Are Blacks Missing Out on the Medical Benefits of Weed?

A 1-ounce bag of medicinal marijuana on display at the Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, Calif., on March 25, 2010
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series that looks at the growing legal marijuana industry and its effect on the black community.

If you search “babies cured with cannabis” on YouTube, you come up with a plethora of emotional videos. There’s California’s Dr. William Courtney from 2013, using X-rays to show what he says is the cure of an 8-month-old baby suffering from a brain tumor with cannabis oil. Then there’s an excerpt from the 2014 documentary The Culture High, in which California resident Jason David explains how a cannabis extract helped his child stop having literally hundreds of seizures a day.


But very few of the people in the pages of videos appear to be people of color.

“It’s time for us as a community to embrace this plant and understand what it means. We need to start helping our children,” says activist and entrepreneur Wanda James. She is the African-American co-founder and CEO of the Colorado-based dispensary Simply Pure, and she thinks blacks are missing out on what she says are the major medical benefits of marijuana.


“I’m not seeing black children with cancer lining up to get cannabis oil. I’m not seeing our kids take advantage of what I’m seeing a lot of other children take advantage of,” James says. “Cannabis helps with brain cancer and epilepsy. … Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have said there is a medicinal value. We know this plant will increase the appetite in people who can’t eat. We know it will stop nausea. But most of the people who use medical marijuana are white.”

In Washington, D.C., where medical marijuana was first approved in 2010, a report (pdf) from May notes that “it is important to remember that the substance does have legitimate medical uses.” It cites 1999 research from the Institute of Medicine reporting that weed is effective in controlling some forms of pain, alleviating nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, treating wasting due to AIDS, and combating muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis. It confirms that marijuana low in THC­—or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that causes the high—has “shown promising results for managing seizures in children,” and that research suggests marijuana may be helpful for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to asthma, arthritis and glaucoma.


Fear of Using Medical Marijuana

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites serious health disparities for African Americans, including an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and several kinds of cancer. Some marijuana-medical experts, such as Chanda Macias, Ph.D., an African-American cellular biologist, are trying hard to get blacks to take advantage of the ways the drug could help deal with some of those problems. But she says that the challenge is getting past the negative impact that weed has had on communities of color.


“We’re scared to use it,” says Macias, who also has an MBA and owns the National Holistic Healing Center dispensary in Washington, D.C.’s trendy DuPont Circle neighborhood. “We used it—sometimes as medicine—before it was legalized, and in some cases we were incarcerated for it. Now, even though treatment and science are pointing to the benefits, we’re still skeptical. … We’re not sure what the bottom line is; we’re not sure what the repercussions are, especially in places where there’s medical [marijuana]. And then the other question is access to that.”

In some states where medical marijuana is allowed, Macias notes, some employers still do drug testing for weed and other illegal substances. That means people of color who might be potential patients could be blocked from entry-level positions and lose a chance of employment. But Macias says that there are several strains, and different uses of marijuana, that could help mitigate health problems suffered disproportionately by African Americans, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.


“I treat black males with prostate cancer. It’s an epidemic in the black community, and often metastasized to bone [cancer]. … It blocks the pathway to void the bladder, and men were coming in because they were having that obstruction,” Macias explains. “With a certain strain of medication—we have over 50 different strains we can align with your ailment—we were able to allow that muscle relaxation and could void the bladder without using other medications, like Flomax.”

She says that she has helped veterans of color suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia, cancer patients suffering loss of appetite from chemotherapy treatments and HIV/AIDS patients who need pain management.


“For example, women use Botox for the straight cosmetic effect, but Botox has caused people to feel better,” Macias says. “People didn’t understand. Come to find out that Botox is a muscle relaxant for the muscles in the head and it also helps with headaches, so you have people going in for a specific element but being treated for another. … That’s why you need to go through the truth questionnaire and surveys to understand exactly what you need. It’s not just the strain that’s important, it’s also the method of consumption.”

A Treatment for Common Ailments

Marijuana can be smoked, vaporized, and used in edibles and as a topical treatment. Macias says that cannabidiol, or CBD—not the THC part of marijuana that causes the high—causes an anti-inflammatory response that can help with arthritis. She explains that strains higher in CBD can be used to treat epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.


“Even with heart disease, there’s no engagement in our community. I’ve seen it in other communities,” Macias explains, adding that her practice has close to 1,000 patients, with marijuana strains ranging from $13 to $22 per gram. “I’ve seen HIV and cancer [patients] because those are known, but not lots of diabetes, even though we know [weed] has a big effect on diabetes and ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease], but our community doesn’t engage.”

Macias and other medical-marijuana experts add that people using weed to deal with ailments don’t have to end up sitting on their couches, too stoned to deal with their everyday lives, as seen in a variety of anti-drug television commercials.


“Lots who experience ‘couch lock’ and what you see on TV are overmedicated, and you shouldn’t have to be,” Macias says. “If you are overmedicating, you can't really be functional, but if you medicate at what you need, it’s like taking a Tylenol. Some have the desire to overmedicate, but that isn’t the typical person in this community.”


DEA Still Says No to Rescheduling

Other challenges to more widespread use of medical marijuana arguably include the stance of the federal government. In August, the Drug Enforcement Administration denied two petitions to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. The agency said that marijuana would remain a Schedule 1 controlled substance, like heroin and LSD, because “it does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.”


At the same time, the agency expanded the number of DEA-registered marijuana manufacturers, which will provide researchers with a more robust supply of marijuana. The agency says that will allow more people to register with the DEA so that they may grow and distribute weed for Food and Drug Administration-authorized research purposes.

The agency says that it is committed to working with the FDA and with the National Institute on Drug Abuse to facilitate research on weed and its components. The FDA has a patent, No. 6630507, on cannabinoids, which declares that they “have been found to have antioxidant properties … [and] particular application as neuro-protectants, for example in limited neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke or trauma.” It goes on to say they can be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.


“It insults us as Americans that the DEA says [marijuana] has no medicinal value,” argues Colorado activist Wanda James. “The only reason the DEA wants to keep it as the most dangerous drug in America is because it allows them to continue harassing black and brown people and allows the civil forfeiture that puts money in their pocket.”

But DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson insists that the reasoning behind not rescheduling marijuana is quite different.


“We received information from the FDA stating the marijuana still didn’t quite meet up to their standards of becoming a medicine … so we’re at a loss and that ties our hands here at the DEA,” Patterson explains. “If something isn’t a medicine and it isn’t a cure for anything, that forces our hand. We have to leave marijuana as Schedule 1.”

Patterson points to an Aug. 11 letter written by DEA acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, in which he writes that the FDA drug-approval process is a “thorough, deliberate and exacting process grounded in science, and properly so, because the safety of our citizens relies on it.” Rosenberg adds that “if scientific understanding about marijuana changes—and it could change—then the decision could change.”


There are government-approved clinical marijuana trials going on right now, including through the California-based nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which received a $2.156 million grant from Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment to test the use of botanical marijuana in treating military vets with PTSD.

“I’d be rooting the FDA on; we think they’re really close and we hope there is something we can hear when they finish with their trials,” Patterson says. “But without something conclusive, the DEA is still on the hook. … Say we did cave to public opinion. Lots of people want us to reschedule. Say we did that, and then 10 years down the road, people have adverse effects of weed with higher levels of THC. We have to protect the people from themselves.”


There are doctors who are skeptical about the benefits of medical marijuana, according to Shawnta Hopkins-Greene. She’s CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based CannX LLC, a physician-referral service that has seen about 6,000 patients since 2014.

“There are doctors, particularly in pain management, who don’t believe in the use of cannabis. … They drug-test, so if patients test positive for marijuana, they won’t treat them, and some aren’t comfortable about discussing medical marijuana,” Hopkins-Greene says. “We have a network where patients can share their use of medical marijuana and receive treatment without judgment.”


Hopkins-Greene and Macias are going into a partnership aimed at engaging communities of color—doctors and patients alike—in this multibillion-dollar industry. They are moving into other states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio, to provide networks of physicians for marijuana referrals and to convince people of color that through partnerships, they, too, can be involved in the weed industry.

“We need to bring this awareness to the minority community—not only will there be dispensaries in your community, but there is an opportunity for businesspeople to get into this industry,” Hopkins-Greene says. “I specifically target physicians of color … I want to engage as many minorities in all levels possible.”


That includes having African Americans take advantage of what many advocates see as clear, positive outcomes for people battling many ailments that affect communities of color.

“When you’re in my position and you see the healing and true medicinal benefits of it, and our community not having access, whether it’s a financial, socioeconomic or political issue, it’s missing the positive on something we have historically built,” says Macias. “The other thing is that our community  … typically we don’t go to doctors, especially our males, so this pulls into that as well.”


She says the myths about the use of medical marijuana need to be dispelled because it can really help people feel better.

Also in the High Society series:

Where Recreational Weed Is Legal, Should Those in Prison for Weed Crimes Get a Puff, Puff, Pass?


Why Black People Are Being Left Out of the Weed Boom

Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.

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