Marijuana’s Tipping Point?

A Chat with Dr. Christopher Fichtner, Author of Cannabinomics

By Kevin M. Patten

When discussing any illicit substance, health and safety is usually the first concern made clear.

If marijuana were legalized, more people would use it, it would lead to harder drugs, our youth would become decadent and depraved, and our great society would come to an end – so says the average prohibitor.

Such a bold statement is neither helpful nor accurate when discussing such an important issue, the likes of which already prosecute nearly one million people every year. Although you wouldn’t hear it from one of these advocates – who are now in the minority – three different angles of the same topic are now coming together; all leading to the irresistible conclusion that cannabis prohibition must come to an end.

The cover of Dr. Christopher Fichtner’s book Cannabinomics: The Marijuana Policy Tipping Point has all of the trajectories nicely depicted. There’s a stetho- scope, showcasing the medical benefits that countless studies have proven; a judge’s hammer, alluding to the failed Drug War; and money, because “cash crop” is not just a catchy saying. Fichtner believes that the converg- ing of these revelations is at lastmarijuana’s “tipping point” – that Rubicon that must soon be crossed, when cannabis can finally be freed from the clutches of gov- ernment persecution. As he laments in his book’s for- ward, quoting from Dan Baum: “Just Say No finished the job…of closing the debate. Don’t talk about why people use drugs…Don’t talk about the tendency of prohibition to promote violence…Don’t talk about the lives, taxpay- er dollars and civil liberties sacrificed for the Drug War…Don’t talk about the medical potential of illegal drugs. Don’t talk at all. Just say no.” He hopes that by merging thesedifferent angles he can bring about a new language, which he has named “cannabinomics,” and that it will reverse the popular trend of criminalization, allowing people to finally realize the obviousness of such a backwards policy.

I first received the book from his publisher last year, and met up with him at his office in Hemet, California not long afterwards, where he has been a practicing psychol- ogist for many years. He greeted me wearing blue jeans and a black shirt, unshaven. “Hey Kevin,” a smiling face said, shaking hands. I followed him into his back office;crammed bookshelves were everywhere. I set up my camera and set it on the table directly in front of him. “Dr. Christopher Fichtner…” I said, first askinghow he got involved with this subject. “Well I’m a psychiatrist,” he started, “and I finished my training in ’91. I started working for the VA (Veterans of America) System – treat- ing veterans with PTSD in Illinois. A coalition of several groups was trying to pass a medical marijuana law in 2003 or so.” He recalled, as he does in his book,his meeting with Julie, telling me about her multiple sclero- sis and how she used edibles to help calm her symptoms. “She told a very compelling story,” Fichtner said, even watching her give testimony to the state legislature. “She was a major influence, who even schooled me on use of the word ‘marijuana.’” The true professional as he is, he prefers the term “herbal cannabis” over any other because of the negative connotations. “High,” afortu- itously-used word,has so many “Degrees of it,” he says, “There’s a euphoria that would be extreme, and it can lead to giddiness, an inability to interact in a reasonable

social manner.” I added, “Butnot dangerously though.” He agreed emphatically: “No, not dangerous, but there’s a mood elevation, which is just a reduction in anxiety, a feeling of greater well-being.”

Curious about his profession, which requiresprescribing large amounts of psychiatric medication,I asked him at what point he would suggest cannabis as an alternative. Unsurprisingly, I learned that Riverside, the county where he currently works, doesn’t have a policy supportingsuch recommendations. “I’ve done a few outside of that on a private basis – not very many,” he answered. As a med- icine, Fichtner says that it’s “always okay to talk about cannabis, as long as there’s a defined problem; like major depression; bipolar disorder; PTSD.” As psychiatrist, he says he’s first “going to go with the meds that are FDA approved. Herbal cannabis comes in when someone says, ‘I haven’t been able to tolerate this, but have expe- rience with cannabis and found that it is helpful.’”

The Drug War proponents need not panic. Having this conversation doesn’t mean anybody wants to allow cocaine vendors to set up down the block, or have busi- nesses named “Heroin R’Us” directly across the street. Such demagoguery is not allowedin the offices of Dr. Christopher Fichtner. Everybody already knows that the ingestion and consumption of strange substances can hardly be good for one’s health. Anybody can tell you that. But the list of such substances can grow upon clos- er inspection, and can come to include many things you might or might notconsider to be dangerous. “Smoking is never good for the respiratory tract,” Fichtner says,” but when you go look for the relationship between lung cancer and marijuana, you just don’t find it the way you find it with alcohol and tobacco.” Several times in the bookhe mentions the potential of substituting the two big killers with cannabis. Discussing a 2009 university study, Fichtner tells me that it “[dealt with] Squamous cell head and neck carcinoma, cancer – which alcohol and tobacco are major contributors to. Once they fac- tored out the influences of those two, what they found was not only was there no positive relationship with cannabis, [there was] a statistically significant inverse cor- relation. In other words, those who used marijuana were less likely to get head and neck cancer!”

Dealing with the Drug War in his book, Fichtner intro- duces us to “Garry,” a medicalcannabis patient whose Southern California home was invaded by Federal goons. Garry sustained serious injuries, was no longer able to work, went on social security, took more pain pills, and eventually had to foreclose on his house – all part of America’s new standarddomestic policy, with menacing faces like Gil Kerlikowske and Eric Holder

standingclose by approving of it all. In the book, Fichtner compares America’s collective attitude to this war with Professor Jerry Harvey’s tale of The Abilene Paradox – or, as Harvey summarizes it, “the tendency for groups to embark on excursions that no group member wants.”

I asked him the general “up-or-down” question: “Do you think the Drug War is a failure?” He answered with a familiar sense of obviousness: “Oh yeah. So many have spoken to that. They just had the Global Commission, and then pursuant to that you had Jimmy Carter who also wrote in June – maybe it was even the day of – the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s War on Drugs. Jimmy Carter wrote a piece in the New York Times talking about how it’s been a failure; harkening back to 1978 when he first said we oughta implement the recommendations of the Commission [on Marihuana and Drug Abuse]…that did some very good work under President Nixon, who just paid no attention at all to them.” Why would there be any disconnectbetween the President and his Commission? As everyone should know by now, the unanimous conclusion made by Nixon’sstaff was that marijuana should largely be made legal. Bringing the results of this policy up to date – to a sort of social reck- oning – Fichtner cites several popular headlines through- out his book (including the LA Times’ permanent proj- ect), concluding that “What Forbes magazine called the ‘Mexican Meltdown’ competes with the economic crisis, healthcare, and our foreign policy more broadly as the news item most likely to be updated on the front page of major American newspapers.” The latest develop- ment? As of May 13th, fortymore decapitated bodies have been dumped on a major highway near Monterrey; the Zetas claiming responsibility yet again.

I asked his opinion on whether or not there was an underlying reason why “drugs” were criminalized so harshly. “We’ll first of all,” he answered somewhat sharply, “I think partly the way out of this is to stop talk- ing about ‘drugs’ in a generic way.” While praisingthe work of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), he said they had habit of doing this. “It’s too big a conver- sation to have; too big a piece to bite off. I think the con- versation should start off with specific substances, rather than lumping them altogether…Coming back to your question – what do I think is sustaining this? – I think it’s partly the failure to parcel-out the language.” Dr. Fichtner thinks that instead of just saying “drugs” and being done with it, a person should resist the urge to be overly presumptuous when considering this question.“ Then we ask: ‘cannabis vs. alcohol; cannabis vs. tobacco; cannabis vs. opiates’; and so on. Cannabis is something we’ll look at fairly quickly because of its relatively favor- able safety,” he says.

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Although a newcomer to this discussion, Fichtner was surprisingly articulate and well-read on the topic. He thinks that because of its “inclusion clause,” California’s current medical policy is the best in the country. With other states having specific guidelines, the Golden State has almost none. I told the doctor about my experience getting a medical 215 card; about the price drop from

$150 down to $80; and the odd parallels between a California “caregiver” and a Kirby Vacuum Salesman. Again with naïve professionalism, he told me that peo- ple he knew in the industry “at least favored it for med- ical use,” adding that most doctors “who do really good check-ups [and exams] believe cannabis should be sold over the counter.” As the Devil’s Advocate, I reiterated the sentiment: “Maybe you and I wouldn’t look at it that way, but for othersthat’s borderline recreational use.” Fichtner made clear that his concern was more for patients willing to try it for themselves, instead of worry- ing that someone might get ahold of a substance far less harmful than those already available. “It certainly opens the door to recreational use, but there will be a percent- age who uses it recklessly and it could lead to other problems, and you’ll also have a percentage who will substitute it for alcohol or tobacco,” he says.

Finishing up my questions, the doctor stopped me to ask one of his own: “Which is more important?” he asks,“the probability of some users who may not exer- cise good judgment, and that the system may be abused or the possibility that a lot of people who are being denied access for its therapeutic benefits [could get it]?” If it has not already been made clear, Dr. Fichtner believes that people should be allowed to make their own deci- sion. “People with all these diseases are usually on a

cocktail of different medicines each with their own side- effects, so when you’re on a cocktail, you have to add all that up,” he says, rhetorically asking “why you wouldn’t want to consider a naturally occurring substance” that has “an array of structural-related molecules that do dif- ferent things?Some of them elevate mood, some reduce anxiety, and some of them may even have anti-psychot- ic and mood stabilizing properties.” And unknown to be dangerous. Cannabinomics, he believes,could become a language known toboth liberal Democrats who are wor- ried about Civil Liberties, and libertarian Republicans that are concerned with State’s Rights. He ends his book by saying that marijuana is “the low-hanging fruit of drug policy reform and medical marijuana is so ripe it’s falling off the tree.”

A question that escaped me during our discussion was Fichtner’s reportage on the progress of Sativex (RT), which he talks about throughout his 227-page book. The GW Pharmaceutical creation, Sativex is a lab-grade synthetizing of several cannabis components. Popular in Europe, the drug has been given an exclusive patent by the U.S. Government. An interesting thought of the doc- tor’s was that “our federal government currently active- ly denies American cannabis producers the opportunity to enter into the business in the open marketplace, in which the demand for cannabis – for medicinal and per- sonal use – is quite high.” He also admitted to me, some- what remorsefully, that the issue of hemp was only briefly mentioned in his book. I had one last question: “Will you sign my copy?” He smiled, and thanked me for reading it. “Here’s to finding a better way to manage medicinal herb in America!” he wrote, signing it in the best regards.

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