Science can’t say for sure if marijuana saved Josh Hunt’s life. But he’s certain of it.
Hunt, who co-owns and operates local restaurants Beer Run and Kardinal Hall, was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma in October 2014. He’d had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital. An MRI revealed a growth on his right frontal lobe. Doctors scheduled surgery immediately and removed as much of the tumor as they could.
A week later, a biopsy brought the bad news. Many people diagnosed with malignant stage 4 GBMs live for another year, year and a half.
In the wake of his diagnosis, Hunt was devastated. He lived for weeks in a sort of “black and white” world, he says. Then he read Anticancer: A New Way of Life, and it inspired him to fight. He decided he would try anything he could to beat back the cancer in his brain. He would bring color back to his life.
Chemotherapy and radiation were the prescribed courses, but Hunt had also heard of a non-mainstream cancer-fighting drug —cannabis.
Medical marijuana has been shown to be effective in treating a number of conditions, and doctors have recommended it for everything from controlling symptoms of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis to dealing with chronic pain, nausea, and loss of appetite, to helping with mental health issues like anxiety and PTSD. Whether it can also fight cancer is controversial, but a friend working in medical marijuana in Colorado told Hunt patients were seeing great results using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana, to shrink tumors.
The American Cancer Society reports that some animal and cell studies have shown THC and other cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD), can slow the growth of or kill certain types of cancer cells. But results from the few clinical trials that have been published are inconclusive, and more research is needed.
Regardless, Hunt wanted to give THC a try. He went to his doctor. Would marijuana interfere with other therapies? Was it total bunk? It would not interfere, the doctor said. And it was worth a try.
At the time, all forms of medical marijuana were illegal in Virginia, so Hunt had to travel out of state. He took a concentrated form of THC and CBD commonly known as Rick Simpson oil, over several months. It was a heady trip, and he often felt like giving it up. But his follow-up biopsies kept him going. Where most GBM patients at best see their tumors remain the same or at worst triple in size every few months, Hunt’s began to shrink.
“I’m not new agey at all, but I had this experience,” he says. “I had this moment where I remember distinctly feeling this energy coursing through me, and it was like embracing me in a cosmic love, and I knew it was going to heal me.”
Virginia’s changed since Hunt traveled for his own cannabis treatment in late 2014. CBD and THCA, another non-psychoactive cannabinoid, are now legal prescription drugs, and five dispensaries around the state have been licensed to start selling the low-strength medical marijuana products later this year. Although state law prevents the distribution of full-strength cannabis (the oil Hunt used would still not be available here, for example), Virginia is the 46th state that’s moved toward making marijuana legal for medicinal purposes.
Nine states have also legalized marijuana for recreational use. And that’s opened up opportunities, not only for patients looking to improve their lives, but also for countless economic benefits and for reduced penalties for cannabis users, specifically the low-income communities hurt worst by war on drugs-era legislation.
“We have seen so many people’s lives ravaged by the war on drugs. We know that has been a coordinated effort to target minority communities,” says Sally Hudson, a UVA labor economist who’s running for the House of Delegates seat to be vacated by David Toscano later this year. “There are definitely opportunities for entrepreneurs in agriculture. But for me, that is secondary. It starts with righting the injustice.”
Cannabis in the commonwealth
The Virginia Legislature has consistently blocked marijuana decriminalization and legalization bills. Despite the legal status of CBD and THCA products for medical use, the drug is still categorized as fully illegal in the state. In a lawmaking body led by Republicans, most bills suggesting decriminalization or legalization never make it out of committee.
In January, the Virginia Senate defeated SB 997, which would have decriminalized simple possession (possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use). The House defeated a companion bill, HB 2079, around the same time.
The string of losses could end if the Virginia House flips Democratic in November, advocates believe. “If we elect a Democratic majority, I think you are looking at a clear, distinct possibility marijuana will be part of a new Virginia economy, along with clean energy,” said Kathy Galvin, a Charlottesville city councilor who’s running against Hudson for Toscano’s House seat.
According to Virginia NORML director Jenn Michelle Pedini, Virginia has been taking steps toward approving medical cannabis legislation since 2015. And in 2018, a program that allowed low-THC products for the treatment of intractable epilepsy was expanded to account for any condition recommended by a physician. The program is regulated by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy.
New bills in front of the legislature would allow the dispensaries, to be located in Staunton, Manassas, Bristol, Richmond, and Portsmouth, to distribute full therapeutic-strength medical cannabis, which contains higher levels of THC than what’s currently allowed in Virginia, and might be more effective at combating certain ailments. Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican and physician, has led the way on the bills, as she has with most medical marijuana legislation in the state.
Pedini says no date has been set for opening Virginia’s five state dispensaries, but conversations with Board of Pharmacy members have led her to believe September is realistic. The facilities will need time to organize and scale up to serve customers, she says, and the facility in Portsmouth, known as Columbia Care, is likely to be the first fully operational dispensary in the commonwealth.
The next step, according to Pedini, would be to move regulation of the industry away from the Board of Pharmacy to an agency specifically created for medical marijuana. Like so many other cannabis-related crossroads, the speed of such a move will depend largely on how the November election goes.
Pedini says moving away from the current licensing model to a “tiered model,” in which marijuana retail and production are licensed separately, would allow the economic opportunities of cannabis to blossom, bringing new growers and dispensers into the fold rather than bulking up the original five.
The step after that? Decriminalization and full legal status for marijuana, a measure that Gallup polls show is now favored by 66 percent of Americans, a record high approval rating and the third year in a row its favorability has increased. (In Gallup’s first pot poll, in 1969, only 12 percent of Americans said the drug should be legalized.)
Breaking down the law
With the recent spate of states approving marijuana for medical and recreational use—Oklahoma, Michigan, Missouri, Utah—many advocates believe legalization in areas like Virginia is a fait accompli. It simply comes down to how soon it happens.
And the most critical benefit of legalization, they say, is what it will prevent: the arrest and incarceration of individuals for simple marijuana possession and use.
Steven Hawkins, executive director of D.C.’s Marijuana Policy Project, says for the past 40 years, simple drug possession has been “at the very epicenter of the war on drugs,” a war that disproportionately affects black Americans. According to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, black people are at least 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for a drug offense than white people, despite using illicit drugs at a similar rate.
Hawkins believes thinking about marijuana lawmaking as a criminal justice issue brings blue and red legislators together—most folks agree small-time marijuana busts are a poor use of police time and money, and it’s not an issue worth scarring citizens’ records. Galvin is one of those who agrees.
“The Charlottesville Police Department doesn’t arrest on the basis of marijuana—they can but they don’t,” she says. “But it has been on the base of discretion, and it’s better to have clear laws.”
Now some reliably red, Southern states are moving toward medical marijuana—South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia itself. And once one state goes, contiguous states tend to follow, Hawkins says.
Nationally, lawmakers are opening up to cannabis, as well. While the drug is still on the federal controlled substances list, last year’s Hemp Farming Act, which legalizes low-THC industrial hemp nationwide, should continue to open dope doors.
“There are no national barriers any longer, so CBD is helping sort of plow the way,” Hawkins says.
Building the bankroll
Amy Dannemiller was working a corporate job in Colorado when marijuana started making inroads in mainstream circles. It was 2013, and her employer spotted her inhaling cannabis through a vape pen on CNBC’s “Marijuana in America” documentary. She was fired.
Dannemiller, who had begun hosting cannabis-friendly events around Denver under the pseudonym Jane West, jumped headlong into promoting the “legal lifestyle.” She now operates an eponymous company specializing in CBD oils, smoking accessories, and mini joints.
Jane West CBD oils ship around the world. The company’s five- and 10-packs of marijuana cigarettes, branded for either “day” or “night” use, are available for purchase in a half dozen states, including the District of Columbia. In 2018, West raised almost $200,000 in equity funding from investors. Her business, she says, is growing like a weed, and she believes that’s good for both the economy and the public as a whole.
Pedini agrees. “The most important conversation around the legalization of marijuana is it provides states the ability to take it off the street corner and put it behind an age-verified counter, safely regulated and labeled for adult consumers,” she says.
Eliminating the illicit market for marijuana would enhance public safety and put cash in the public coffers. “We don’t have to guess what would happen,” she adds. “We can look at a multitude of other states and see for ourselves that regulation does reduce youth access.” (Not everyone agrees with Pedini’s conclusion, and with most marijuana legalization laws still in their infancy, the data is inconclusive.)
Will a weed-friendly Virginia yield the next marijuana magnate in the mold of West? Hard to say. As Pedini suggests, business opportunities are dependent on the regulatory structure put in place. The economic boon of growth and dispensation could go straight to deep-pocketed organizations with multi-state footprints. Or it might find its way to smaller investors and minority-owned businesses, if they’re guaranteed a spot in the circle.
Whoever wins the right to peddle the pot, might Charlottesville one day have marijuana dispensaries on every other corner? Consider Michigan, which legalized recreational cannabis in November 2018. Retailers around the state aren’t expected to open until 2020, as lawmakers and regulators work out the particulars. And a number of municipalities and counties, including notable holdouts along state borders, have put regulations in place to keep dispensaries outside their boundaries. College town Ann Arbor, which is larger than Charlottesville, is not among those: Twelve dispensaries are currently planned for the home of the University of Michigan.
“At the end of the day, marijuana legality is a local issue,” West says. “Colorado and Oklahoma are similar, big physical states with not a lot of people. They’ve been able to reach a compromise and have more accessible markets.”
In the absence of a license to grow, other business opportunities exist for the open-minded. West uses a licensing model to put her puffable products in pipes. She visits growers in Colorado, samples their merchandise, selects her favorite marijuana strains, and stamps her brand on the packaging before selling to retailers. Not only does the arrangement allow her to skirt strict growing standards, it gives her the ability to write off 100 percent of her business expenses, a luxury currently denied to agricultural cannabis companies.
Reading the tea
Pedini says NORML looks at Virginia’s coming election like this: Nothing is going to change. That’s not to say it won’t. But that’s the safest way for her group to go about its marijuana advocacy efforts.
“We will start there—that the temperature of the legislature will be the same,” Pedini says. “My suspicion is it will likely be two years before there is any major expansion of the medical marijuana program.”
In addition to the regulatory climate, she says, the five licensed processors will want to keep competition out of the game while they recoup their startup investments. And that may take time in an “initially volatile market.”
After a grace period, though, cities like Charlottesville could find themselves with dispensaries. Five facilities won’t be able to satisfy medical cannabis demand for long, Pedini says.
And Hawkins advises not to sleep on lawmakers continuing to shift their views in the near future. They’ve already come so far, he says, with legislators in states like Minnesota and Illinois moving from adamantly opposed to marijuana just two years ago to “all-in” in the past year.
“I think on medical, with time and effort, I don’t think there is a state that won’t ultimately go in our direction,” Hawkins says. “There is too much proof anecdotally, and the science shows more and more what the medical benefits are.”
For medical marijuana devotees like Hunt, the anecdotes are enough. Even if the cannabis oil treatment he used wasn’t responsible for shrinking the tumor in his brain, it was an effort he would make again without question. It was about agency, he says, taking his recovery into his own hands, making himself feel good about the fight. Bringing color back to his life.
“I didn’t want to die,” Hunt says.
Steven Hawkins, Jenn Michelle Pedini, Jane West, and others will discuss these issues and more at a Tom Tom Festival panel, The Future of Cannabis, on Wednesday, April 10, at The Paramount Theater.
Your guide to legal weed
Can’t tell your CBD from your THCA? Here’s what all those letters mean:
CBD (cannabidiol) is one of roughly 100 different cannabinoids found in marijuana (aka cannabis). It has therapeutic benefits, but it won’t get you high.
THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) is another cannabinoid with therapeutic potential, which is also non-intoxicating. It’s only found in raw and live cannabis.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the cannabinoid that’s responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effect. It’s what makes you high. When marijuana is dried, THCA slowly turns into THC.
And here’s what’s allowed in Virginia:
Non-intoxicating CBD and THCA oils, for medical conditions
Thanks to a 2018 state law, doctors can recommend CBD or THCA cannabis oil for any condition. The oils must contain at least 15 percent CBD or THCA, and no more than 5 percent THC (which means they’re non-intoxicating). These oils can only be produced and sold by specially licensed businesses called “pharmaceutical processors”—currently, the Virginia Board of Pharmacy has approved five processors in the state (the closest one to Charlottesville is in Staunton).
Local shops like Higher Education on West Main and Carrytown Tobacco on the Downtown Mall sell hemp flowers. Hemp is a strain of cannabis that doesn’t make you high (because it has a THC content of 0.3 percent or less.) Hemp flowers contain CBD and other potentially therapeutic compounds. But because they look and smell just like the illegal form of cannabis, possessing them may get you hassled by the cops (see our story on p. 15).
You can get CBD-enhanced oils, creams, gummies, and teas at natural foods stores like Rebecca’s. Again, because CBD is not psychoactive, all of these products are legal and none of them are intoxicating (though they may help with pain, stress, anxiety, and sleep issues).