repeat marijuana distributors. Just as recently as last April, he said from his days at the senate that, “Good people do not smoke marijuana.” So we do expect an increase posturing out of the administration and we are preparing for what a federal crackdown would look like, but …
Again again, with marijuana, much of this is done at the state level and we haven’t seen efforts, with the exception of Tennessee this year, trying to re-criminalize the possession of marijuana. That’s why when we’re looking at these medical programs that are being established, we have to consider what they define as marijuana, ’cause a lot of politicians want to take that victory lap because it’s 91% of the American people support medical marijuana. Politicians want to be able to take that victory lap and pharmaceutical companies want to make that money. That’s why they’re instituting the ban on herbal cannabis and the ban on an individual’s ability to grow their own medicine so that way they can corner the market and have a new monopoly and a new economy of synthetic marijuana.
Papantonio: Okay, we’ve watched the pharmaceutical industry corner that drug market year after year, president after president, congress after congress. I don’t care whether it’s Democrat or Republican, they are really there for the pharma industry all of the time. There’s another part of this story I’m interested in a quick take on it. The DEA. Don’t you have an infrastructure that’s built into this whole process that somebody has to preserve? I mean, you have thousands of people working for drug enforcement organizations. How does that jive with what’s happening with medical marijuana or the legalization of marijuana?
Justin: In 2013, the Department of Justice issued what’s known as the Coal Memo to deprioritized marijuana enforcement with the exception of seven guidelines. The seven guidelines included interstate transportation, the accessibility to marijuana to children, and factors breaking state based regulations that the state put forward on the regulation of either medical or recreational marijuana.
So we haven’t actually seen a tremendous amount of federal enforcement. The Heritage Foundation suggests using RICO suits going again people who are manufacturing, who are distributing marijuana to medical patients and to recreational states. That’s the approach that we expect to see coming down.
Papantonio: All right. Justin, thanks for joining us-
Justin: Yeah, thank you.
Papantonio: You got a big fight ahead of you. We think that there’s a lot of momentum but the fight’s really just begun.
Justin: We’re working on it.
Papantonio: Thanks for joining me.
Justin: Hey, thank you.