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Could Cannabis Substitute Morphine?

When Mary Pryor’s mother, 63-year-old Deborah Ann, was struggling with multiple sclerosis-induced pain in 2015, she turned to cannabis after morphine stopped being effective, her daughter said.

As a result, before she died, her mother’s pain drastically reduced, and “she was able to eat some of her favorite foods,” said Pryor, 39, who lives in New York.

That same year, Pryor — co-founder of Cannaclusive, a group that promotes inclusive representations of cannabis consumers — had started using cannabis to manage her Crohn’s disease after a slate of 20 different medications had left her both in pain and homebound for about a year, she said.

Image: Mary Pryor (Cannaclusive)
Image: Mary Pryor (Cannaclusive)

“When I was taking more aggressive pharmaceutical items, it made my system suffer more,” she said. Pryor felt like she had to choose between cannabis or “medication that makes my life miserable.”

When Pryor heard the news earlier this month that U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson would be barred from competing at the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana, which Richardson said she used to cope with the death of her mother a week earlier, it “struck home for me,” Pryor said.

She’s not alone: Pryor is one of five Black women who told NBC News that they see Richardson’s removal from Team USA as the product of an enduring social stigma against cannabis, particularly against Black people, who are about 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar usage rates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

But these women characterize the plant as a cornerstone of their self-care, particularly through the last year, when daily stressors were exacerbated by both the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted Black Americans, and high-profile incidents of police killings of Black people.

An Olympic dream deferred

Richardson tested positive for THC based on a sample collected during the Olympic trials in June. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced, based on the new rules by the World Anti-Doping Agency, that she would be banned from competition for one month, opening the door for her to be placed on a relay team during the later parts of the Olympics in Tokyo.

Richardson earned a shorter ban after completing “a counseling program regarding her use of cannabis.”

“I want to take responsibility for my actions,” she said on NBC’s “TODAY” show earlier this month. “I’m not looking for an excuse.”

“I would like to say to my fans and my family and my sponsorship, to the haters, too, I apologize,” she added. “As much as I’m disappointed, I know that when I step on that track, I don’t represent myself; I represent a community that has shown me great support, great love.”

The USADA’s decision would not have prevented Richardson from competing in the 4×100-meter relay at the Olympic Games, but USA Track & Field did not select her for a spot on that team, the governing body announced July 6.

In a statement, USA Track & Field noted it was “incredibly sympathetic toward Sha’Carri Richardson’s extenuating circumstances and strongly applaud her accountability,” but “our credibility … would be lost if rules were only enforced under certain circumstances.”

The governing body also acknowledged it “fully agrees that the merit of the World Anti-Doping Agency rules related to THC should be reevaluated.”

Image: Sha'Carri Richardson (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)
Image: Sha’Carri Richardson (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

In an earlier statement, USA Track & Field said, “We will work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”

Marijuana is legal in Oregon, where the trials were held, but it is still illegal on a national scale. Senate Democrats plan to reveal a draft bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

A Gallup poll last year found that 68 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana — the highest rate the polling agency has found since it first started measuring public opinion on the issue in 1969, when only 12 percent of the country supported it.

Cannabis as a way ‘to find center and calm’

Women are turning to cannabis in droves, constituting 59 percent of new cannabis users in 2020, according to research conducted by Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research company. It also found that 21 percent of female respondents used cannabis daily, and 81 percent of overall respondents said cannabis helped them deal with the stress of the pandemic.

For Black women, those stressors have been acute. And for Ebony Andersen and Whitney Beatty, cannabis was crucial to getting through the past year: Both have sons who were aware of — and anxious about — last summer’s uprisings in response to police brutality against Black people, leading the women to turn to the plant to manage the stress that came with talking to their boys about anti-Black racism.

“My son is biracial — having one Black parent and one white parent in the middle of what looked like war was very confusing to him. There was some self-medication that happened for sure, just to survive during that time,” Andersen, 49, said. “It was very much clear and apparent to me that we have to take our own health and our own well-being into our hands.”

Image: Whitney Beatty, left,  and  Ebony Andersen of Josephine and Billie's. (Robiee Ziegler)
Image: Whitney Beatty, left, and Ebony Andersen of Josephine and Billie’s. (Robiee Ziegler)

Part of how Andersen and Beatty did that was by launching Josephine & Billie’s, a cannabis dispensary slated to open in Los Angeles in September. (California legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016, but arrests continued to disproportionately target Hispanic and Black people, who were, respectively, about twice and four times more likely than white Californians to be arrested for marijuana in 2019, according to the state’s arm of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.)

Aimed at educating women of color about how to use cannabis as a form of self-care, Josephine & Billie’s will host classes for mothers and older people, among others, about how to make cannabis work for them. They’ll also educate customers about how to use it in conjunction with meditation and other wellness practices, the duo said.

Both Beatty, Josephine & Billie’s chief executive officer and founder, and Andersen, its chief operating officer, came to use cannabis after the medical establishment failed them, they said: Beatty started using it after a doctor recommended she try it following an anxiety attack, and Andersen began using it to manage both her insomnia and migraines. Those experiences shape how they want to teach other women of color to use cannabis — especially in a society in which Black women, like Richardson, continue to be penalized for doing so.

“It is a radical act of resistance. It’s a radical act of taking back a plant that our ancestors cultivated and grew, to utilize the plant for self-care and recreational purposes,” Beatty, 42, said. “Sometimes it’s hard to find educational information that teaches you how to use cannabis specifically. We want to allow people to understand how to apply cannabis to their lives in a way that’s helpful and useful.”

Wanda James is driven by a similar mission, as the first Black woman legally licensed to sell cannabis in the country, she said. The owner of Denver-based dispensary Simply Pure, James, 57, is dedicated to combating the decades-old racialized stigma around cannabis — often by confronting it head-on.

“The way that I normalize cannabis is that I talk about it — when I’m around somebody who has an issue with it, I bring it up,” she said.

In Colorado, longstanding legalization means cannabis use is relatively normalized, James said: Voters approved a plan for medical marijuana in 2000, and recreational sales began in 2014. Black people make up less than 5 percent of the state’s population, but they have been disproportionately penalized for cannabis use, having been arrested on marijuana charges at nearly double the rate of white people in 2017, according to a 2018 state report.

These are among the inequities that drive James to turn to cannabis to find moments of peace.

“We live in a world where we need to find center and calm,” she said. “I believe, for me, that enjoying a joint is that five minutes [of calm]. … It’s calming, it’s relaxing, it helps you get your head together.”

For Jessamyn Stanley, cannabis is one half of how she finds calm. The other is yoga, and the two are inextricably linked as part of her wellness practice, she said.

Image: Jessamyn Stanley (Jade Wilson)
Image: Jessamyn Stanley (Jade Wilson)

“Cannabis really allows for a lot of patience and presence in a way that I think our lives in capitalist society don’t always allow for,” Stanley, 34, said. “In yoga, it allows you to really tap into your most true self, to connect your mind, body and spirit — so cannabis is really the cleansing agent within yourself so that you’re able to have that deeper internal conversation.”

Stanley — who shares her yoga practices and cannabis use with more than 467,000 Instagram followers — began posting about yoga in 2012 and went public with her cannabis use about six years later, she said. The initial reaction from followers was mixed, Stanley said.

“The stigma of what it means to be a cannabis user is so profound,” she said. “It’s something that, as a Black woman, I definitely am very aware of the way that I’m perceived by other people. … Black women are held to a standard that is completely different than the standard that others are held to.”

That double standard is part of what drove Stanley to co-found We Go High NC, a “cannabis justice organization” dedicated to destigmatizing and decriminalizing cannabis use in the state.

Stanley is one among many Black female cannabis users who see the double standard at play in Richardson’s case, she said. But, like James, she sees speaking out about the power of the plant as a personal form of resistance.

“I realized that the reason I never talked about cannabis is because of this stigma, and then I was like, ‘I am a part of the stigma — my silence in not speaking is my co-signature on the whole system,’” Stanley said.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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