POT TOPICS is a weekly collection of cannabis-related news curated by the Chicago SunTimes. Here’s this week’s top stories:

  • African-Americans account for the bulk of Chicago’s dwindling pot arrests
  • New regulations in California leave some dispensary shelves empty
  • Local epilepsy community excited over FDA approval of pot-based drug
  • Problems with Oregon’s medical marijuana industry create opportunities for weed to be diverted to the black market
  • Efforts to fast track Oklahoma’s medical marijuana operations face opposition from concerned health officials

Marijuana enforcement in Chicago falls, but still lands heaviest on blacks

Despite less people being arrested in Chicago for petty marijuana possession, African-Americans continue to be disproportionately targeted, the Sun-Times’ Frank Main is reporting.

Last year, Chicago police officers made 129 arrests and wrote fewer than 300 tickets for possession of small amounts of cannabis, and even fewer arrests and tickets are expected this year. By comparison, there were more than 21,000 such arrests in 2011, according to arrest data examined by the Sun-Times.

The number of arrests began dropping after the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance in 2012 giving police officers the option of writing tickets to people for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana.

Four years later, a new state law put additional limits on such arrests. Police in Illinois no longer could arrest anyone for having less than 10 grams of marijuana. Instead, the law made possession of small amounts of weed a civil offense, rather than a crime, with fines as the penalty, not jail.

Before the city council decriminalized possession of “personal-use” quantities of marijuana, African-Americans were arrested on such charges more than members of other racial groups. That hasn’t changed, the Sun-Times found, even though academic studies have found that marijuana usage is similar across racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In 2017 and the first four months of 2018, 94 people were busted in Chicago for petty marijuana possession. Seventy-six of them were black. Sixteen were Hispanic. Two were white.

California pot shops scramble to refill stash under new regulations

Nicholas Hughes used to sell a cannabis treat fit for a king: The Elvis, a chocolate cookie infused with 1,000 milligrams of mind-altering THC – 100 times what is now the per-serving dosage limit in California.

“You could not keep them on the shelf,” he said.

But earlier this month, Hughes’ dispensary, Cathedral City Care Collective North, parted ways with the cookie, one of tons of cannabis products that can’t be sold since California phased in new testing, packaging and dosing standards on July 1. For edibles like the Elvis, the state now imposes a limit of 10 milligrams of THC per serving and 100 milligrams of THC per package.

Nevada's marijuana regulators say they are trying to keep up with demands at recreational dispensaries, where sales continue to outpace projections.

AP file photo

Marijuana companies in California had a six-month grace period to sell weed harvested or processed before 2018. As the July 1 cut-off date loomed, retailers hustled to sell old cannabis at fire sale prices, then swept the leftovers off their shelves and dumped them in the trash.

Now the companies face another challenge: restocking. But with increased demand for compliance tests causing a bottleneck at labs, dispensaries that used to fill every inch of their display cases now fear a supply shortage.

“We probably have a quarter of what we usually have,” Hughes said.

Other retailers have seen their product variety shrink as much as 90 percent.

Epilepsy community ‘ecstatic’ after FDA approves first cannabis-based drug

Members of the epilepsy community in the Chicago area were encouraged by the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of the first cannabis-based prescription drug, a move that some hope will lead to more extensive research into marijuana’s medical effects and a wider acceptance of medications derived from the drug.

Last month, the FDA approved Epidiolex to treat two rare forms of epilepsy in children 2 years or older. The strawberry-flavored syrup uses cannabidiol — or CBD, a non-psychoactive form of cannabis — to control seizures, although it’s unclear how exactly. Before Epidiolex can be brought to market, the Drug Enforcement Administration needs to formally reclassify CBD into a category of drugs that have received medical approval. The agency is expected to announce a decision in the next few months.

GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex, a medicine made from the marijuana plant but without TCH.

GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex reduced seizures in children with severe forms of epilepsy and warrants approval in the United States, health officials said in April. | AP file photo

Ayesha Akhtar, the director of education at the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago, said the organization saw a flood of inquiries from people who were “ecstatic” about the FDA’s announcement.

“If you just check out our Facebook page the day that we posted, so many families were saying, ‘Finally! When can I get it? How can I get it? I can’t wait for it also to be approved for my type of epilepsy,’” Akhtar said.

She added that the drug’s approval marks a “sea change” for epilepsy treatment. Medication management has typically been the first course of action after an epilepsy diagnosis, which can often be difficult to treat because traditional anti-epileptic drugs don’t work for many people dealing with the disorder. The next approach could be a switch to a new diet — such as the high fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet — or even surgery.

Experts can now hold up CBD as a viable treatment option earlier in the process.

Ayesha Akhtar | Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago

“It’s really exciting for us to push that up in the conversation a lot sooner,” said Akhtar, who thinks the potential reclassification of CBD could lead to additional research into how cannabis-based treatments interact with traditional drugs. She’s also confident that more drugs like Epidiolex will eventually be federally-approved.

“I feel like it’s the government’s way of saying, ‘Yeah, we get it, [anti-epileptic drugs] don’t work for 30 percent of the population, let’s try to find an alternative therapy,’” Akhtar said.

Oregon’s medical marijuana program admits to problems

The agency overseeing Oregon’s legal medical marijuana industry conceded in a report Thursday it has not provided effective oversight of growers and others in the industry, creating opportunities for weed to be diverted to the black market.

The blunt internal review echoes complaints from federal authorities that Oregon hasn’t adequately controlled its marijuana businesses, and that overproduction of pot is feeding a black market in states that haven’t legalized it.

Oregon was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana in 1998, and in 2014 voters approved allowing recreational use. The state’s struggle to transform a business that for decades had operated illegally in the shadows into a regulated industry sets an example for other states moving toward legalization.

The Oregon agency overseeing the state's legal medical marijuana industry admits in a report it has not effectively provided oversight of growers and others in the industry. | AP file photo

The Oregon agency overseeing the state’s legal medical marijuana industry admits in a report it has not effectively provided oversight of growers and others in the industry. | AP file photo

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen ordered the internal review amid complaints from state and local law enforcement officials about lack of oversight of the pot industry. The health authority directs the state’s Medical Marijuana Program, while the Liquor Control Commission regulates recreational pot.

The review showed there were more than 20,000 grow sites, but only 58 inspections were carried out in 2017.

The Oregon Medical Marijuana Program has far too few inspectors, while the tracking of growers and the pot they produce has been inadequate and inaccurate, the report concluded.

“Potentially erroneous reporting coupled with low reporting compliance makes it difficult to accurately track how much product is in the medical system,” the report said. “This limits OMMP’s ability to successfully identify and address potential diversion.”

The report said the medical marijuana oversight agency lacks reliable, independent tools to validate grow site locations and relies on inconsistent county databases.

Oklahoma gets pushback ahead of fast-tracking medical marijuana

Oklahoma pushed ahead with emergency rules Tuesday aimed at fast-tracking operations of the medical marijuana industry, but not before concerned health officials tacked on requirements that cannabis advocates say will only slow things down.

The state Board of Health narrowly voted to prohibit the sale of smokable marijuana and require that dispensaries must have a pharmacist on staff. The board’s own attorney advised against the additions, and the changes rankled medical marijuana proponents who accused the board of defying the will of the people.

State lawmakers and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin stepped aside after residents of traditionally conservative Oklahoma voted June 26 to legalize medical marijuana, paving the way for a quicker start. Nearly 57 percent of voters said yes to one of the least-restrictive laws in the country that makes it legal to grow, sell and use marijuana for medicinal purposes. The law, which made it to the ballot through signature petition, outlines no qualifying conditions, which would allow physicians to authorize its use for a broad range of ailments and gives a 60-day timeline to implement.

Implementation could face strong head winds, though, from opponents in the business, medical and law enforcement fields that pushed hard against the proposal. Groups representing doctors and hospitals, both of which opposed State Question 788, recommended the ban on selling smokable marijuana and the pharmacist requirement.

Oklahoma pushed ahead with emergency rules Tuesday aimed at fast-tracking operations of the medical marijuana industry, but not before concerned health officials tacked on requirements that cannabis advocates say will only slow things down.

Medical marijuana supporters hold signs outside of an Oklahoma Board of Health meeting in an overflow room in Oklahoma City on July 10, 2018. The board said the state won’t allow the sale of smokable cannabis and that dispensaries must have a pharmacist on staff. | AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Upcoming cannabis events in the Chicago area

• Modern Cannabis hosts a Get a Card workshop at 10 a.m. Saturday at Emporium Fulton Market, 839 W. Fulton Market. Experts will answer questions and help attendees apply for  medical cannabis cards

• Illinois Women in Cannabis hosts its 3rd annual Summer Social at 5 p.m. July 19 at Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St. Industry professionals, patients and other community members will meet to promote progress within and around the cannabis industry.

• The Midwest Compassion Center holds its monthly patient social at 2 p.m. July 22 at 721 N. Independence Blvd. in Romeoville. Experts will answer questions and offer application assistance to prospective medical cannabis patients.

• The 420 Cannabis Social is set to take place at 11 a.m. July 29 at Cricket Hill near the intersection of Montrose Ave. and Lake Shore Dr. Attendees will discuss cannabis legalization, medicinal cannabis use and the drug’s health benefits.