Say Goodbye to Synthesized

written by alysa wulf

photographed by savannah mendoza

“Just flush them,” is common advice for disposing of unwanted or expired pharmaceutical drugs. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommends flushing pain medications like Methadone, Morphine, and Oxycodone down your toilet when they are no longer needed. While this procedure removes a potential risk from your home, is it at the cost of aquatic life? Is there a better solution?

Research accruing over the past several decades suggests that discarding pharmaceuticals through household waste or sewage, even in small quantities, has a negative impact on aquatic life.

A study done by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that 80 percent of participants admitted that they disposed of painkillers through either the sink, toilet, or trash. Rejecting pharmaceutical pain killers in this manner allows traces of the medication to accumulate in surface water, which includes lakes, rivers, wetlands, and other large bodies of water.

Concentrations of pharmaceutical medications then embed themselves in the body tissue of aquatic organisms. Research suggests that aquatic organisms’ absorption of pharmaceutical drugs can lead to negative changes in their behavior, feeding rates, reproduction, and survival.

While a myriad of environmental impact studies propose that the disposal of synthesized pharmaceutical drugs is detrimental to the environment, there remains a demand for pain-reducing medication. This begs the question — is there a more natural or holistic painkiller that could act as an environmentally-friendly alternative?

The answer could lie in cannabis products. Cannabis poses essentially no threat to aquatic life due to its insolubility, according to Marc Trujillo, the General Manager at New Millennium Cannabis Dispensary.

New Millennium is dedicated to providing customers with locally-sourced and organically-grown cannabis products that utilize as much of the plant as possible. Their mission for sustainability keeps environmentally-conscious decisions at the forefront of their production process.

Trujillo explained that any part of the plant that doesn’t contribute to the recreational cannabis market is repurposed for essential oils, concentrates, drinks, and more. Or it is simply put back into the earth to help nurture a new crop of plants. He notes that there is truly no waste in the production of cannabis products.

Zero-waste production is less common in the process of making prescription painkillers. While natural sources like poppies are often used to extract the opioids needed to create medications like Oxycodone and Morphine, Trujillo guesses that about 99.99 percent of the poppy plant is discarded. He explains that cannabis, on the other hand, utilizes all parts of the plant rather than isolating a particular molecule.

Additionally, because heat is needed to activate the THC within cannabis, the plant bears no risk to our water supply or to aquatic life.

“When cannabis is consumed, it breaks down almost entirely,” Trujillo said. “There is nothing to be absorbed into the ground. THC is not water soluble, so it cannot get into our water supply and intoxicate anybody.”

But, there is a crucial element within cannabis that is in fact water soluble: terpene. Terpenes are the most important part of cannabis makeup in terms of pain relief. According to Trujillo, they physically react and interact with our psychological makeup to reduce or mitigate pain.

While the terpenes themselves may be water soluble, they too pose no threat to aquatic life. These molecules are not unique, and are actually found in our fruit, vegetables, and really anything with a taste or smell. This means cannabis is utilizing a naturally-found, organic compound while pharmaceutical drugs are relying on synthetically altered opioids.

Trujillo commented that when discarded, cannabis “just kinda goes away.”

Angie Kimpo, a botanist for Metro Regional Government, verifies Trujillo’s conclusion with one exception.

“I think if it were just marijuana as a plant decomposing, it would not be any different than other plants decomposing in the soil” Kimpo said.

Marijuana would not leach chemicals into the soil or leave behind potentially threatening substances after use if the crop was organic and unaltered by fertilizer and chemicals.

“However, many crops grown these days have a considerable amount of fertilizers and other chemicals which would be retained in the plant material and, therefore, decompose in the soil,” Kimpo said. “I think many growers are moving towards organic methods but those may still have a considerable amount of fertilizer which would impact water quality.  I think the same would apply to a joint. Everything would decompose unless there is a filter.”

In terms of marijuana-based pain-relief products like oils and ointments, Kimpo suggested that because the products would be fat soluble, there would be an opportunity for aquatic animals to ingest them. However, she doubts that this would be harmful given that it would most likely be in an extremely small quantity.

The FDA has recently begun acknowledging cannabis as a viable medicinal option. In early April, GW Pharmaceuticals received approval from the FDA to begin producing a cannabis-based drug used to treat epilepsy.

“There is a federal agency acknowledging that cannabis has a medicinal value so that’s gonna open up the doors for a whole lot of other studies. That was a huge win for the cannabis community,” Trujillo said.

This approval opens the door for research companies to explore the actual medicinal possibilities that lie within cannabis. However, Trujillo concludes that because we are still in the infancy of cannabis legalization, it is too early to predict what the outcome of this milestone will be.

While Trujillo in no way condones completely quitting pharmaceutical medications prescribed by a doctor for the sole use of cannabis (unless recommended or the use of only cannabis is working), he does suggest that people continue to research cannabis-based remedies to see if a particular product could be more beneficial for them than a pharmaceutical painkiller.

As cannabis forges a new frontier in the medical world, it generates a possibility for more medications to be produced in an environmentally-friendly manner. With this FDA approval, a larger range of people could benefit from cannabis products, and in turn, aquatic life could benefit as well.

“Cannabis is just a phenomenal plant,” Trujillo said.

There is a federal agency acknowledging that cannabis has a medicinal value so that’s gonna open up the doors for a whole lot of other studies. That was a huge win for the cannabis community
— Marc Trujillo