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Ben Cort: The Truth About the Marijuana Industry and the Terrifying Effects of High-Potency THC

“Ten years ago … the idea of physical addiction to cannabis was absolutely laughable. That people would be having psychotic episodes, and then psychotic breaks, just from THC? It was unfathomable.”

Ben Cort is the CEO of the Foundry Treatment Center and author of “Weed, Inc.: The Truth About the Pot Lobby, THC, and the Commercial Marijuana Industry.”

“If one pictures their body as the cannabis plant, originally THC was about the size of our big toe,” says Cort. “By the mid-2000s, [it] was about up to our knee, and now we have THC-available products that are past our eyes.”

Cort is now fighting back against a multi-billion-dollar industry that he says turned a once natural, relatively harmless plant into a highly addictive, psychosis-inducing narcotic.

“There are pesticides that we find regularly inside of cannabis plants that are not safe for topical animal use, and this is being inhaled by human beings,” says Cort.

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Jan Jekielek:

Ben Cort, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Ben Cort:

Thanks so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Mr. Jekielek:

Ben, weed or marijuana or pot is not something you typically associate with psychosis. Okay. And I’ve been reading a number of magazine articles. We’ve actually had reports in The Epoch Times as well that there is this growing link, bizarrely. So, tell me what’s going on.

Mr. Cort:

10 years ago, we really didn’t see psychosis and cannabis use together. But recently, I’ll bet you we see 30 cases of THC-induced psychosis for every amphetamine case. Let me break that down a little. THC is the language I’ll use for marijuana probably from here on out, because it’s more accurate. It’s the chemical that gets you high inside of the cannabis plant. Traditionally, drug-induced psychosis was always associated with amphetamines, cocaine, and methamphetamine until the last five or six years where THC has really taken that over, because of how strong the THC has gotten today.

Mr. Jekielek:

What is the difference between what was being used 20 or 30 years ago or whenever this whole process started and today? How is that different?

Mr. Cort:

For your viewers who want to see these data, the University of Mississippi has kept a fantastic data table for us. It’s readily available. What we see beginning in 1960 was that cannabis has always had about a half-of-a-per cent of THC in it. And starting in 1960, we see a slow but steady rise in cannabis until 2010, 2011, where it’s topping out at about 12 per cent THC, so considerably more than what naturally occurs inside of the cannabis plant, but still not nearly enough to cause big problems. If one pictures their body as the cannabis plant, originally THC was about the size of our big toe. And interestingly, the other chemical we really care about, CBD, was the same size, but by the mid-2000s it was about up to our knee. And now we have THC available products that are past our eyes.

Mr. Jekielek:

And even the marijuana itself?

Mr. Cort:

The cannabis plant itself can’t get much more than low 40 per cent THC in it. But it’s the products, the refined byproducts of the cannabis plant.

Mr. Jekielek:

Psychosis and marijuana are not something that you typically think of together. I want to dig into that a little bit more. Before I go there, addiction and marijuana are something that you don’t typically think of together. In fact, I remember years ago looking at studies that showed that it wasn’t particularly physically addictive. But is that still the case? I think you’re making the case that it has become addictive.

Mr. Cort:

My case is simply to read to the data. The best study that we have for this is we had a big publication of it in 2012 that showed that addiction rates to THC were about 10 per cent. And to your point, that’s not worth anything, because 10 per cent of the population is genetically predisposed to begin with. That same study was reported on again in October of 2020, and the addiction rates had gone from 10 per cent to 30 per cent. And with the authors of a study, anytime you have something crazy like that happen in a longitudinal study, they’re going to address it.

The author said, “It’s our belief that this is just THC potency.” 10 years ago, 15, 20 years ago, the idea of physical addiction to cannabis was absolutely laughable. It was not a thing. Five years ago, the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual where we have all of the mental health diagnostic criteria, gave us objective diagnostic criteria for physical withdrawal from cannabis. Not only can you get physically dependent on it, but the withdrawal from cannabis is a really big deal, and something I see every single day working in treatment.

Mr. Jekielek:

How does this manifest? Maybe give me some examples. Maybe we can look at psychosis, and then also other symptoms that come with this use of potency THC.

Mr. Cort:

Psychosis is the separation where one separates from reality. My reality differs from yours, and it can look like a lot of different things. There are two ways to get to psychosis. Let’s just picture psychosis as a town, and there’s two ways to get there. The first is organic. You lost the genetic lotto. You had a lot of mental illness inside of your family like I did. You ended up developing it early in life like I did. You end up there organically.

The other way is chemically. You get to psychosis town, because of chemicals that you introduced into your body. Traditionally, the chemicals that brought everybody there via this route were just amphetamines. Now, it’s cannabis, again, at rates that are probably 30 to 1. This high potency THC is bringing people to this place, which is a detachment from reality at a rate never conceived of before..

The idea that people would be having psychotic episodes and then psychotic breaks just from THC was unfathomable 15 years ago. In its most extreme forms, it looks like schizophrenia, which is seeing things and hearing things that aren’t there—audio and visual hallucinations, and the anxiety can be intense.

If you’ve ever seen or had experience with or a loved one who has used amphetamines, there’s this idea that we have of the person using cocaine like Scarface, where at the end he’s just using cocaine and he’s terrified and he’s paranoid and he’s got the gun and everybody’s coming to get him. They really are paranoid in that film. It’s this paranoia that, “Everyone’s out to get me.”

I will not go through a week when I don’t hear this story of a young person who has dismantled every electronic device in the house, who has smashed their phone, taken all the light bulbs out of it to double check for the listening devices, because they are so paranoid that they’re being spied on, behavior consistent with amphetamine use, but it’s only the THC.

One of my biggest desires would be if I could just ask people to watch what a psychotic episode looks like, all the funny and all the laughing would go out of it. You certainly can on YouTube, just watch people consuming concentrates. Once you’ve had one psychotic episode, you’re twice as likely to have another. It is causing these psychotic episodes in multiple cases, not just adding to them. People who never would have gone to psychosis, about a quarter of them who end up there, are ending up there just because of the THC.

Mental illness, speaking as somebody who struggled with plenty of it in his life, is absolutely not a joke and not something to take lightly. I do a monthly group inside of our program called THC in Recovery. The story you hear again and again is, “Yeah, it used to be fun, when I was a kid, I did it. Now it’s just paranoid. I was hearing voices, and I thought I was going crazy. I thought I couldn’t breathe.” Yes, we’ve totally bred all of the fun out of cannabis.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to explore all the nuance of this, because this is something that’s obviously a very contentious issue today for many folks. But why don’t you give me a picture of how you came into this in the first place.

Mr. Cort:

I’m somebody who’s in long-term recovery myself, and certainly used my fair share of that drug, as well as quite a few others. But I never had any interest in having my recovery be any part of my vocation. After leaving a nonprofit that was very near and dear to my heart, I took this issue on simply because I read the proposed legislation in Colorado.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay.

Mr. Cort:

We passed Amendment 64 in 2012 and it was 3,666 words of protection of the establishment of an industry. I didn’t see what I wanted for my generation, as somebody who is 43. I had always loved the idea of decriminalization and legalization, if you will. I thought it was about social justice and freedom— more of a libertarian mindset. It would turn out that it was about the creation of another vice industry and another opportunity to tax. To decriminalize cannabis is very easy, and has been done in most states in this country.

In fact, in Colorado it was done about 10 years before we passed Amendment 64, where possession of anything less than an ounce of cannabis was a parking ticket. You didn’t even need to show up, if they even wrote out anything. In most of this country, small amounts of cannabis possession are absolutely not criminalized, which I’m a fan of. I like the idea.

Amendment 64 didn’t have anything to do with decriminalization. What it said was, “Here are the standards that the industry will be allowed. Here are the maximum fines that you can ever give them. Here’s how quickly you have to approve licenses. If you haven’t approved it by January, everybody who’s got their licenses in is automatically approved. You can’t fine over X.” 

It really was just about the creation of a new business. Decriminalization is easy. Simply remove penalties for it. Commercialization takes real effort. And commercialization, make no mistake, is the path that this country has been on, and continues to run down.

Mr. Jekielek:

So, explain this to me. I live in New York City. In the past few years, a whole lot of these marijuana-focused shops have popped up. There’s many, even between where I live and where I work, which is not a huge distance. Are these mom-and-pop operations? How is it that this is somehow a new thing that I wasn’t aware of?

Mr. Cort:

They started as mom and pop operations, certainly, but the vertical integration has been going on for quite some time now in the massive corporate takeover. In fact, two days ago, the largest company in the world called Canopy just announced their ascension onto the Canadian Stock Exchange in a hope to then be brought onto the U.S. Stock Exchange.

This is a multi-billion dollar industry that simply won’t tolerate small players anymore. The license itself, a lot of the time is worth much more than the storefront of the dispensary. For example, probably, and I’m not up to date to it since COVID, but pre-COVID, to simply buy a license to sell cannabis in California was going to cost you $5 to 7 million, with not even a storefront, and nothing to go with it. You had a lot of small business owners end up originally with licenses, and they kind of hit the lotto.

They could sell them to the much larger corporation. The larger corporation could come in and make money off of it. As far as the storefronts opening in your neighborhood, if you don’t mind me making an assumption or two about you, I would assume that you live in a nice neighborhood in New York and work in a nice area in New York. There are certainly dispensaries there.

But there will be a much higher concentration of dispensaries the poorer the neighborhoods are, and the more ethnic minorities the neighborhoods are made up of. A fascinating piece was done by the Denver Post called, “Why Most Dispensaries are Located in Poor Minority Neighborhoods.” That’s an exact quote. There was one in a paper from out here, “The Marijuana Industries War on the Poor.” I wrote a chapter about it, about the incredible racial injustice of where these dispensaries end up.

I think that why really comes mostly from real estate zoning and cheap prices. It’s why you have more liquor stores, check cashing facilities, and convenience stores in poor minority neighborhoods, because it’s easier to open storefronts there. If somebody wanted to open a liquor store in my neighborhood, which is the upper middle-class neighborhood, we would fight to keep it out. When people are living paycheck to paycheck, and they just don’t have that sort of time on their hands, and those resources, a lot of the time stuff just gets pushed on them, more than anything else.

Mr. Jekielek:

Before I continue now, I want you to tell me more about where you ended up. Because you’re here, and you’re clearly doing this advocacy, but you’re actually working on helping people. So, tell me about that.

Mr. Cort:

My full-time job is in a little treatment program in the mountains of Colorado in Steamboat Springs called the Foundry. We treat men with substance use disorder, alcoholism, drug addictions, et cetera. Of course, we treat quite a few people for cannabis use disorder. I do multiple other things professionally.

I help inside of collegiate and professional athletics, as well inside of labor unions, building policies, doing crisis intervention, and helping them really protect the people who are part of those organizations with their mental health and wellbeing, and help when addiction shows itself.

Mr. Jekielek:

You see a number of different serious addictions by people who check into the Foundry, presumably. How does this THC addiction, which I really never thought about, and I can’t even imagine, until I started reading these pieces this year that it was a thing, how does it manifest, and how is it different from some of these other drugs that you see?

Mr. Cort:

Substance use disorder is substance use disorder. It doesn’t matter the substance or the process. There are people who can get addicted to a process like gambling. Addiction destroys lives. Addiction guts families. It rots communities from the inside, because addiction is, to quote a friend, “A radical commitment to escape reality.” Addiction is taking a good thing, an ancillary thing, and making it an ultimate thing. Addiction is the forsaking of all else to seek that one thing.

It doesn’t matter what the addiction is to. One of the things that is really hard for me, frankly, is when I go out in the world and I’ll hear people say, “Well, it’s just weed. They’re just addicted to weed.” I wish they could see what we see every day. Addiction is ugly and devastating, and if you can’t stop something, I don’t care what it is, it hurts every bit as much and it’s lonely and it really rots us from the inside.

Addiction to THC, I think in a lot of the ways can be more challenging for the individual. Because if you said to me, “Ben, I’ve got to stop drinking so much. Ben, I’ve got to stop shooting heroin. I have to stop smoking meth.” I and everybody around me would say, “Oh my goodness, of course. Yes, I’m so glad that you’ve come around and asked for help.” 

If you said, “I think I’m smoking too much weed,” a lot of the people in your life are going to laugh and say, “That’s not a thing. Smoking too much weed? What are you talking about? You can’t even get addicted to that.” So, it doesn’t enjoy the same sort of societal acceptance towards sobriety that these other things do, which makes it very challenging for the cannabis dependent patient.

Mr. Jekielek:

How is it possible there’s a huge distance between public perception and this reality that you’re seeing every day?

Mr. Cort:

I am trying my best to address that in the follow up book that I’m working on right now. I think it’s multifaceted. I think one of the things that happened was a very true injustice that happened in this country around drug policy, especially around cannabis. It was made illegal for some very wrong reasons in the late ‘30s. That led to pushback and activism. These activists genuinely believed in what they were doing—racial justice, getting rid of the inequalities inside of that system, and more of a libertarian approach to life, “Don’t bother me, I won’t bother you.” 

That movement was hijacked about 20 years ago by organized business, under the guise of the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, and NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), who really used to be in this for the good of the people. They believed and decided that there was more money to be made in being a part of selling this stuff, rather than advocating for people to get out of jail.

Speaker 3:

We reached out to NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Paul Armentano, NORML’s deputy director, said that the organization advocates for consumers, does not advocate on behalf of commercial interests, and has previously taken positions that are adversarial to those taken by the commercial industry. 

However, we found a specific advertising request on NORML’s website, encouraging marijuana businesses to advertise with them. We also found a call-to-action on their website opposing HB 1317 to regulate marijuana concentrates for safe consumption.

Mr. Cort:

You had a movement get hijacked by an industry, and then 20 years of messaging that I think is pretty profound. Because when you ask a young person today, the last thing they’re going to associate with marijuana is any sort of harm. They have been indoctrinated.

Mr. Jekielek:

How big is this industry and how concentrated is it?

Mr. Cort:

The industry itself in North America is $30 billion this year. The estimates are that by 2030, it will be worth mid-$70 billion, or they’ll do mid-$70 billion in commerce. To contextualize that, if we sell $30 billion worth of cannabis this year in North America, we will sell $24 billion worth of books in this country.

So, we’re buying more weed than we are books. We are talking about tens of billions, if not ultimately hundreds of billions. Then, the international market is certainly controlled by several big players. But I can tell you that almost 85 per cent of the dispensaries in Colorado are owned by 14 men.

Mr. Jekielek:

Wow. Ultimately, is it just this legalization or decriminalization, coupled with these commercialized bills such as the one in Colorado that essentially created the reality or incentive structures for this? Is that what you’re seeing?

Mr. Cort:

Absolutely. The numbers for THC potency are steadily rising, steadily rising, and then we open retail. And they do this, because there’s nobody looking over their shoulder, and making sure that what they’re presenting to the public is safe. There are no limitations on what they can put out there. They can put any potency they want, things that five years ago we thought were absolutely impossible to produce.

Five years ago, the idea of getting more than 30 per cent THC in a plant was laughable, and now we’re in the mid-40s. Where we are right now with these products that we’re consuming, if your viewers want to see something interesting, Google something called distillate, which is making up a huge portion of the market in recreational states. This is THC separated at the sub-molecular level, just to isolate the Delta-9 THC from it. One protein spike is isolated to pull this stuff out.

We gave this industry absolute free reign with no guardrails at all. Science takes time, and certainly science around cannabis takes real time. And so, we gave them unrestricted access. The more you can sell, the more money you’re going to make. The stronger it is, the higher the rates of addiction. And boy did they take advantage of that.

The thing that’s always made me laugh on my good days, and cry on my bad days is why we thought this would be different than every other vice substance we have tried this with in this country. With alcohol, 80 per cent of the booze in this country is consumed by 20 per cent of the consumers, the problem users. 

With tobacco, it wasn’t until we started adding eight times the nicotine to tobacco that we really started bumping into the problems that we have with it. The opiate crisis we are in today was caused by huge pharmaceutical companies pushing their products on us in order to make more money. Never in this country have we appropriately regulated a vice substance, and the idea that we would do it on this one with less infrastructure and no FDA involvement always made me scratch my head.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s fascinating. because one of the themes common on this show over the last few years has been regulatory capture. Essentially, it’s how big industry has huge influence in agencies such as the CDC and FDA, to shocking levels that many of us weren’t aware of at all. But here you’re saying that there actually is no regulation. Is there any at all?

Mr. Cort:

There’s certainly regulation on the books. For enforcement, there is absolutely none. There was an open records request that demonstrates the difference between how many checks the Marijuana Enforcement did versus the Alcohol Division did in Colorado. It’s like 80 to 1, even though the Marijuana Enforcement Division has twice the employees.

The idea is that in Colorado, we are the thought leaders. Everybody will say, “You guys are the best. You’ve built this regulatory infrastructure.” Colorado hasn’t independently verified a single test for potency or purity since 2015.

Speaker 3:

We reached out to Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, the MED, to verify this. We are currently in communication and have not yet received a definitive response.

Mr. Cort:

The whistleblower’s name was Sarah Urfer, who has become a dear friend and I hope someone gives her a lab again, because she did amazing work. But she decided to tell the truth and the state shut her down. With the things that we find in these plants, the growth accelerators that they use, the pesticides that they use, no one is making sure this is safe. There are pesticides that we find regularly inside of cannabis plants that are not safe for topical animal use.

And this is being inhaled by human beings. I’ve written about it. There are a lot of other people who’ve written extensively about it, but we just don’t have the infrastructure to test for potency or purity, because that’s done at a federal level, that’s FDA. States are not equipped to do that. If we want to get them there, we need to make a very serious investment in infrastructure.

Mr. Jekielek:

But you just said that it’s double the infrastructure in Colorado, than with the alcohol enforcement. So, what are these people doing?

Mr. Cort:

They’re learning on the job, so that they can go to work for the cannabis industry. Colorado’s first cannabis czar held the job for a year-and-a-half, and then started a huge consulting firm teaching people how to take cannabis companies into different states, Andrew Freedman. The amount of nepotism that has gone from the Marijuana Enforcement Division into the industry is enough to make absolutely anybody shake their heads.

The marijuana enforcement division is well funded. The marijuana enforcement division sits on their hands, because they want to make friends with the people inside of the industry. And thanks to my friend Dawn Reinfeld at Blue Rising in Colorado, a great deal of this has been publicly published.

Speaker 3:

Shannon Gray, the MED’s marijuana communications specialist, told us that any state licensing authority and any MED employee is prohibited from working for or getting money from the marijuana industry for six months following their employment with MED. Ms. Gray also noted that Andrew Freedman and other cannabis czars technically work for the governor’s office, not the MED. However, a quick search on LinkedIn revealed a surprising number of former MED employees who currently work for private marijuana-related business.

Mr. Jekielek:

What has been the response of the industry to your work?

Mr. Cort:

I once got offered a significant contract by a company that said that they’d like me to consult with them on how to do things the right way, which I interpreted as to stop talking. I didn’t take that contract. The marijuana industry in Colorado and nationwide is playing a very simple and predictable game. The slippery slope argument is something I’ve always thought was pretty silly. “Any threat to what we do now, ultimately will lead to taking away all access to this again.” They won’t be checked. They won’t allow any sort of rational law making.

For example, House Bill 1317 in Colorado, which passed last year, was an attempt to put any kind of potency cap on THC in Colorado. We would have taken 80 per cent, we would’ve taken 95 per cent, just because it was a cap. The lower the potency, the fewer the problems we have. Conversely, the lower the potency, the lower the addiction rates. 

They had no interest in that. With House Bill 1317, in the end what we were able to do, was to get the School of Medicine in Colorado to do a review of all the data that’s out there, and then suggest what could be a cap down the road. There was no cap associated with it. They even fought back tooth and nail. They fought back on the warnings that went on the concentrate packages. 

Here’s an interesting one for you. There are warnings that come with every purchase of concentrate, which was what I was talking about before, those distillates, those intense forms of THC. An easy way to think about it; concentrates are to cannabis, what crack is to coca. It’s a highly refined byproduct.

These brochures that you have to get whenever you purchase a concentrate, have a visual identification of what a serving is, which is half the size of a rice grain. They have that printed on the sheet, that’s how you’re supposed to tell. And they also have number for the National Suicide Hotline, as well as the poison control in Colorado. How many other products do we have out there that have the suicide hotline and the poison control listed on them? 

And when you speak about the dispensaries, the owners, and the lobbyists, there were about 50 lobbyists who showed up on the Colorado Hill when we were trying to pass this bill. And the thing that they would consistently say was, “You can’t prove that it’s unsafe.” We would say, “Well, actually, of course we can, systematically.”

And they would say, “Well, there’s no science.” And there isn’t, because humankind has never studied anything more than about a 20 per cent THC potency, because this is just three years old. Think about the ridiculousness of that proposal, though. Why should the burden of proof of safety be on the consumer? Shouldn’t it be on the supplier?

Mr. Jekielek:

What is the law around that? The burden is on the side of the consumer here?

Mr. Cort:

Yes, because of how cannabis was defined, words really matter. This was another big thing I latched onto in Amendment 64, the actual definition of cannabis. Cannabis isn’t defined as the plant in the genus. Cannabis is defined as, and I quote “Every salt, derivative, extract and concentrate from the cannabis plant.”

So, it’s not cannabis. It’s anything you can extract from cannabis, and then anything you can make with those extractions, becomes legally defined as cannabis. So that means that the crystal-clear rock, that you smoke in a glass pipe or a superheated needle—just put this stuff into YouTube—is considered cannabis in Colorado, even though it comes in rock form.

Mr. Jekielek:

Why does that create a situation where the onus on proving lack of safety is on the side of the consumer or the advocates?

Mr. Cort:

Because we said cannabis is legal, there’s no way to say that you can’t sell a thing if it’s so defined.

Mr. Jekielek:

You say that Colorado is the thought leader in this. There are legalization initiatives in five more states in just a few days, or even as we show this episode, that may have been voted on. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. What does that look like? Are these commercialization initiatives actually?

Mr. Cort:

Every single one of them? You bet. Even the medical ones are. We have to remember that someone who’s still very involved in this, Keith Stroup, the original founder of NORML, was directly quoted as saying, “We will use medical marijuana as a red herring to usher in recreational marijuana.” That’s always been the plan. So, when med is on the ballot, the idea is to get to rec. And when it’s limited, the idea is always recreational for sure.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay, please explain that to me.

Mr. Cort:

Anytime we are asked to consider or vote on any form of medicinal marijuana, the end goal for the people putting this together is recreational marijuana, because there’s just not enough money to be made in medical marijuana. If there was, we would have ended quite some time ago. I’m really glad that there are people, and it’s a small section of people, who are really benefiting. I’m very glad that people are benefiting, and that they’re getting access to cannabis-derived medications.

But the idea is to always use medical, then desensitize us a little bit, and then bring in recreational. For example, it’s happening in Georgia right now. In one of the states that’s looking at medical, the main proponents behind that bill in Georgia are multi-state operators out of Florida. Those multi-state operators out of Florida started with just medical in Florida. All of the messaging was medical, medical, medical. Then, as soon as medical passed, the emphasis went towards recreational, because there’s 20 times the market.

Mr. Jekielek:

In what states has this Colorado model, which was the beginning, been replicated already?

Mr. Cort:

Well, quite a few of them have followed something similar. The big issue is the definition of cannabis and everybody’s used to the same one. There’s nobody who’s really deviated from this definition of cannabis, which includes concentrated cannabis. Exceptions to it are probably easier to note.

Vermont has tried it a little bit differently, and I appreciate the approach too. It’s more of a co-op, less commercialized exchange, and they capped the potency of the plant. Unfortunately, until you cap the potency of the products, that’s just window dressing. 

Oregon has done it a little bit differently and a little bit better. Again, it’s more of a co-op style and with very limited licenses. Pretty much everybody else has followed suit with similar laws. The laws are written by the same people. The laws are written by the Drug Policy Alliance lobbyists. The laws are written by Mason Tvert in the Marijuana Policy Project. They’re all written by the same people.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re painting this picture for me of a wild west where you can do anything, but it’s a kind of a corporatized wild west where the corporations can do anything. What are the restrictions on kids accessing this stuff that we’re talking about?

Mr. Cort:

You can only purchase 21 and over. The House bill that I mentioned before, 1317, makes it quite a bit harder for kids between the ages of 18 and 20 to get medical cards. Because what we found was most of the young people who were developing problems and ending up in treatment and ending up in the hospitals were getting their THC from people with medical cards.

The 18-year-old who was still in high school could get a card, didn’t need any parental involvement, and could purchase quite a bit and then come back and resell it. So technically, access is restricted to everybody under 21 recreationally.

Mr. Jekielek:

And how does that translate to the cases that are actually seen of addiction?

Mr. Cort:

The idea that fewer kids will use something if it’s sanctioned by society and readily available in 2000 storefronts in the state doesn’t pass the giggle test. When I started smoking cigarettes at 13, I couldn’t buy cigarettes legally. Come on. You get stuff in a commercial market, and with things that are that easy, you’re going to get it.

Mr. Jekielek:

You mentioned earlier in the interview that there’s actually a suicide hotline number that comes with some of these products. How did that happen if suicide is apparently not an issue, officially?

Mr. Cort:

I don’t think anybody would be willing to say it’s not, except for the industry. This has affected lawmakers lives. I’ve spoken to lots of them in Colorado whose kids develop an addiction to high potency THC who have lost friends, loved ones, and family members to suicide. But so long as there are billions of dollars being made, you’re going to have a huge incentive for people to push back on anything that would look like the tying of those two together. But the correlation can’t be denied.

Mr. Jekielek:

How many people are there like you nationwide? You’re in Colorado, and you’ve got a small network of people, but how does that look across the country?

Mr. Cort:

There are more and more of us. There’s an organization here in Washington DC, where I sit on the board of directors called SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. It’s extremely bipartisan. It was founded by David Frum and Patrick Kennedy, with Kevin Sabet, an advisor to three white houses, who is running it now. There are lots of people who are starting to come up and speak about this. Unfortunately, we didn’t heed the warnings of the professionals at the beginning who said, “If you do this, then this will happen.” But now that this is happening, there are so many more people who are willing to step up and push back and fight.

With the group of Coloradans who pushed through House Bill 1317, the lawmakers who did it, it was completely bipartisan. It was both Republican and Democrat, and it did my heart good to see it. But the reason why they got there was because their lives had been so dramatically affected by it. Remember the old adage that a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise man from the mistakes of others?

I wish more people would look at some of the mistakes we’ve made on this issue and say, “Maybe we’ll try another way. Maybe the ultra-liberalization of drug laws is not the way to go, allowing for the use of everything and writing off addiction again, and treating it like a nothing issue, becoming Portland, becoming Seattle, becoming San Francisco as a nation, hobbling our drug courts, and making it impossible for law enforcement to do their jobs in a lot of ways.” 

“Maybe that’s not the best way. Maybe the war on drugs certainly wasn’t. But this pendulum swing in the other direction to where all things are permissible, and now all things are being driven by corporate interests, that’s not the solution either.”

Mr. Jekielek:

What legislation needs to happen?

Mr. Cort:

I was sitting in an office in the Colorado capitol building, and you always know it’s going to get spicy when the lawmaker kicks everybody out of the room and closes the door. This lawmaker said, when everybody left, “What’s the science actually going to come back at? Where are we going to be able to say cannabis is safe?” The simple answer to that is, there’s no safe amount that’s easy. But anything below 8 per cent is going to have very minimal negative effects on the human brain and body, especially if it’s got CBD in it.

So, if you want to never develop an issue with cannabis, just keep it under 8 per cent. As soon as we hit double digits, we start to get into trouble, and that’s very simply put in the summary of a lot of science. I would take a potency cap at 95 per cent, because 95 per cent is less harmful than 99. I would take a potency cap at 80. So, let’s kick the industry lobbyists out of the rulemaking committees. Let’s stop letting Philip Morris sit at the table trying to determine how to regulate tobacco, so to speak. And let’s put a common sense, potency limit on everything that’s going on in this country until all of the research soundly tells us what’s safe and isn’t safe.

Mr. Jekielek:

And what does the industry say in response to this?

Mr. Cort:

When they’re done complaining that we can’t prove that it’s unsafe, which again, we systematically can, we just can’t prove that 99 per cent is safe. What we can show you is how much worse 16 per cent is than 12, and how much worse 20 is than 16. So, it’s a pretty simple logic to continue to follow here.

What they say is you will simply drive that into the black market. The demand exists, so if you don’t let us do it, you’ll drive it into the unregulated black market. My answer to that is simple. Your market is unregulated. You have chemicals, growth accelerators, pesticides, butane, propane, and isopropanol that’s being found in your products every day of every week. Your product is not safe.

Would I rather it be in the black market? You better believe I would. Because I’ve never seen a drug dealer run a two-for-one special or have coupons. I get coupons in the mail to my house. I have books of coupons that I pick up in Boulder with my buy one, get one free offer, and apps that track my purchases and give me points. So, after X amount, I can get free concentrates. Would I rather have it in the black market? Oh, yes. Give me a drug dealer to a corporate executive with an MBA any day.

Mr. Jekielek:

The thing that is stunning to me is that in this black market of drug dealing with the many drugs out there, there’s all sorts of stuff that’s laced with fentanyl. People would say, I can imagine, “Yes, okay, maybe it’s not the best, but at least it’s not going to be laced with fentanyl and kill someone.” How do you respond to that?

Mr. Cort:

Correct. I agree.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay. But you still take the unregulated back market over this?

Mr. Cort:

Absolutely, any day. It’s either all or nothing. Let’s bring it all into the light and truly regulate it and put forth quality controls. I’ve written a chapter in the new book on exactly how to do this. It’s a multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment, but it could be done. We bring it all into the daylight and we take real responsibility for making sure that it’s safe.

Mr. Jekielek:

What would be the sort of the key elements of this plan that you’re outlining?

Mr. Cort:

Testing facilities. That’s the most important thing, because testing cannabis is a little bit involved, and you need some real lab. The applied science is not minor, and you need precursors, et cetera. To test the plant and the products in any sort of timely manner, you would have to have testing facilities all over the country. They couldn’t just be regionally. You’d have to have them in some places in two states. 

I went to New Zealand a couple years ago to advise them on how to do this, and I said that they would probably need four on each island. If you have enough testing facilities, then what will happen is you determine what a representative sample is, and everybody sends that in, probably about 5 per cent. So, 5 per cent of the product is lost off the bat, because it’s tested. But the reason why you have to have so many facilities, is you have to be able to get back to the manufacturer quickly to say that product is good, or that product is not good.

You can’t have a backlog of two years like we’ve got in Colorado right now, where when we get back to them, we say, “Oh, hey, that had pesticides in it.” And they say, “Yes, that’s been off the shelf for a year-and-a-half. We sold it a year-and-a-half ago. It’s not even in anybody’s stash boxes anymore.” So, the testing facilities really are the key.  

The next thing after that is the tax structure. A much greater mind than my own, a gentleman named Mark Kleiman, a professor who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago, was a staunch advocate for legalization. He spent his career trying to determine what an appropriate tax rate would be for cannabis to pay for the problems that it caused, without driving it back into the black market.

We would have to determine what nationwide tax would be, and it’s probably going to be about 40 per cent, which is to cover everything that we need to do with it. Then, we need a governing regulatory agency, be that FDA, ATF, or an additional part of the federal government that’s created.

Mr. Jekielek:

Viewers of this show will ask the question, “How does this agency prevent itself from being captured by industry, as many other agencies have been?”

Mr. Cort:

You ask a very deep question. And I think my answer for that is that’s a much larger question than cannabis. How do we prevent corruption to begin with? Well, I don’t know that the human experience will allow for that at this point in our growth, but I’ve often argued that good should not be the enemy of perfect. I will take a move in the right direction. It doesn’t have to be sewn up for me.

Mr. Jekielek:

Ben Cort, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Mr. Cort:

Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Ben Cort and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.

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