Medical Cannabis

>Eric Rojas

More than two years after the legalization of medical cannabis in Puerto Rico, nearly 100,000 residents have acquired their patient licenses while the industry gets more creative and pushes against a prevailing stigma.

Although the task of legalizing the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes was originally brought forth by the Alejandro García Padilla administration through Executive Order 2015-10, it lacked an ample set of guides.

In 2017, the government approved the Law to Manage the Study, Development and Research of Cannabis for Innovation, Applicable Standards and Limits (Act No. 42-2017) that created the regulatory framework for medical cannabis on the island.

The president of the Puerto Rico Medical Cannabis Association (PRMCA), Ingrid Schmidt, has stated that medical cannabis offers substantial investment opportunities on the island because it involves several industries, among them, agriculture, manufacturing and health.

This, she affirmed, not only impacts establishments dedicated specifically to medical cannabis, but their surroundings as well.

“All these companies need irrigation systems and fertilizer, security and marketing, among others,” Schmidt said to THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.

Furthermore, there are diverse ways to consume medical cannabis, which offers a myriad of possibilities. Some dispensaries are selling lotions, oils, chocolates, fruit-flavored gummies, kinds of butter and even hot sauce infused with the drug. This is the result of local businesses deciding to venture in the industry by merging it with other agricultural and manufacturing endeavors.

While the cannabis industry is expanding and demand is growing, the industry itself is hindered from reaching its optimal potential due to an absence of financial stimuli in the Puerto Rico Incentives Code.

Natalia Rodríguez Burgos wrote in the legal magazine of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus, that the industry does not benefit from tax incentives because it doesn’t fall under any of the following categories listed as exceptions to the Sales & Use Tax (IVU by its Spanish acronym): foods; prescribed medications; bona fide farmers; articles for the manufacture and exemption on machinery; medical-surgical materials; or supply, article, equipment, and technology used in the provision of health services.

Apart from government-related limitations, the industry does not benefit from services by the banking sector.

Alberto Burckhart, a member of the financial institution Tu Coop, stated, “banks respond to their shareholders and, as a business subject, they haven’t wanted to enter that market because the business volume of the cannabis industry is still small on the island. When it reaches a greater volume, they will probably enter.”

Moreover, Jorge Navarro, chair of the Governing Committee in the House of Representatives, local banking institutions are waiting for the cannabis market to exceed $100 million in revenue to cater to this industry.

A look at patient demographics provides insight into a growing number of users, as well as its more marketable aspects.

Patient Demographics

A common misconception is that medical cannabis is overwhelmingly used by college-age adults as a substitute for recreational use. However, findings reveal that there is a full spectrum of users with varied reasons to use medical cannabis as a complementary treatment or even substitute.

The Department of Health released patient statistics on July 2 of the present year. According to its findings, there are 92,499 registered users of medical cannabis, compared to 24,681 licensed patients in mid-2018. Of these, 38,860 (42.01 percent) are women and 53,639 (57.99 percent) are men.

Most users are part of the millennial generation. People aged 31 to 40 make up 21.81 percent of users and those aged 21 to 30 make up 20.73 percent. Generation X takes second place, with 17.61 percent of patients aged 41 to 50 and 17.41 percent aged 51 to 60. Ages 61 to 70 make up 13.54 percent and 71 onwards are 8.41 percent. Lastly, people aged 20 or lower comprise 0.49 percent of all licensed patients.

Regarding region, most patients are concentrated in the Fajardo Metropolitan Statistical Area (38.69 percent). Bayamón has 16.93 percent of patients; Caguas, 14.44 percent; Mayagüez / Aguadilla has 12.18 percent of users; Arecibo has 9.56 percent; Ponce houses 8.2 percent of patients.

A list of 30 conditions and illnesses are mentioned. The most common of these anxiety disorder, affecting 17,437 (18.85 percent) of licensed patients. This is followed by chronic pain (18.19 percent), depression (11.07 percent), arthritis (10.l 29 percent) and muscle spasms (9.53 percent).

The five least common conditions among patients are autism (0.09 percent), severe nausea (0.08 percent), lateral sclerosis (0.05 percent), AIDS (0.04 percent) and cachexia (0.03 percent).

Difference Between Medical and Recreational Cannabis

Despite the sizable number of licensed patients and the broad range of conditions that drive them to pursue this complementary or even alternate treatment, a stigma prevails around the use. This is largely due to its association with its recreational equivalent, which in turn has been lambasted for decades by politicians and clergy, among others.

The tide, however, is changing. About six in ten Americans (62 percent) support full cannabis legalization, according to a 2018 Pew Research study, reflecting a one percent growth compared to last year and 30 percent more than what it was in 2000 (31 percent).

“Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug for recreational purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than half the states (31)—plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico—have legalized it for medical purposes,” the study indicates.

Although locally, some residents and officials are also gearing toward legalizing recreational cannabis use. In 2018, for example, the municipality of San Juan approved an ordinance to prevent officials from criminally intervening with people in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.

The primary differences are the levels of the cannabinoids Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). THC is a psychoactive constituent that is most associated with the “high” feeling users get from recreational cannabis. CBD, meanwhile, is a phytocannabinoid that has been evidenced to treat childhood epilepsy syndromes, anxiety and other ailments.

CBD, which in itself does not cause a “high” feeling, is predominant in medical cannabis, while recreational cannabis contains higher levels of THC content.

As such, it is inaccurate to state that they are the same, provided that their chemical contents provide different effects. In fact, health officials have warned against the use of recreational marijuana as a substitute for medicinal cannabis, because it doesn’t treat the same symptoms and could cause adverse side effects on certain users.

“These patients who were immobilized and unable to work, when they begin to enjoy the quality of life, return to enter the labor force because they feel in a good-enough health condition to be able to work and run their businesses. This medicine helps them feel better and changes their whole environment because they feel able to re-enter the world again and in a proactive way,” Schmidt explained in a previous interview with EL VOCERO.

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Editor's note: This story was published on the July 24 print edition of The Weekly Journal.

Reporter for The Weekly Journal. She is a journalist with experience in social media management and digital marketing. Giovanna is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Digital Narratives at Sacred Heart University in San Juan.

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