"Cam," my mother said, "the G6 flower is still our top seller, but the brownies and cookies are going like crazy!"
Two years ago, hearing my mom talk about different kinds of marijuana would have been empirically weird, but today it is completely common. In November 2015, she, two business partners and I opened Harbory — a medical cannabis dispensary in Marion, Ill., two hours from my hometown of St. Louis.
My mother, Michele Koo, a plastic surgeon who wears high heels and a white lab coat when seeing patients, may not be the person you'd imagine running a dispensary. Nor am I, a Stanford University graduate who left a job at Anheuser-Busch making Super Bowl commercials with the Budweiser Clydesdales. I have never used marijuana; my mom smoked a few times in college. We became interested in medical cannabis after my mom's mom — "Na," we called her, Chinese for grandmother — died of cancer in California without the benefit of cannabis as an end-of-life palliative.
We have gained considerable, and unexpected, insight from opening the dispensary, particularly timely with the Obama administration's recent move to encourage scientific study of marijuana's medical uses. Currently, only the University of Mississippi can legally conduct such research, but in August the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would expand the number of entities that can grow marijuana for research purposes.
Our experience suggests it's a good move.
First, I had thought our customers would be younger, male, urban and looking for a quick high. Early "Cheech & Chong," right? Wrong. Among the roughly 700 people who have walked through our doors, the typical patient — at Harbory we call them "members" — skews older and female, a demographic we are proud to match in our incredible staff. Many members are on a fixed income and must choose between buying groceries and buying medicine at our dispensary. These individuals are truly sick and seeking relief.
Second, medical cannabis is still highly stigmatized, to the detriment of those who legally use it. Take our first member, Kevin Sauls, a 54-year-old minister with kind blue eyes and a cropped white beard who is suffering from spinal stenosis. He has had two back surgeries in three years but says that since coming to the dispensary his pain is reduced and he has weaned himself from harmful opioids such as oxycodone and Vicodin.
Now, the problem: "I was on the news for being your very first patient," Sauls told me. "When my church saw me, they barred me from giving sermons for six weeks. It's not right." Tears welled as he continued. "This is a God-made plant, and as long as he puts it on the Earth, I want people to be able to use it."
Our third takeaway is that hundreds of people want access to medical cannabis but are denied it because their conditions don't qualify. Consider Angela Bond, who purchases edible cannabis products for her autistic son, Dalton, 17. When we spoke, Bond showed me a CVS bill for all of Dalton's medications. Now, with the help of medical cannabis, she has weaned her son off most of those pills. "Since he's been on the cannabis medication," Bond told me, "Dalton has had fewer fits. He's no longer rolling on the floor, ripping his shirt, breaking walls and windows in our house, and he can talk to people. He can look you in the eye and he can even verbalize things." Now, the problem: Autism is not on the list of qualifying conditions in Illinois; Dalton qualifies for his cannabis card only because he also suffers from seizures.
In Illinois, there are roughly 40 conditions for which cannabis use is legal. Not on the list are depression, anxiety, anorexia and chronic pain — conditions included on the list in many other states, and for which studies exist proving the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment. Post-traumatic stress disorder has just recently been added by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. In the U.S., only 25 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis. This leaves many sick individuals without the access they need.
Finally, my mother and I learned just how complex cannabis really is. Think of it like an apple. When you go to the grocery store, you don't just buy apples — you buy Granny Smith or Fuji or Pink Lady apples. The same is true of cannabis. There are hundreds of strains, each with a different combination of cannabinoids and terpenes — the molecules that comprise each strain. It is the combination of these molecules that acts on the endocannabinoid system — a network of receptors in every human body — and provides the medical benefits of cannabis.
And thus our biggest eye-opener: Federal regulations make research about cannabis almost impossible. To provide more knowledge on cannabis, researchers must go through a Byzantine system of approvals with the Drug Enforcement Administration; to date, there is a dearth of studies highlighting the effects of specific strains and cannabinoids on particular conditions. The research approval process is so onerous in part because of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classifies all drugs into groups called "schedules." Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous, with "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical benefits"; Schedule V are the least dangerous. Per the CSA, cannabis and heroin are Schedule I drugs; cocaine is a Schedule II drug. As long as cannabis remains a federally illegal substance and its medical benefits remain unrecognized, researchers will not be allowed to perform strain and molecule-specific studies.
The federal shift on research will lift some barriers by permitting more universities to grow cannabis for explicit use in medical studies. My mother and I are hopeful.
But the new ruling, though a step in the right direction, is still far from what medical cannabis users truly need. Concurrent with the ruling, the DEA rejected a proposal to reschedule marijuana, supporting the claim that the plant has no accepted medical use. This, of course, sends a conflicting message: The same administration that will permit more cannabis research maintains that the plant has no medical benefits.
In November, several states will vote on whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. An initiative in Missouri is tied up in a court battle and the question may not make it on that state's ballot. If medical cannabis becomes legal in our home state, my mother and I plan to expand our small business — and the thing we most need is for the recently approved research to be carried out as expeditiously as possible, and, when results corroborating marijuana's medical benefits are released, for the DEA to re-evaluate its stance on scheduling so that as many people as possible can benefit.
Cameron Lehman is a student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Prior to attending graduate school, he opened Harbory, a medical cannabis dispensary in Southern Illinois.