States across the country are rapidly adopting legislation legalizing marijuana. The laws range from full access to more restricted medicinal use. For the past several decades, public education on the drugs has largely been assigned to law enforcement and, public opinion has largely been shaped by the same information. Not only has the information tended to be driven less by science and more by perceptual messaging, (such as the egg frying in the pan commercial from the 80’s), law enforcement has a financial stake in the legal status of the drug. Across the United States, police make more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined, rendering it a significant chunk of police work. In 2013, 6,317 Utahns were arrested for marijuana possession, 446 for sales. These numbers represent about a 50% increase in both possession and sales arrests from 2008. Drug manufacturers, growers, pharmacists, medical researchers, doctors and currency exchangers, also have a significant stake in how the drug is regulated. Recognizing potential financial conflicts is critical for voters to make informed choices at the ballot. Protecting the free flow of information and speech is necessary if Utah is to make informed decisions on marijuana policy.
The premise of marijuana prohibition, and its schedule one classification, is that a.) marijuana has no currently accepted medicinal use and b.) there is a high potential for abuse. The belief is that the harm it causes society far outweighs any potential benefits. People use whole plant marijuana, and its various chemical extracts, for a range of reasons from the very casual, or occasional user to the severely medically fragile population. With the passage of Charlee’s Law in 2014, some Utah patients with intractable epilepsy were granted a “hemp supplement” registration card contingent on a recommendation from their neurologist. This law provided legal access to non-THC medical cannabis. It also provided much needed relief for patients and caregivers that lived under the threat of criminal prosecution for providing their children with effective treatment for brain-damaging seizures. Out of state access has allowed some patients to experiment with THC products and some have found it more effective than CBD alone. There is a frustration that access to the best medicine is being hindered by unnecessary and overly restrictive regulation. This is what is driving the 2018 medical cannabis ballot initiative in Utah; “The Utah Medical Cannabis Act.”
Last year, the Utah legislature passed one medical marijuana bill; HB130 “Cannabinoid Research.” It was introduced by Representative Brad Daw, a software engineer from Orem and co-sponsored by Cedar City pharmacist, Evan Vickars. While this bill was signed into law without the public support of a single patient, it received notable support from former third district U.S. Representative, lawyer, business owner, and venture capitalist, Chris Cannon. Cannon says he became interested in medical marijuana pursuant to his daughter’s battle with cancer.
Prior to social media, it was fairly easy for lawmakers to avoid direct confrontation and public debate over positions that did not have widespread public support. We still see many politicians opting for more private and controlled Town Halls rather than direct confrontation at constituent driven venues. As we venture into a new political landscape with social media, there are many grey areas as to what constitutes the public square. However, some standards are beginning to emerge through legal challenge. Several Utah lawmakers have been accused of deleting “friends” on their facebook and twitter accounts because the content of their posts challenge their opinions or dispute their facts or are otherwise offensive or annoying. A recent case in Virginia District court has established some framework for constitutional challenges to free speech censorship in social media. The case involves a man that was temporarily blocked from a personal Facebook account of a chairwoman of a Board of Supervisors. The constituent accused the school board of corruption subsequent to the chairwoman soliciting thoughts and feedback. The court decided that the chairwoman violated the first amendment because she was practicing viewpoint discrimination. The ACLU described the behavior a violation of free speech because it denies a person their right to dissenting opinions without threat of prosecution. The first amendment provides the framework and the guiding principles that keep our public discussions on marijuana open and honest. As our public square begins to expand into social media, we must be aware of our rights and responsibilities regarding public discourse and call our representatives out when they trample on our first amendment rights.
As I began to look closer at the conversation Utah Representative Brad Daw, was having on his personal Facebook page, I saw that he was intentionally distorting information. He was committing blatant viewpoint discrimination. He also was ambivalent to personal attacks by his supporters. Comments like, “Why do stoners like Devin always come out of the wood work [sic] like roaches at night…Brad Daw is an honest man” are acceptable discourse but comments asking for source material and evidence to back up his claims, was removed. He was deleting comments and blocking people that presented information that questioned his assertions about the dangers and benefits of marijuana use. The contentious discussion came about subsequent to a Deseret News article written by Amber Maxfield, a policy intern for the right wing policy group, The Sutherland Institute; “Op-ed: Pressure to push medical marijuana might just backfire.” Daw posted this article with his own comment above the article, “Some sobering thoughts about the dangers of marijuana.” The article begins…”A few weeks after bringing her baby girl home from the hospital, a friend of mine began the process of divorcing her husband. The main reason was her husband’s marijuana use. He couldn’t quit.” From there, Maxfield proceeds to describe recent “tragedies” she has personally observed “caused by attempts to use marijuana for medical purposes.” Then she conflates marijuana use with opioid addiction. She warns that “the cannabis industry” is behind the push for legalization and widespread access to it, while the “broader medical community” is hesitant because reliable dosage standards are currently unavailable. She concludes, “Given the possible harm marijuana could do to people already suffering from opioid addiction, taking the time to understand what we’re doing is the real course of compassion.” When Daw posted this, it immediately solicited a robust response from marijuana advocates that contradicted the validity of the arguments. The anecdotal nature of the article passed off as sound evidence, came across to many as pure propaganda. By manipulating the free flow of the discussion to filter points that contradict Brad Daw’s point of view is engaging in a type of information warfare. It creates misunderstanding and ignorance in the public. It leaves us more psychologically influenced and manipulated than informed.
Daw attacks the Initiative warning, “Looks like Utah is trying to be more like California. Government by initiative will have dire consequences.” He then tags #utpol and #utleg.He believes that his HB130 is sufficient for the needs of Utahns and the Initiative is unnecessary. HB130 is a simple, six page bill that allows a person to possess cannabis, a cannabinoid product, or an expanded CBD product ONLY if it is part of a study. The only requirement is that the research firm has IRB approval. IRB stands for Institutional Review Board and they were developed to create ethical guidelines and regulatory framework for research with human subjects. The University of Utah has an accredited IRB, so does USU. There are also private IRB companies that are not accredited. Accreditation is an option, encouraged to demonstrate regulatory compliance within an IRB’s processes. They are not a legal requirement. The only legal requirement is that all IRBs conducting review of regulated research must be registered with the office for Human Research Protections, at the US Department of Health and Human Services.
It’s not entirely clear why Brad Daw feels so strongly about regulating and generating cannabis research business, but it’s obvious how it benefits Chris Cannon. Together, Daw and Cannon, produced a press release announcing Chris Cannon’s research firm, Endo-c. Endo-c is now conducting IRB approved research studies into the effects of Cannabis.
What is interesting is that both the research company, Endo-c and the IRB company are licensed in Springville, UT under the same name and address. The licenses are listed under the name Paul Fairbanks and both companies share a common address with Chris Cannon’s law firm which is also licensed at the Springville address. This suggests that the private IRB is not independent from the research company and poses some ethical concerns in terms of the ability to act as a watchdog. The phone number listed on the research study consent form for Tor IRB, ltd., did not answer and was not accepting messages.
The entire consent form for the Endo-c research study is troublesome. But one of the most unethical aspects of Cannon’s research business is it charges subjects $280 a month to participate. For profit research is a red flag. In one exchange Brad Daw was having with a father of a child with intractable epilepsy, Daw tells him that THC is available in a few weeks and to sign up for Endo-c’s study, otherwise he has no one but himself to blame for not getting the best treatment for his daughter, “CBD is here now and THC will be here soon I mean weeks not months. What’s more the soonest product will be available under the initiative is 3 years. So, I’m afraid that you getting treatment for your daughter is your decision,” Daw writes, “I’ve opened the door and you are welcome to walk through it.” “So please tell me what part of this you are not comprehending.” The father responded, “You are not understanding the law needs to be changed, not pick up some THC from a study.” Brad Daw subsequently blocked this person. Participating in a placebo controlled research study is not the same as getting treatment and for Brad Daw to suggest this is dishonest.
The Principal Investigator for Cannon’s cannabis study, Dr. Steven Warren, pled guilty in 1993 to five felony counts to charges of possessing and distributing a counterfeit substance, possession of controlled substance without a prescription, possession of a false prescription and failure to make a record for prescribing and administering controlled substances. He is being sued currently in federal court on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, Medicare and Medicaid for submitting fraudulent charges.
Chris Cannon and Brad Daw aren’t the only Utah political insiders that have a vested interest in cannabis regulation. In 2014, Utah Senator Curt Bramble was appointed Chairman of the Board for Medical Cannabis Payment Solutions, a card processing payment system dedicated to the medical marijuana industry. He currently has stock options in the company. Former Secretary of the Utah County Republican Party, Jeremy Roberts is the CEO. They are positioning to capitalize on commercialized marijuana sales after testing in the lab.
Brad Daw writes in another exchange on his Facebook page, “I understand and you know that I have helped with some referendums. I like the idea of broad grass roots movement being able to be heard, I don’t like the idea of a small group of wealthy people with a clever, if dishonest, marketing campaign being able to pass bad law.” Ironically, that appears to be what is happening.