Is Medical Cannabis Losing Out as Recreational Use Rises?

By Georgia Williams for Cannabis Investing News

With the news cycle currently dominated by reports of various countries legalizing recreational marijuana, it’s easy to forget that that road to legalization has been in the works for decades.

Much of the reason countries like Canada have legalized cannabis today stems from the activism, work and longstanding diligence of medical cannabis advocates — people like Steph Sherer, who has spent 20 years speaking about the positive effects of medicinal cannabis.

At the Collision Conference in Toronto, the Investing News Network sat down with Sherer, who is president of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), president and co-founder of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI) and co-founder of Dioscorides Global Holdings (DGH).

She discussed the long path to medical cannabis legalization in America, how the prevalence of recreational marijuana has affected her advocacy work and her work at DGH, a private equity firm.

Correcting medical cannabis misconceptions

In 2002, Sherer founded the ASA, the largest national organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research.

Her work at ASA led to her co-founding the ICCI in 2015. The Czech Republic-based center ensures that medical cannabis products are effective, safe and consistent.

After spending two decades advocating for medical cannabis, Sherer has seen and heard a lot, but she noted that getting the general public to view therapeutic marijuana as a medical need and not a party drug has been one of the main challenges.

“The biggest misconception about medical cannabis is that the use makes you just feel better — not necessarily makes you better,” explained Sherer. “I think a lot of people think about medical cannabis as an option for a last resort. (If) nothing else is working, maybe doctors will turn to medical cannabis. I think often people look at medical cannabis users as people just feeling better, but not getting better.”

For Sherer, who uses medical cannabis to treat multifocal dystonia and torticollis, breaking down the false information, misconceptions and stigma remains paramount.

“What I’m seeing in my own personal use of medical cannabis and also as a patient advocate, we know that people aren’t just feeling better, but they’re getting better,” she said.

Separating medical and recreational cannabis

When it comes to recreational marijuana, the longtime advocate has mixed feelings. While working to create universal access, she has seen valuable research and development dollars that could advance the case for medical marijuana invested in other niche areas that she views as less important.

“On one side, it creates an opportunity for access for a patient who couldn’t convince their doctor to write a recommendation to help them with access,” said Sherer.

But she thinks a clear definition between fun weekend use and the management of chronic conditions needs to be implemented.

“What patients want and need from the plant is very different than somebody that may just want to enjoy a concert on a weekend. I’ve seen the investment in research and development move away from moving medical cannabis into something that looks more familiar to doctors and patients as a medicine (toward) trying to get rid of the flavor of cannabis in a soft drink or how to get as high as possible.”

Sherer even jokingly noted that renaming cannabis may help to reduce some of the stigma, pointing to the commercial success of cannabidiol (CBD) products.

“When I started ASA in 2002, the first thing I said is, ‘Please come up with a new name for cannabis.’ I think in that way it’s made it easier for maybe soccer moms to try CBD, and maybe that opens their mind to thinking about other cannabis products,” she said.

“My fear is that, because it’s not a very regulated market, there’s a lot of fraud or products that actually have no CBD in them. There’s a lot of product safety issues in that field that may have the opposite effect. Maybe someone tries one of these products, it says it’s CBD (and) they have an adverse reaction to the contaminants, or maybe they don’t have any reaction because there’s no CBD in it. In their minds, they just close their minds to actually trying other medical cannabis products in the future.”

Research and development still paramount

That is where research and medical studies come into play. Much of the work that the ICCI is doing internationally is focused on implementing standardization, regulation and oversight.

Meanwhile, DGC, a private equity firm that Sherer formed with business partner Ben Bronfman, invests strategically in the medical cannabis sector in order to advance the much-needed research that will help the sector gain widespread acceptance and legalization.

“We’re looking for investments that move medical cannabis towards being a medicine. That means investing in medical cannabis providers,” she said.

One of the companies DGH has invested in is Bedrocan International.

“It’s one of the oldest medical cannabis companies that has been providing standardized products to the Dutch government since 2003. They’re in pharmacies in 19 countries, and we wanted to make sure that their goals, their ethics, their mission have the potential for a global audience and are able to reach patients globally,” said Sherer.

The private equity company was also crucial in the establishment of the ICCI, an international medical cannabis advocacy and research organization.

“Cannabis is a very, very researched plant, but the research hasn’t happened in a way that builds on itself,” said Sherer. “A lot of research that’s happening, it can’t be replicated. We’re investing in the technologies that allow research to happen and allow the global companies that are out there to have a commitment to providing medical cannabis to patients. We’ve created platforms that will save these companies time and money to move into clinical trials right away and to really carry out the intended mission of medical cannabis.”

Due to its relatively new legal status in a handful of countries around the world, many people believe that the work for medical cannabis advocates is over, when in fact it has become more important.

“Until cannabis is in a pathway that looks more like medicine covered by insurance, our work isn’t done.”