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There are plenty of theories about Big Pharma lobbying to get cannabis criminalized in the 20th century. It’s a bit ironic, then, that marijuana’s big comeback has been built on the back of its medicinal properties.

Advocates have long spoken about the medicinal powers of cannabis. Studies published in the late 19th and early 20th century even investigated some of these claims. When cannabis was criminalized, the studies dried up. It was impossible to legally get the product or the funding. Even if research could get their hands on cannabis, they couldn’t publish results—at least, not without risking a crackdown from the feds.

In the late 20th century, though, marijuana was associated with the counterculture movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, marijuana became part of back-to-nature movements and alternative medicine. Around the same time, cannabinoids like CBD and THC were being synthesized in the lab for the first time.

That got the medical community wondering. Could cannabis do everything its disciples claimed? With synthetic cannabinoids in hand, they set out to discover what marijuana can do.

Building a Case for Medical Marijuana

In the late 1970s and 1980s, small medical studies using synthetic cannabinoids appeared. The research quickly confirmed what cannabis advocates had been saying all along: Cannabinoids have medicinal properties.

The earliest studies looked at how THC could help cancer patients undergoing treatment. Cannabinoids, it seemed, reduced nausea and vomiting. What was more, both seemed to limit the pain patients felt, and they could affect appetite.

Over the years, the case for medical marijuana accumulated in the research. More studies showed promising results. This culminated with the introduction of medical marijuana programs in the Western world. Canada implemented their country-wide Medical Marijuana Rules in 2001. California became the first state to allow medical marijuana in 1996.

Today, 33 states have authorized medical marijuana programs. The federal government legalized hemp. Some states make allowances for the medical use of CBD.

Moving to Recreational Legalization

As the case for medical marijuana grows, more people want to end the stigma around marijuana use. Some protest jailing recreational users, who are often poor and racialized, while patients get away scot-free.

The answer? The legalization of recreational marijuana and forgiveness of marijuana convictions.

The growing science on the uses of cannabis has only strengthened the idea that it isn’t the “demon weed” it was made out to be. Researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and advocates alike are talking about the potential of cannabis. Some research even suggests cannabinoids could unlock the secrets to the aging process.

To date, 11 states have legalized recreational cannabis. More are looking to follow. The US Senate recently signaled its willingness to talk about cannabis by considering the SAFE Act. If passed, this legislation would allow banks to extend financing to cannabis companies.

The US House of Representatives has also signaled its willingness to talk about cannabis. Recently the MORE Act, which would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

The End of Medical Marijuana?

The case for medical marijuana is what paved the way for recreational legalization. The changing framework raises some new questions.

One big question is about what happens to medical marijuana after recreational legalization.

In most states, medical marijuana programs have remained in place. Illinois recently legalized recreational use, but voted to keep its medical program.

It seems likely medical programs will remain in place even if federal legalization happens. Canada sets the example. It legalized recreational cannabis nationwide in 2018, but kept its medical cannabis program.

Some people question the wisdom of this decision. If recreational marijuana is legal, why would anyone see a doctor about getting it? You could just stroll down to the local dispensary and pick up what you need.

The medical community does have concerns about people self-medicating for complex conditions. It might be okay to grab recreational cannabis off the shelf to help with a headache. It’s not a great idea to guess at what you need for conditions like diabetes or cancer.

Does the Recreational Market Hurt Medical Cannabis Patients?

In Canada, some medical cannabis patients spoke out about concerns with recreational marijuana. Some were worried about increasing prices. If the medical program was done away with, they’d be subject to paying the new cannabis tax.

The idea that recreational users and medical patients have different needs is common. The health and wellness market favors non-psychoactive CBD. There’s a belief that recreational users will demand high THC content in their quest to get high.

That leads some patients to worry that dispensaries won’t stock high-CBD products. Others have been impacted by shortages or delays. The belief is that CBD products won’t sell as well in a recreational market where getting high is the name of the game, so retailers and growers will shift their focus to other products.

The multi-billion-dollar CBD market says otherwise. There is a certain group of recreational users who just want to get high. Many more people are interested in the health properties of cannabinoids like CBD.

That’s led to a larger population of cannabis-curious consumers. In fact, one of the fastest growing cannabis markets is older adults. These people aren’t interested in getting high (well, not all of them, anyway). They want to know what cannabis can do as a pain-reliever or how it can help them with rheumatoid arthritis.

Even the wellness-seeking Millennial generation has been hopping on board the CBD train. Suffice to say that budtenders aren’t likely to be stocking the shelves with dabs and THC alone any time soon.

Medical Is Here to Stay

There are other reasons medical marijuana programs have stayed in place. The most obvious argument is possession limits.

In most places, medical marijuana patients are allowed to have much more cannabis than recreational users. Patients could be charged with not just a possession misdemeanor but with trafficking.

There’s some pretty sound logic behind this. Recreational users don’t need to carry around 90 grams when just a few grams are enough to produce a high. For most recreational users, 90 grams is probably overkill.

Medical cannabis patients may need to have that much to get through the next month. Many medical marijuana users take several grams per day. A 3-gram daily dose would mean 90 grams is a month’s supply for some patients. If medical exceptions for “high” doses ended, patients could be charged.

To get around this issue, possession limits in recreational laws would need to expand or be dropped. Since recreational use is still a hot-button issue, dropping limits wouldn’t fly. In light of that, medical marijuana programs are important.

On Doctor’s Orders

Another issue is dosing and the risks of people self-medicating with cannabis. Cannabis dosing is tricky, as individuals respond to THC and CBD in different ways. The cannabis dose curve presents problems. Taking too much can result in the polar opposite of the desired effects. Someone who takes THC to relax may find their symptoms exaggerated by a dose that’s too much for them, even if it’s the same dose that relaxes someone else. Cannabis can also interact with some prescription medications, which can cause problems for patients.

These novice users need the help of a doctor to properly describe dosage, expectations, and side effects of medical marijuana use. Without a seasoned medical practitioner, patients are left on their own to try to determine the appropriate use and dose for their needs.

Without a medical marijuana program, advice comes from the people working at dispensaries or brand representatives on social media. Although the people working in the cannabis industry are often knowledgeable, the fact is very few budtenders are doctors. They can’t give the medical advice patients need to use cannabis effectively and safely.

The Potential of All Markets

Some people believe there’s more potential in a recreational cannabis market. That may not necessarily be the case. Right now, the market shows cross-sections between recreational users and medical cannabis patients. More and more people are interested in health and wellness benefits.

From luxury products to high-grade medical cannabis and products designed for everyday health and wellness, there’s still plenty of room to grow in the cannabis market.

No matter your niche or your market, the right branding can help you reach them. Your marketing strategy is the key to competing in this growing industry.

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