Whether being called the next economic gold rush or proclaimed as a miracle medical cure, marijuana is all over the news these days. It brings a whole new meaning to the concept of “buzz.”
A majority of states have now legalized the use of cannabis — either medically, recreationally or both.
Closer to home, following bureaucratic delays getting state-approved testing labs up to speed, Maui Grown Therapies is open for business and recently added tinctures and concentrates to live resins in its medical marijuana product line at its Kahului dispensary. (Maui’s other medical marijuana dispensary, Pono Life Sciences Maui, received the green light to sell products late last month.)
Dr. Andrew Weil describes this shift in attitude as “a sea change. It’s definitely been a long time in coming.”
A world-renowned physician, Weil’s big-bearded smile has been recognizable for decades on covers of books championing alternative healthy life choices. He’s also Maui Grown’s chief medical officer.
He was drawn to become part of Maui Grown by “the quality of the people associated with the effort, starting with David Cole and his family, and the people he assembled on the team,” he said.
But the name itself signals other strengths.
“The physical environment is spectacularly conducive for producing very high-quality marijuana — potentially the best in the world. Maui, and the other islands, offers many possibilities — the climate, the sun, the nature of the air, the volcanic soil.”
He noted that pot has been present in island culture at least since the ’60s, but long before that, “There’s a long tradition in Hawaii of valuing natural medicines and the healing power of nature.”
Weil is also the head of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson where we’re spending the fall. In a phone interview last week, he elaborated on remarks he made during a Maui Grown presentation at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center earlier this year.
“There is a whole different view of the plant developing,” he said. “I think that’s a very good thing. It’s a very useful plant. I think we have been very stupid in the relationships we have formed with it, and we’ve lost out on the many benefits it can provide.”
Weil began researching marijuana when he was a student at Harvard where his professors included Dr. Richard Alpert, now better known as Maui resident Ram Dass.
During his Maui presentation, Weil affectionately likened cannabis sativa to “the dog of the plant world,” noting that through history it has “cast its lot with humans.”
But the science is complex.
“We produce the analogues of these compounds in our bodies, and there are cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. These compounds appear to regulate a lot of basic functions such as appetite, pleasure, pain perception.
“But the reactions to cannabis are very individual, and that makes it a little tricky to use as medicine. For some people, it may cause wakefulness. For some people, it may be a sedative. But in general, the lack of toxicity and the potential range of benefits — there are areas that are just beginning to be researched such as the prevention and treatment of cancer or prevention of dementia — look very fascinating. I think there’s tremendous potential there.”
He also sees it as a potential alternative to our society’s current opioid epidemic.
“We need to evolve social controls on proper healthful uses on these kinds of drugs, and back away from trying to use criminal law as a way of dealing with pieces of them that we don’t like. That kind of approach has backfired on us, it has not worked.”
But obstacles remain.
“The state has really slowed the process of making medical marijuana available. It’s taken how many years for the will of the people, as expressed in a referendum, to finally be realized? I think that ties into puritanical attitudes that probably go back to the missionaries who settled Hawaii.”
On a national level, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 Drug, with no therapeutic value and a high potential for abuse. That has to change, he says.
“It looked as though under (former President Barack) Obama that we were heading toward that, but with (President Donald) Trump in power and his current attorney general, we’ll have to see what happens. I think it’s going to be delayed. Eventually, it has to get put in a different drug schedule that makes it available for therapeutic use. Because at the present moment the federal government could shut down all the medical stuff.”
Still, he says, the momentum is there.
“It’s not going to be smooth. It’s going to be bumpy, but that’s clearly the direction we’re moving in.”
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.