Hard News by Russell Brown


"This seismic time": an interview with Weediquette's Krishna Andavolu

Weediquette, the marijuana magazine series you can see on the Viceland channel on Sky, is a TV show for its times. As the law, social attitudes, economy and science relating to cannabis evolve rapidly in the US, stories are proliferating.

And those are the stories – from medically stoned kids to black-market producers trying to go legit – that host and excutive producer Krishna Andavolu explores. Although, in keeping with Vice style, he consumes weed on screen in every episode, it's not a stunt show.

Krishna was in New Zealand late last year on a publicity visit for Viceland and I interviewed him for my RNZ podcast series From Zero (which is still there for you to enjoy).

I was interested in far more than could be accommodated in the series, especially given that voters in California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts had just opted to legalise the use, sale and consumption of recreational marijuana and several states had voted for medical marijuana regimes. So I've transcribed the whole interview here

Krishna was accommodating and thoughtful – and a man who clearly believes he has very interesting job.

What's the significance of what happened with the ballot initiatives this year? Was that a tipping point?

Yeah, I think so. I think California going recreationally legal offers us an example of the eighth-largest economy maybe in the world regulating the sale of cannabis. I think if you dig down into other states – Arkansas, for example, which legalised medical marijuana – they approved CDB-only. That's a tipping point for places that are socially conservative and wouldn't otherwise think that marijuana is an acceptable legal substance, to at least offer recognition that CBD for epilepsy is maybe a real thing. That's a different tipping point.

What was the story behind the successful campaigns? Who put money into them succeeding?

A lot of grassroots organisations, like Norml and the Drug Policy Alliance. Organisations that have been working from a legislative point of view for decades now. California's also very interesting because Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, who might one day become governor, was also very much behind the regulatory push. There was the Blue Ribbon Commission that was formed a few years ago and it did quite a bit of research into how best to implement a regulatory systems – and he was kind of the head of that.

So it wasn't, as people like Kevin Sabet have claimed, "Big Marijuana" putting in the money?

I'm not really sure what "Big Marijuana" is in that sense. If there was to be an investigation into where the Drug Policy Alliance's funding is coming from, perhaps it's coming from RJ Reynolds Tobacco. But I think if that were the case, we would have known it by now. Generally speaking, those in the marijuana community are sceptical about these things. Are they myopic to their own cause being affected like that? Perhaps.

But there is specific evidence as to who is funding the opposition. In a couple of cases in states in the US this time around, it's pretty interesting. The first one is Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas, Nevada – he put in something like $800,000 to an anti-weed campaign. It didn't work, but he has personal experience of having a kid who died of drug addiction and he believes the kid's marijuana use was integral to that drug addiction.

In Arizona there's an even more interesting money trail. A company called Insys – they're a pharmaceutical company that makes a Fentanyl patch. An opiate pain-relieving patch that's been abused quite a bit. To a lot of advocates, that's direct material proof that marijuana is a disruptive force in the broken big pharmaceutical system.

What happens from here?

It's hard to say. I would venture the guess that it's going to be a long time before Congress acts in any meaningful way to de-schedule marijuana or legalise it in any meaningful fashion. Which means it will still be up to the states to legalise as voters see fit.

You could venture the guess that a rather conservative Attorney General might want to be more aggressive in prosecuting states for allowing marijuana. But that verges into another typically conservative issue of states' rights. And I don't think there's enough political capital to be gained to go after, say, California.

We saw the NYPD officially deprioritise marijuana enforcement almost on the day that Colorado legalised. Does that suggest there's an effect even outside the states that reform?

Yeah. Marijuana prohibition has been for such a long time a tool of the carceral state. It's been a way that law enforcement has been able to pin charges on communities of people. I don't think it's completely stopped, even if in name only stop-and-frisk doesn't exist any more, even if pot is decriminalised.

To take one example, smoking weed on the street. That just happens. It pretty much happens everywhere. But that is still illegal in New York, you can still get a ticket or summons for it, or you can get arrested. And so if the discretion of the police is such that they would care to arrest you, they can still find reasons to do so with pot.

Smoking on the street is technically still illegal in Colorado too, isn't it?

It is. But again, it's not as if people don't do it. And sometimes the police do look the other way, and sometimes they don't. So they still have that kind of discretion even if in supposedly legal circumstances.

I was in New York in April for UNGASS and I did smell marijuana being smoked on the street. One thing I noticed was how it smelled – this is modern pot. Some of the terpenes have been bred out and it actually smelled gorgeous – it smelled perfumed.

We're at a high point as far as the cultivation of marijuana is concerned in the United States. The variety, the quality, the potency, the flavour can be astounding. That stuff existed five years ago, it was just hard to find – you had to have a really good connect. Now it's like all the stuff is like that and it's harder to find not-high-quality weed.

We've also seen, in Colorado in particular, the different forms of cannabis, including the refined products, the shatter and the wax. What impact are they having?

I don't know, exactly. There's a lot of cannabis aficionados, people who really love the different concentrates, the flavour profiles that they offer and the choice it offers them to consume. I know for some medical patients it's very quick and strong. One thing with medical marijuana is that we're at a very basic moment of ingestion. If you look at the way drugs can be ingested or interfaced with our biology, the pharmaceutical industry's been really good at finding different ways for that to happen. We're still smoking things and ingesting them in a really rudimentary fashion.

So I think it's a double-edged sword. Shatter and oils can be very strong and I think abuse of that on a recreational level certainly happens. On the other side, for chronic pain or serious conditions, we did a story this year about the opioid crisis in the US and how there people who are trying to get opiate addicts off of their opioids by replacing them with cannabinoids. During withdrawal from opioids there's real desire and need for kind of a hit – to get messed up – and what shatter and wax and dabbing can do is substitute for a hit of heroin in that moment. So it has a therapeutic value even though it's super-potent and we could maybe say it's a bad thing.

In the first episode of Weediquette you went to Portland and saw another side of medical marijuana – which was parents giving their children very, very high doses of THC in the belief that it would cure their cancer. And being allowed to do so by the state. That seemed to me a risky way to run a medical marijuana regime.

Yeah. You could look at it that way. We know that marijuana is good for easing the ravaging effects of chemotherapy. But that doesn't take very much marijuana. What these parents were doing was giving their children really high-potency, high-THC oils, because they believed the THC in that oil was actually killing the cancer.

There is very little clinical evidence to suggest that that's the case. There's also just enough pre-clinical evidence to suggest that it could be the case, giving those parents kind of vacuum of knowledge to fill with their desires and hopes.

The way the medical marijuana system works in Oregon offers a pretty wide latitude to caregivers as far as what they deem appropriate. I wouldn't necessarily say that's a bad thing in all cases. This is a case where these parents as a family are finding a lot of therapy from their kids being on these cannabinoids. The use-case is becoming more diverse and it can be pretty disturbing to see. But if you come at it from an empathetic point of view, it's like, these are kids that might otherwise die. And so if these parents are finding a way to keep them alive and find some peace in that process, then it's medicinal but also sort of social, in a weird way.

I must say, after you had a little dab of the oil they give their kids …

Yeah (laughs) …

I looked at it and I thought, man, this guy fronts a weed show and he is more out of it than he wants to be.

Well, you know, I front a weed show but I also don't purport to be the biggest stoner in the world. I like weed, I smoke it, I think it's a great recreational substance. I'm a medical marijuana patient in California and other states as a result. But that said, my investigation into this isn't coming from the point of view of a pure advocate or a pure hedonist. I'm trying to figure out where we are at the moment as far as how marijuana interfaces with mainstream culture.

There's a variety of regulatory systems in operation already: Colorado and Washington State regulate much as they do alcohol, DC is the "gift economy" model, you've also been to Uruguay – have you come to any conclusions about what the ideal regime is?

I don't think it's necessarily been found yet. I think the Uruguay model stifles the creativity of the market, because it's all produced by the government itself. The DC model is not a model – it's a half-finished, half-baked one, because the federal government has made it impossible for the city council to actually establish regulations. The Washington model did not initially have enough supply, so basically didn't induce people to leave the black market. California until now, under Prop 215, has been a bit of a failure as well, if you look at the diversion from the legal to illegal market – 80% of the weed in the US comes from California because of that.

But Colorado I think is still in the lead as far as a workable marketplace. It's a smaller, less diverse state as far as population is concerned, it's generally wealthy in comparison to other states. So there might not be a one-size-fits-all.

Did it work well in Colorado because they had a robust medical scheme beforehand and were already doing things like bar-coding seedlings?

Yeah. They have the seed-to-sale tracking. I think all the states that have legal pot had medical pot – it was a foot in the door. But I'm not sure I can give a definite answer on that.

Have you visited any cannabis clubs?

I went to the Netherlands. I haven't been to Spain yet, but I hear they're flourishing there. There's a couple of things about cannabis use that are interesting in those. One is social use, which is frowned upon in the US. And the other is cooperative growing – growing for oneself and not having it mediated through another company that you're paying.

Its interesting that you front a show that’s about marijuana, you smoke marijuana onscreen, you get to consume it in various ways. And your show's never been censored, it's never been taken off air. Does that sometimes surprise you?

No. We're very careful from a production point of view not to do things that are illegal, irresponsible – or are dumb. The standards and practices in the US are an ongoing negotiation, so what we're doing now perhaps wouldn't have been acceptable five years ago. That's a movement as to acceptable behaviour on television.

But the show is a sort of an emotional investigation – a rigorous journalistic investigation, but an open, empathetic investigation of where we are at this seismic time in the history of marijuana and culture. Our remit is not to be the most controversial, stunty weed journalism show. What we're trying to do is follow people's lives, see what's at stake, and through their journeys learn about what pot means to them.

I thought the Portland episode was a good example of that. And I was also impressed with the quality of the scientific information. You got that right and you expressed it in quite clear terms.

Oh, thanks! You liked the graphics? We spent a lot of time on that. My parents are both physicians, so I come from dinner-table conversations about these sorts of things. I think people who understand cannabis culture are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. The concept of apoptosis – normal programmed cell-death – I bet there's a lot of people you'd see on the street and go "that's a stoner" who'd know what that is. Most people don’t.

Pot geeks.

Pot geeks! There're tons of 'em!

What's the best weed you've smoked in the course of the show?

I think the time I enjoyed smoking pot the most was in the Emerald Triangle in Mendocino County and Humboldt County. There are a couple of producers up there and it's really nice to be there – the air is fresh and you're at elevation. The terpene profiles of what they're growing up there are astounding. It's sun-grown, it's outdoors and it has a different consistency and flavour as a result of that.

Is the market in the US already at a stage where you can ask for weed that does what it says on the label? That will do what you want it to do?

Yeah, I think so. I haven't purchased pot in a recreational sense that often, but I think there's enough supply that if you were asking the right person you can get what you would like. If you go to dispensaries there are pot geeks, very knowledgeable people behind the counter, who help you get what you're looking for.

There are also websites that give you potential insights as to what's out there. But I think is most interesting is the next level stuff where it's not about the specific plant that's being grown, it's companies taking specific terpenes and cannabinoids, extracting them, and recombining them for specific effects and flavours. Clearly there's a future there because it can do precisely what you're asking.

That is a consumer need: I want to feel energetic and creative, gimme the pot that does that. A lot of the time first-time users are really put off by marijuana because they don't understand how it's going to affect them. That's also what makes it hard to regulate, because marijuana isn't just one plant – it's thousands of varieties of that plant that have thousands of different types of effects.

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