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Want to protect the health of 35 million Americans? Legalize cannabis.
Tens of millions of Americans consume cannabis regularly. They're likely ingesting high levels of toxins. Only the federal government has the power and the resources to protect them.
- Both legal and illegal cannabis in the U.S. are privy to a number of hazardous substances.
- State regulation and quality control are insufficient.
- Illustrating the public health impact may convince Senate Republicans to take up the matter.
Consumption is Rising
Adult cannabis use is climbing, according to a 2018 Columbia University study. This trend is likely to continue. Today, one in seven U.S. adults consume cannabis. Said differently, nearly 55 million use it once or twice a year. Thirty-five million are regular users. Regular use was defined as once or twice a month or more. Indeed, state-legal cannabis micro-markets, taken together, comprise the fastest growing industry in America.
Twenty-five percent of adults ages 18–29 rarely or occasionally use cannabis. That's according to a 2018 Gallup poll. Nine percent, the recent research indicates, occasionally or regularly vape cannabis oil. Considering the vaping epidemic, this is worrisome. Do the majority of consumers get their cannabis from a state-legal market? Not quite.
In 2016, 87 percent of all pot sales were from the black market. That's according to ArcView Market Research, an industry analysis firm. Today, it's around 80 percent, according to an estimate by New Frontier Data, a firm that follows trends and sales in the cannabis industry. From a public health standpoint, this is still deeply troubling. Black market cannabis is saturated with pesticides.
The Emerald Triangle
Law enforcement officers in the "Emerald Triangle" of Northern California periodically bust outdoor grow operations on public lands. Such "grows" leach dangerous pesticides into the environment, endangering wildlife and possibly even water supplies. Hundreds of grows are shut down each year. Despite this, officials say a multitude go undetected. The reason: just a handful of Forest Service agents are responsible for millions of acres of forest. As a result, most of the land never gets patrolled, and illegal grows are rampant.
Most of these operations are owned by the Mexican drug cartels. State legalization hasn't slowed their efforts much. Some 889 outdoor cultivation sites were shut down in 2018. Researchers from the Integral Ecology Research Center studied them.
Nearly all (90 percent) of those busted contained banned or restricted-use pesticides. These are highly toxic, but are seen as a necessary evil for growers. Cannabis is prone to pests, such as spider mites, mold, mildew, bacteria, and more. Growers are apt to protect their investment in the fastest and most productive way possible. As a result, pesticide use at such sites has increased over time and is still on the rise.
Seventy-five percent of illegal grows were found to be using dangerous pesticides in 2017. That's six times higher than in 2012. At a press conference last year, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, McGregor Scott, admitted that hazardous pesticide use at grow sites is increasing. These findings are significant, since the overwhelming majority of the pot sold in the U.S. comes from the black market, much of it supplied from illegal grows in the Emerald Triangle.
Mass spraying occurs at illegal grows. That's worrisome since the pesticide carbofuran has been discovered at many of the busted sites. It was banned by the EPA in 2010. One researcher, Mourad Gabriel, said it's so deadly, a quarter of a teaspoon can kill a 300-pound bear. Even small amounts consumed over time are potentially harmful. The EPA advises ingesting no more than 40 parts-per-billion (PPB).
Consuming more than 40 PPB could potentially damage the testes, the uterus, cause neurological issues, or even stomach cancer. Most of the indications we have are from tests using animal models. It is unknown what effect chronic, low-level exposure has on humans, because it's never been tested.
Even if consumers get all of their cannabis through legal channels, they're not in the clear. Cultivators in legalized states use dangerous pesticides and fungicides too, such as myclobutanil, imidacloprid, avermectin, and bifenazate. Possible health risks from consuming these include liver damage, weakened muscles, and even cancer. And these aren't the only insecticides being used; there are thousands of known types. Despite wide-ranging availability, it's impossible to test for them all in the current regulatory climate.
Other hazardous substances found on legal weed include residual solvents, molds and mildew, microbes such as salmonella, and heavy metals. So, the question is, do we want to protect 35 million Americans from frequent exposure to hazardous substances? What about a quarter of 18-29-year-olds who occasionally use cannabis?
Why the Federal Government?
One of the most difficult tasks for legalized states is to regulate pesticides. Usually an agrochemical company develops an insecticide and then foots the bill for the research. Once completed, they turn the results over to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA reviews it and sets a standard. Federal regulations state that farmers can only use the approved pesticide for each individual crop at the appropriate amount.
Even if federal legalization were to occur tomorrow, it would take years for a manufacturer to prove its pesticide was safe and effective for use on cannabis. In fact, it's illegal to use a pesticide "off label," or in any way other than how it's intended. This problem was laid bare in a recent study published in March in the journal Crop Protection. In it, Purdue University researchers said that due to a lack of universal standards, extensive research is required to develop proper pesticide regulations in cannabis cultivation.
Since the federal government has taken a laissez-faire attitude, there is no approval process in place. So, states must grope around in the dark, trying to decide how to approach pesticide use. The results are grim: in Washington State, California, Oregon, and Colorado, tests reveal levels of pesticides 100 to 1,000 times over acceptable levels for comparable crops.
Cultivators are motivated to turn out a crop quickly and get it to market. An infestation can easily make a grower consider widespread spraying to safeguard their investment. And with the absence of oversight, underhanded growers may be prone to supply a higher-quality product to the lab for testing, while preserving most of their crop, which may be unlikely to pass.
Labs in legalized states are hampered by a lack of standards and proper regulation. In an interview with Lab Manager magazine, Holly Johnson, PhD, chief scientist at the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), told of an edibles producer who sent five infused chocolate samples from the same batch to five different labs. She received five widely different results.
Another problem is high startup costs. Privately owned labs require expensive equipment, accreditation, and thoroughly trained staff who require high salaries. Since the lab needs to make a profit, they test as many samples as possible, and this hurried, high level of throughput could lead to mistakes. Labs may also be tempted to skew results in favor of growers, who are paying customers. After all, if you fail a customer, they may have their product tested elsewhere in the future.
This issue of poorly regulated labs cascades down the supply chain. If no one can keep labs in check, no one is going to keep the growers, processors, distributors, or dispensary owners in check. FDA oversight would eliminate this issue. Small, private labs do not have the same resources as federal ones. Federal labs draw highly talented personnel, have greater access to capital, and are backed by the U.S. government. Of course, not all cannabis cultivators are inscrutable. Many just don't have the necessary information needed to combat pests in a safe and appropriate manner. If we're going to keep the public safe, cannabis growers need access to the same educational opportunities as other farmers.
In an interview in The Cannabis Business Times, Purdue researchers Janna Beckerman and Fred Whitford said they're contacted frequently by cannabis cultivators seeking advice on pest control. Due to this, they pressed for availability of education at land grant colleges for cannabis farmers.
A Public Health Issue
Sixty-six percent of Americans support nationwide legalization, according to the latest Gallup poll. And 45 percent of Republicans do. Support has seen a steady uptick in recent decades and the trend is likely to continue. American Banker magazine notes the key obstacle to legalization is getting Senate leadership to prioritize the matter.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is from one of the only states that hasn't decriminalized in some fashion. Crapo is advancing the SAFE Act through his committee. This bill, if passed, would allow state-legal cannabis businesses access to banking services. Even so, Crapo's said he doesn't support federal legalization.
Now, say a legalization bill were to pass through the House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this year he doesn't support legalization either. So the issue is unlikely to be brought to the Senate floor.
Framing the argument as a public health issue could garner more attention. The enormous baby boomer generation is flush with voters. They may be motivated to press legislators, if they're aware their children (and grandchildren) are in danger. If boomers don't know how to minimize their risks, then we can't expect more rigid oversight in cannabis production, at least not any time soon. What's more, legalization would help prevent another dangerous vaping epidemic. It would also help protect the occasional and not-so-occasional cannabis user, groups which contain millions of young people.
Federal legalization would see above-board cannabis become price competitive with black market varieties. It would allow the EPA and USDA to prescribe and regulate pesticides and other chemicals used in cultivation. SOPs and protocols would be mandated, and well-staffed, well-funded, independent labs would test and clear products.
The popularity of cannabis isn't wavering anytime soon. Statistics show quite the contrary, in fact. The only way to protect the health of 35 million Americans is through federal legalization.
- Carl Sagan on why he liked smoking marijuana - Big Think ›
- Teen marijuana use in all 50 states: Report compares data - Big Think ›
- Report: Legal marijuana hurts drug cartels, secures U.S. border - Big ... ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?
This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.
MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.
- A new study demonstrates that our brains crave social interaction with the same areas used to crave food.
- Hungry test subjects also reported a lack of desire to socialize, proving the existence of "hanger."
- Other studies have suggested that failure to socialize can lead to stress eating in rodents.
People sometimes crave socialization, literally.<p> Forty participants underwent 10 hours of either social isolation or fasting before being placed in an MRI machine. Those who fasted had their brains imaged while viewing pictures of food; those emerging from isolation viewed photos of socializing people. <strong><br> <br> </strong>The areas of the brain related to hunger pains, reward, and movements, the substantia nigra pars compacta and ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), are also associated with cravings for food or addictive substances. When those who fasted viewed images of food, these regions of their brains lit up. Most interestingly, the same brain regions lit up when those who had been isolated for 10 hours saw pictures of other people socializing. <br> <br> Test subjects also filled out questionnaires during and after the fasting and isolation periods. Not only did this confirm that people felt cravings for what they had missed, but that the effect was similar in both cases. </p><p>They also showed that very hungry people were less responsive to images of socializing, suggesting that "hanger," the state of being irritable as a result of hunger, is a demonstrable <a href="https://www.insider.com/loneliness-and-hunger-have-similar-effects-on-the-brain-study-2020-11" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state</a>. </p>
How can I use this information? I’m asking for a friend.<p> The obvious takeaway is that it is perfectly normal to feel a need for interaction with others after an extended bout of isolation. Our brains treat some form of interaction as a basic need that must be met. While not shown as clearly in humans, not getting these needs often drives mice to <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29334694/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress ea</a><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29334694/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">t</a>, a finding that makes a great deal of sense in light of these new findings. <br> </p><p>Exactly how we can meet the need for socialization outside of just meeting up with people (a tricky proposition at the time of writing) remains up for debate. Anybody who has tried a Zoom party during the pandemic can attest to it just not being as nice as seeing friends in person. <br> <br> The study's authors are aware of this issue and note that:<br> <br> "A vital question is how much, and what kinds of, positive social interaction is sufficient to fulfill our social needs and thus eliminate the neural craving response. Technological advances offer incessant opportunities to be virtually connected with others, despite physical separations. Yet, some have argued that using social media only exacerbates subjective feelings of isolation.<sup>"</sup><br> </p><p>Unfortunately, the study cannot offer us an answer to this question just yet. </p>
Like always, there are limitations to this study.<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/sgxMsgDWnAU" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> This study involved 40 participants. While its essential finding is likely to be generally applicable, exactly how applicable it is to the broader population cannot be known with certainty from such a small group. The participants were also healthy, well-connected young adults who might react to various problems differently than other demographic groups. </p><p>Their tendency to do so while being the focus of endless studies on psychology is a well-recorded problem. <br> <br> Likewise, the fact that the participants knew they would only be isolated for 10 hours may have impacted how they reacted to the isolation—it is often easier to endure something when you know precisely when it will end. </p><p>Getting around that in future experiments may prove impossible. From an ethical standpoint, it would be difficult to structure an experiment on humans predicated on the idea that they will be kept isolated from all social interaction indefinitely. <br> <br> Lastly, while all of the participants were quite hungry after 10 hours, there were enough variations in how lonely people felt after isolation to suggest a more significant variance in need for socialization than in demand for food. While this seems obvious, we all know both introverts and extroverts; it does make it more challenging to determine how much social interaction counts as a "need" that the brain craves just as it craves food. </p><p>As usual, more research is needed.</p><p> The idea that humans are social animals existed long before modern neuroscience was possible. Now, we can see exactly what happens in the brain when we can't socialize. While the final word on the subject is still to be said, it might be time to give a friend a call. </p>
Researchers document the first example of evolutionary changes in a plant in response to humans.
- A plant coveted in China for its medicinal properties has developed camouflage that makes it less likely to be spotted and pulled up from the ground.
- In areas where the plant isn't often picked, it's bright green. In harvested areas, it's now a gray that blends into its rocky surroundings.
- Herbalists in China have been picking the Fritillaria dealvayi plant for 2,000 years.
Fritillaria dealvayi<p>The plant is <em> </em><a href="http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200027633" target="_blank"><em>Fritillaria dealvayi</em></a><em>,</em> and its bulbs are harvested by Chinese herbalists, who grind it into a powder that treats coughs. The cough powder sells for the equivalent of $480 per kilogram, with a kilogram requiring the grinding up of about 3,500 bulbs. The plant is found in the loose rock fields lining the slopes of the Himalayan and Hengduan mountains in southwestern China.</p><p>As a perennial that produces just a single flower each year after its fifth season, it seems <em>Fritillaria</em> used to be easier to find. In some places its presence is betrayed by bright green leaves that stand out against the rocks among which which it grows. In other places, however, its leaves and stems are gray and blend in with the rocks. What's fascinating is that the bright green leaves are visible in areas in which Fritillaria is relatively undisturbed by humans while the gray leaves are (just barely) visible in heavily harvested areas. Same plant, two different appearances.</p><div id="19cbf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c68d3086f5411ffd951edaad1cb811b9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1329832938985435138" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">2/2: The picture on the left shows a Fritillaria delavayi in populations with high harvest pressure, and the one on… https://t.co/oriBNZGcsV</div> — University of Exeter News (@University of Exeter News)<a href="https://twitter.com/UniofExeterNews/statuses/1329832938985435138">1605891854.0</a></blockquote></div>
How we know we're the cause<p>There are other camouflaging plants, but the manner in which <em>Fritillaria</em> has developed this trait strongly suggests that it's a defensive response to being picked. "Many plants seem to use camouflage to hide from herbivores that may eat them — but here we see camouflage evolving in response to human collectors."</p><p>"Like other camouflaged plants we have studied," Niu says, " we thought the evolution of camouflage of this fritillary had been driven by herbivores, but we didn't find such animals." His close examination of Fritillaria leaves revealed no bite marks or other signs of non-human predation. "Then we realized humans could be the reason."</p><p>In any event, says Professor Hang Sun the Kunming Institute, "Commercial harvesting is a much stronger selection pressure than many pressures in nature."</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDgyNzM0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDc3NDQwMn0.lXwsG0ShcnMcVLl06APdEeEOY5_WOs4UfN8oVCKsgtc/img.png?width=980" id="ccc8e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="907e152dd5ad0429aa6350c53f5a85aa" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="herb shop" />
Credit: maron/Adobe Stock