INTERVIEW: Will Cannabis Prohibition End In Our Lifetime?

Why we’re covering this: It’s pretty clear that the War On Drugs hasn’t worked; we want to support people working for real solutions.

elizabeth conway, gide, marijuana, cannabis
Elizabeth Conway, Principal, Gide LLC

With marijuana being legalized for medical use in many states, and recreational use in Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska, we’re beginning to see a sea change in how marijuana is seen. No longer the domain of Reefer Madness, people are beginning to see that cannabis can be very useful for pain management — and safer than other legal vices like alcohol to boot.

We sat down with Elizabeth Conway of Gide to talk about her SXSW panel and the intersection of technology companies and the end of cannabis prohibition.

Unicorn Booty: Your SXSW session description said “collateral technology companies can be the best voice for this emerging market, and thereby ensure that the market breadth satisfies clients and investors.” Can you briefly tell us how such companies are helping end cannabis prohibition?

Elizabeth Conway: Many of the traditional cannabis interests – growers/processors/dispensaries/users struggle to get to the table with politicians because of fear of getting caught or because of years of animosity. It is not universally true, but it has often been the case.  Technology companies appeal to politicians because they do not touch cannabis, are historically neutral in the drug war, often have money that translates into campaign support and they collect the type of data that can prove public policy positions.

When the industry can speak to government and educate government in a way government will listen, everyone wins. All of these attributes open doors to conversations about cannabis in somewhat “safe” environments where law enforcement and legislators don’t have to feel as though they have met directly with the industry.

Many states still criminalize cannabis use even though there’s increasing evidence that it has medicinal properties of all kinds. What has been the most influential factor in convincing states to legalize medical and recreational use?

For both, the driving force has been the demand of the voting citizenry.  Medical and Adult recreational use do not always share the same voter base, though – for medicinal use, most people know someone who uses cannabis for medicinal purposes with great success to help with a variety of conditions from the side effects of chemo to seizures to anxiety and sleep disorders. 

People are becoming more aware of the dangerous effects of even short term opioid use so pain and inflammation management is also a growing appeal. The more patient stories are told openly the more people understand that there is a compassionate use argument.  

On the adult use/recreational front, our jails are brimming, cities and states are hurting from lower tax income, and the roll out of adult use in states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon simply has not been the Armageddon some would have had us believe. Law enforcement is concerned with much more dangerous activity and states are listening to their voters. Legal adult use is polling in the mid 50’s to low 60’s perhaps because so many people alive today have used cannabis at one point or another.

Hillary Clinton has proposed moving cannabis from a schedule one drug to a schedule two one that would allow for more medical testing, but could still allow for state and federal agencies to harass people who use it medically. What do you think of her proposal, and why has cannabis stayed as a schedule one drug for so long to begin with?

I am mostly going to defer on this one.  Rescheduling would allow for testing but it would not end the prohibition of a substance that is simply not killing people.  If they reschedule, I think they must do it in a way that has a clear and very short term path to full legalization with stage-gate measures pre-defined so that we do not have the huge political interests creating an undue influence. I have no idea why cannabis has stayed as a schedule one drug for so long.  Chalk it up to very successful propaganda.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently reported that traffic accidents doubled in Washington after the state legalized cannabis, and that “legal limits for marijuana and driving are arbitrary and unsupported by science,” resulting in unsafe motorists on the road and less impaired drivers being imprisoned. What do you think science, legislators and the cannabis industry need to do to resolve this issue?

First and foremost, advocates and government need to gather baseline and ongoing measurement data specific to cannabis as soon as possible, ideally before legalization.  Schools, law enforcement, hospitals, clinics should be measuring drug-related incidents specific to cannabis should compare before and after — apples to apples.

I can’t say what is happening in Washington.  I can say if the data is right, what great data to have to inform our decisions — public health officials can run the appropriate types of campaigns to intervene quickly and with data driven solutions.

People have criticized the quickly growing cannabis market for using up water resources, especially in states with water shortages, and white, well-heeled marijuana entrepreneurs for capitalizing on a business built on the backs of imprisoned, non-violent users of color. What do you think of that criticism? 

Two hot button topics.  On water: If you foster prohibition, it has many unintended consequences including the unwillingness of the market to work with government on environmental issues.  Is it right to waste water? No, but most other industries get to work with government to design solutions.

Now that we are giving permits and regulating cannabis, we see where the farmers are more than happy to work with local and state government to design efficient solutions.  Why would a farmer in fear that her farm is going to be seized at any time install a lot of expensive water saving equipment?  I think the water use will easily be addressed by a regulated industry where all the players are working together about to integrate cannabis farming into a responsible agricultural ecosystem. 

On the second: The statistics on inequality are profound.  We have to do something to remedy this and not delay.  The entire system has to get right about this.  Look to Oakland as an example of a city that is at least trying to re-think opportunity, fair chances, and licensing to foster equality and righting the scales.  I am not sure they have it right yet, but we have to do something or suffer analysis paralysis.

(Featured image via DocMonsterEyes/Flickr)