Stash Box: Questions for the Cannabinologist

Thoughts on ‘American Beauty’, Washington state’s marijuana policy, and the bright future of cannabis research from Sunil Kumar Aggarwal.

Illustration by James the Stanton

Sunil Kumar Aggarwal, Ph.D, M.D., physician-scientist and medical geographer, is one of the few people who has managed to get federal funding for cannabis research—a difficult task given the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. His work is a big part of the Washington story, and I was lucky enough to catch up with him and pick his brain on the state of cannabis in Washington. Meagan Angus

When did you first try cannabis? I watched the movie American Beauty in college, and I thought “Wow, there’s a really cool character here who’s using cannabis, and he’s kind of the hero.” At that same time, my colleagues in a philosophy student group at college were suggesting I try it and I was at the right place in my life, so I tried some puffs and it gave me a big relaxation response, which is good for someone like me who is very high-strung all the time.

And when did you decide to go into cannabis research? I thought, Hey, this is what the meditation efforts I was trying before were trying to achieve I think. So I got really curious about the chemistry and the science, the pharmacology and the neuroscience, because that was what I was interested in as a student. I started reading on my own about this whole new system in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, that were just discovered in 1988. The first two endocannabinoids were discovered in ’92–’93, and here I am in 1999, and this is some hot news, hot information, and this is changing the whole view of the brain, as a new class of neurotransmitters.

You studied at UW, but have since travelled widely. How did your experience in Washington impact your work elsewhere? I moved to New York for a few years and got involved in the medical cannabis movement over there. We finally got a law passed over there. I was leading a group called New York Physicians for Compassionate Care. We were able to get the legislature to at least recognize that cannabis should be available for medical use.

The knowledge I had accrued in Washington helped me to talk about this in other places, so people knew that you could do this without the sky falling.

It seems Big Pharma and Big Ag are really beginning to affect a lot of what’s happening in Olympia. Oh, yes. I think the barriers to entry regarding getting a license … did selectively allow for certain people who had financial resources, and did not select for people who had know-how skill, direct interest in dealing with patients, or even provid[ed] a product that people thought was good. There’s been cannabis in Washington for decades; if there wasn’t, we wouldn’t have had legal or medical, but we didn’t utilise our own homegrown grassroots resources.

What do we need to do to keep those resources? I think it’s going to take states that recognize, and social movements where people push back and say “This is our plant, you can’t just make a bunch of money off it.” There’s human rights, social-justice issues, health issues; there’s fairness, equality; it’s not just the “Green Rush.” We were talking about green for environmental, and now it’s all green for Ben Franklin. I think people kind of missed the green boat.

What’s your hope for the future of cannabis in Washington state? My hope is we cultivate our own local medical-cannabis system; we set up a state genetic bank repository of our strains that have been lovingly cultivated here over generations; we make that our commonwealth good and … use that as a basis to develop an understanding of cannabis for medical purposes. That we have our own production channels, our own social-enterprise corporations, to push this forward. State funding to push this forward, and funding for universities, and I can see that develop into a pretty exciting area of experimental studies where we see cancer suppression, neurological disease modification, HIV suppression, and even more to come.

Stash Box is Meagan Angus’ weekly look at Seattle’s marijuana scene. If you know something you think she should know, email her at stashbox@seattleweekly.com. You can also follow her on Facebook.

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