Exploring the financial incentives behind medical marijuana

image: flikr/trawin

Can you imagine McDonald’s targeting marijuana smokers, touting the Big Mac as a cure for the ‘munchies?’ What if Oprah opened a clinic to distribute medical marijuana in a building that looks and functions like a doctor’s office?


As unlikely as these marketing ideas may sound, they’re not far off from reality:

Last week, Jim Hagedorn, the chief executive of lawn care giant Scotts Miracle-Gro, told the Wall Street Journal that his company was interested in reaching out to medical marijuana growers as potential customers.

“I want to target the pot market,” Hagedorn said in the interview. “There’s no good reason we haven’t.”

That same afternoon, former daytime TV staple, Montel Williams, announced that he had opened a brand new Californian medical marijuana dispensary. Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, says the effects of marijuana has helped ease his pain in a way traditional medication couldn’t and hopes his ‘high end’ dispensary can help remove some of the stigma around use of the drug.

So, if celebrity endorsements and corporate backing were any indication, it would appear that a significant portion of the population supports medical marijuana. Or, in the very least, support it as long as they can profit from it.

But not everyone is on board. John R. Knight, MD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research(CeASAR), is very concerned by what he describes as pot’s “softening image” among American youth. He believes that by ascribing a medicinal value to the drug, young people are being led to believe that medicinal marijuana is harmless, maybe even beneficial in some situations. But as Knight explains, recent studies have shown that brain development continues into the mid to late twenties, and during this time is very sensitive to the affects of neurotoxins such as cannabis. Cannabis receptors are found throughout the brain in areas controlling memory, vision, coordination and higher order problem solving; all things young people will require to succeed in their futures. Those who begin smoking marijuana early in adolescence can cause permanent damage to their brains and are four to six times more likely to develop major depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addiction later in life. Knight says comments like Hagedorn’s do nothing but perpetuate the dangerous misconceptions about pot, especially as it relates to young people.

Medical marijuana shops have recently been targeted in armed robberies. Flkr: SanFranAnnie

“I was angry when I heard what Scotts’ CEO had done,” he says. “I’m a planting a garden behind my house, and I had a bag of Miracle-Gro in my garage that I just threw out. If they’re the kind of company that’s comfortable trading the mental health of our youth for improved profits, I don’t need to support their business.”

By labeling marijuana as medicine, Knight is concerned that young people will have greater access to it, begin smoking at earlier ages and could think it’s safer because of a ‘medical endorsement.’ In contrast, Knight says medical marijuana could cause more damage to young users than illegal pot, because it’s often grown in specially tended micro farms that are designed to grow marijuana plants that are far more potent than illicit marijuana grown in make shift greeneries and sold on the streets.

“I don’t care what adults do with their time. But I am concerned for young people, whose brains are still in the developing and could start using very strong marijuana because they think it’s OK,” he says. “The more medical marijuana laws that are passed, the more young people will start smoking earlier in life, potentially damaging their brains forever.”

As for the medicinal properties of marijuana, many in the medical community remain unconvinced. In 2003 the Institute of Medicine stated that when smoked, marijuana is not a safe or effective alternative to medication.

Medical marijuana proponents often point to patients like Williams, saying that laws that deny the drug as a form of pain relief are cruel. Knight says he supports everyone’s right to be free of pain, but doesn’t feel that current medical marijuana laws are drafted to protect patients as much as the financial interests of a multi-billion dollar industry.

“The so-called medical marijuana laws need to have their names updated to reflect their true intentions; they should be called the ‘growers and dealers laws,’” he says. “No one would begrudge cancer patients who occasionally smoke marijuana to ease their pain. But when you read the wording of these bills, that’s not who they are trying to protect. They’re clearly written with interests of medical marijuana growers and distributors in mind, not the rights of patients.”

In addition to concerns over normalization around marijuana’s use as a medicine, Knight also cites rising crime rates in areas with legal pot growth as potential negative side effect of medical marijuana. Plants grown for medicinal marijuana are often worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and are therefore very enticing to thieves. To protect their valuable crops, growers often arm themselves, thereby increasing the potential for violence connected to their production.

“The more medical marijuana laws that are passed, the more young people will start smoking earlier in life, potentially damaging their brains forever.”

“Homicide rates in states with medical marijuana laws have gone up as a result of the violence and crime associated with legally grown marijuana plants,” he says. “And the growers and dealers are protected under legal statutes, because the products they grow are legal. All things considered, it really is an insidious law.”

In the future, Knight says he’s hopeful that voters in states with proposed medical marijuana laws, as well as prominent members of influential social and business communities like Hagedron, will do more research before they come out in support of medical marijuana.

“It’s possible that people at Scotts aren’t aware of how medical marijuana laws have the potential to adversely affect teenagers. If that’s the case I suggest they educate themselves on the topic and change their business model accordingly,” he says. “If not, this is the worst kind of corporate greed imaginable. Because, in the end, it’s the young people who will ultimately pay the price.”