Gustafson: Smoke and a few green mirrors | AspenTimes.com

Gustafson: Smoke and a few green mirrors

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

The dawn of a new industry is on our horizon and we can see the green glow, and smell the skunky, sweet winds of change blowing in from up and down valley. Still, here in Snowmass, we find ourselves once again pioneering an industry that is sprouting up all around us, and again we have the benefit of the hindsight from our neighbors to help guide us. As the winds of change blow in, I don't think we can afford to jibe the sail right now, I believe we need to take control of the sheets and come about responsibly.

A major shift in cultural thinking has already taken hold, still, the confusion I hear seems to center on differentiating popular public opinions from community health and safety concerns.

So maybe we should look right at the root — or the plant — at the center of this discussion.

The way I see it, we really have three distinct considerations. First, how will the commercialization of cannabis impact the image of our resort community? Second, are we accepting the commercialization of THC and, if so, how will its direct marketing in our small town affect our community members? And third, how can we adapt to and embrace the data-based movement that supports the unique benefits of CBD?

It seems that the situation before us is whether or not we accept all of these issues wrapped together in a nice green package, or if we should choose to debate each one, with its unique range of benefits and concerns.

Let me preface this with the fact that I am not opposed to the casual adult use of marijuana. In fact, I believe that the medical benefits of CBD are still an extremely underutilized natural asset.

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However, perhaps we should consider for a moment that the retail product we are actually debating may often only be green in color, not in cultivation, not in end product and not in the way we have come to view it as naturally healthy. In other words, just know what you are smoking.

I'm not talking about your grandpa's 1960s Grateful Dead, Woodstock, flower power pot, Bob Marley's sweet weed, the ganja that Peter Tosh sang praise to, or even the herb passed around dormitory plazas on 4/20 during my years at CU in Boulder.

Many of today's products, rapidly growing in popularity, seem highly commercialized, highly industrialized and capable of getting consumers really, really high. Not the Rocky Mountain high from the 1970s campfire era.

In fact, since the early 1970s, the art of extracting and enhancing THC in marijuana has taken on a life of its own.

Perhaps we still equate weed with phrases like "all-natural" and "homegrown." That same lexicon that tempts us in grocery stores to pay a premium for the health benefits of organic foods.

We are now talking about an industry that taxed a sale of about $6 billion worth of product in 2016, and over $10 billion in 2017 with legal recreational marijuana available in only nine states. And it's not mom and pop, ganja-farmer, greenhouse-grown products on the shelves in most of today's dispensaries.

I realize that debating legal weed is not cool —in fact here in Colorado it's probably a surefire way to get yourself voted off the island.

But I believe we have opened up a new opportunity for Snowmass to consider if there is any aspect of this industry revolution that we still need to be questioning. For example, are we being sold on the idea that we are consuming something natural, healthy even, when we may actually be consuming a chemical cocktail, while lining the pockets of a new generation of weed lobbyists?

For the sake of productive dialogue, perhaps we go back and dissect the naturally growing plant that has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years and separate out the medicinal use from that which gets you high. Some of the advances being made using parts of this plant are fascinating and assist in the popularity of the symbiotic product as a whole, while others are perhaps becoming exploited.

There is a difference between the commercial market for THC and the widely popular medicinal use of CBD. For a little Weed 101, I consulted a few responsible resources, including a popular Aspen-based operation, and I learned that, of the hundreds of different chemicals that make up the cannabis plant, CBD and THC are the two chemicals that are most widely used, studied and understood. CBD is where much of the medicinal properties are found. It's a fascinating part of the plant with real, tested potential to help people, and it also is non-intoxicating. However, CBD, actually makes up only a small fraction of the commercial market.

Where is the real money? In the natural part of the plant that gets you high, the THC.

Looking back at the history of marijuana before the 1970s, consumer cannabis contained less than half of a percent of THC, which was once naturally occurring.

However, since the marriage between gardeners and chemists, the past 40 years have given birth to an entirely different product. Now the plant's cultivation takes place almost exclusively indoors (the likely result of regulations) — but still, even now the grow facilities look more like giant tanning beds than garden beds. The growth cycles also are now increasingly unnaturally short, and the use of both pesticides and strong fertilizers is common practice. In short, sungrown, natural, organic-grass makes up a small percentage of the products now available. Today's products can contain more than 30 percent THC. That is a huge increase from the herb of old. Fortunately, some responsible dispensers try to display the potency on their product labels. And the culture shift of informed consumers may help to prevent excessive dosing.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a pro-cannabis op-ed supporting claims that not only is marijuana perfectly safe, with — at the time — no reported overdoses directly associated with its use, I also touted the health benefits.

But now as the THC levels rise and the industry changes, it is certainly a conversation worth revisiting. While exploring the fundamental question of whether an individual can overdose on marijuana, all I know for sure is that concentrates can actually contain more than 95 percent THC. And that wasn't the case even 10 years ago when I first researched this issue and formed my opinion.

Pot has healthy roots — it's not a narcotic and, in its naturally occurring form, is safe. But to say that we have legalized only weed is perhaps subtly misleading. In fact, some could argue that we have commercialized THC. With industry groups and corporations like the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, Arcview Investment and the Cannabis Industry Association chasing out a lot of the small-time growers, we might even be inviting yet another chain monopoly to take root in our town.

Is it still safe and healthy? I can't speak to that from personal experience, but according to a study published in 2014 called "Going to Pot," the unnaturally high levels of THC found in much of today's product actually compound issues relating to mental illness and have been associated with increased levels of suicide rates in higher-income communities.

I know, I know, presenting any downsides to legalized marijuana will quickly oust you from many social circles in this community. But I think there is value in having these conversations. Let's try not to mimic our broken national political partisan practices and close our minds to the helpful process that can occur when you take a step back, open your mind and keep the best interests of the community at heart. Because in Snowmass, we are still in control over what we are going to allow to be sold, what we will be buying and how we will be marketing this decision from this point on. Let's lift the smoke screens, let's admit that it's OK for an adult to get high, and let's celebrate what we can learn from this beautiful plant. Let's embrace the movement but let's ask the right questions and force the difficult conversations before we sell out.

Let's be on the right side of this movement and improve its progress. I want something pure and natural, safe and meaningfully regulated, sustainable and small scale. I don't like the idea of the rich getting richer on the backs of deceptive consumer marketing ploys that exploit the values of a fascinating plant and compromise our safety.

How can we protect our community's future on the threshold of a new-industry era, where the associated technology is constantly developing and the relationship between people and marijuana plants is ever-changing, all while research is struggling to keep up with trends?

Can we actually regulate quality control, demand safe, sustainable growing practices and genuinely healthy products?

We could wait to see how this balancing act of popular consumer demand and public health and safety plays out around us for a little longer, or we could be the progressive community that we are in a position to become. Is there any reason that our community cannot demand higher standards? (No pun intended.) What if we set the standard really, really high?

Let's exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.