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The Mass Media

Let’s Toke About It: An Interview with MassCann/NORML President

The+cannabis+sativa+plant

The cannabis sativa plant

As we continue our adventure into the budding world that is the cannabis industry, it’s important to understand that this movement, uprising, revolution, or whatever you want to call it isn’t a new one. Rather, it’s a youthful reiteration of the ideas preached back in the day, that marijuana isn’t lethal, it can & should be used to help those who need it, and it doesn’t make you a murderous lunatic who will eventually pick up the needle and never look back.
Now, on the other hand, to ignore the inherently controversial nature of this plant (and the surrounding subject matter) would be ignorant of anyone at this point of time. It’s still very much a debated issue in the political realm, with most presidential candidates pressed to voice their stance on medical and recreational cannabis consumption.
Opinions are nice to have, but experience is better. This is why I decided to sit down with someone who has been a crucial part of the pro-cannabis movement in Massachusetts for over 20 years: Mr. Bill Downing.
Downing serves as president of The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), which is the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of the Marijuana Laws (NORML). He has been the primary force behind the annual Freedom Rally held in Boston for the past 24 years. So, in my quest to bring information about the cannabis movement forward to the University of Massachusetts Boston community, he was an untapped wealth of information. Here is what I learned.
Clayton Cooper: So lets start with something simple: How did you like the Freedom Rally [this year]? What did you think?
Bill Downing: I liked it very much. We had two beautiful days of great weather and we had large crowds of very happy people. We only had three arrests. Considering we had tens of thousands of people there, having three arrests is actually very, very few.
CC: What did those arrests consist of?
BD: Well two were for distribution. So apparently, there were people that were selling marijuana or marijuana products and got caught by the police. Well, the security team told me they thought [the third individual arrested] was on heroin. He was harassing one of the security guys, and I guess he wouldn’t go away. So the police took him away from the rally area and tried to release him a few blocks away. I guess he was still being belligerent, so they had to arrest him.
CC: So that was the 26th Rally on the Common?

BD: Actually the first few times weren’t at Boston Common, so it’s probably the 23rd time on the actual Common.
CC: Where was it before that?
BD: The first year it was held in North Adams. The second year it was held in the Charlestown Navy Yard on the dock where the U.S.S. Constitution is… That was to draw attention to the fact that the U.S.S. Constitution carried over 60 tons of hemp.
CC: I honestly never knew. That’s incredible. Sixty tons?
BD: Yeah, yeah, all the sail cloth, all the ropes, all the riggings, all the uniforms, all the paper, meaning all the charts and bibles and all that. All the calking between the boards was all hemp – 60 tons of it. That’s an awful lot of hemp.
BD: The third Freedom Rally was held right in front of the State House on Beacon Street, and the fourth one was the first time we had it on Boston Common.
CC: So do you have a business in your hometown or here in Boston?
BD: Well, I had a bricks and mortar business in Allston. It was nice; it was a good set up. I had a lot of patients coming in and I was helping a lot of people with CBD products – that’s what the business was, it was offering CBD products – and CBD is cannabidiol, which is extracted from hemp.
CC: So that’s a recent thing, at least over the past few years there has been a lot more exposure given to cannabadiol and its potential benefits medicinally. Strains like Charlotte’s Web, which are high in CBD and low in the psychoactive THC, help epileptic patients. What other applications of CBD are there, and if you could, can you explain the difference between CBD and THC?
BD: Well first, if you know anything about it, you know that CBD is not illegal.
CC: It’s not scheduled [government’s way of classifying substances’ addictiveness]?
BD: No. It’s a derivative of hemp. Hemp products are allowed. There is good evidence that CBD is useful for a large number of medical issues, both illnesses and injuries. [It’s] quite a long list.
(He then reads the list, which can be found at www.projectcbd.org/conditions.)
CC: (In response to hearing the list) It’s exciting to see that something that is so new in its own right has already been shown to help with all those conditions.
BD: Well that’s no thanks to the United States. The United States and their reefer madness attitude towards it has limited research on all things cannabis ever since the 1930’s. So almost all of this research comes from more enlightened places like Israel, Spain, and England, as well as other European and South American nations.
CC: So now that we’ve got that covered, what’s the difference between CBD and THC?
BD: Well they’re both cannabinoids, in that cannabinoids are chemicals that are found somewhat uniquely in the cannabis plant. THC is the predominant cannabinoid in marijuana, so if you had marijuana tested in a lab for various cannabinoids, most of the time the majority of the chemicals that’s the cannabinoid is going to be THC. The second most predominant chemical in most marijuana is CBD, but in most marijuana there’s an awful lot more THC than CBD. THC of course is famous because it’s the mind-altering substance that makes you feel high, but CBD doesn’t make you feel high. CBD, while it doesn’t make you feel high, is actually responsible for a lot more of the medical effectiveness of cannabis than THC ever was.
BD: Another effect of reefer madness here in the United States was that once they found that THC was the thing that got you high, they started doing all kinds of experiments with synthetic THC, which is different than plant based THC. Well, they expected to find the medical effects the patients were claiming from marijuana by testing with THC. When they didn’t find them, they started saying, “Oh, well these patients are making this up because they want to get high”, ignoring the fact that there are other chemicals present in the cannabis plant that are actually responsible for a lot of those medical effects. So it wasn’t until researchers in Israel started looking at CBD that people started realizing its not THC at all, its CBD for most of this stuff.
CC: The government testing patients with THC is something that I feel is well known by now. I didn’t know however that the synthetic version was used rather than the real deal.
BD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Most of the testing that’s been done here in the United States until very, very recently was done with synthetic THC, made in a big evil factory in a giant vat with chemicals mixed together. It had nothing to do with a farm or a plant or sunlight or rain or dirt, or any of that stuff.
CC: So that being said, is it true that the Federal Government holds a patent on that synthetic form of THC that mimics its effects?
BD: They actually hold a patent on CBD, and in their patent they claim that it is anti-spastonic, anti-anxiety, and anti-inflamatory, but if you were to ever make those claims, if I for instance while I was selling CBD was to say it’s for anti-anxiety or anti-inflamatory, the FDA would send me a nasty letter saying, “you can’t say that.” The U.S. government can say it in their patent, but someone who wants to sell CBD can’t say that.
CC: So that’s more primary evidence of the disconnect that exists between the political and the medical communities surrounding this plant.
BD: Oh yeah. It’s extremely frustrating because ever since the 1930’s when the reefer madness campaign started, research was halted on marijuana as a medical substance, and obviously that’s politics getting involved in medicine. Obviously, politics and medicine should be separate things… If the United States hadn’t messed politically with cannabis as a medicine, there are probably tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people whose lives would have been improved to a tremendous degree, had not the reefer madness campaign kept us from investigating this medicine for scores of years.
CC: So when we as a nation decided against cannabis and scheduled it within our drug laws, did we also force the rest of the world to follow suit?
BD: We not only told the world, but in the 1950’s, we had international conventions where we forced all of the other nations in the world to sign, basically through our economic power, saying that they would never allow “marijuana.”
CC: All that being said, take this one in any direction you want. What is cannabis to you?
BD: Well it’s industrial. It’s medical. It’s recreational. It’s religious. It’s all of those things. In some of those aspects, it’s a plant that has truly incredible abilities; abilities that have been discounted, under-appreciated, and buried due to our drug war mayhem.
BD: For instance, as an industrial crop, Jack Herer, who is the author of a book that is very, very famous amongst reform activists [called] “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” put out a $100,000 challenge saying that if you were going to eliminate the use of non-renewable petro-chemicals, there is only one plant in the world that could replace them all, that could also help with deforestation… and create a wide variety of superior consumer goods at much lower cost. Things like that. He was offering [the money] to anyone who could prove him wrong. He’s never had to pay it out because no one could prove him wrong, and thats the absolute truth. There is only one plant that can do all that and that’s the cannabis plant.