The Ripon Forum

Volume 55, No. 2

May 2021

Legalizing Marijuana is a Threat to Public Health & Safety

By on May 20, 2021

by KEVIN SABET

Marijuana legalization has been a hot topic of discussion in a handful of states across the country. Of course, those only skimming the headlines may not realize that more legalization efforts have failed than have been successful in recent years. But what’s truly concerning, and potentially setting us up for decades of harms, is the fact that these legalization efforts are running ahead of the data and ignoring red flags.

It’s important to note marijuana decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for low-level marijuana use. This means putting an end to arresting folks for simply using or possessing small amounts of the drug. This policy, paired with expungements of previous records and increased funding for treatment, is a policy worthy of support.

Legalization, on the other hand, means the creation of an industry aimed solely at increasing profits. This industry, which is quickly becoming a powerhouse in terms of size and lobbying power, profits immensely off the sale of today’s highly potent and much more addictive marijuana.

My latest book, “Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know,” highlights the harms of commercialization in depth, but let’s briefly examine some of the most egregious harms that have resulted from commercialization.

These legalization efforts are running ahead of the data and ignoring red flags.

There are hundreds of different compounds found in marijuana, but the main psychoactive component that gets a user “high” is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In the 60s, 70s, and even the mid-90s, THC levels never rose above three to five percent, on average. Now, the commercial industry is making products that are growing ever more popular, such as concentrates, waxes, and vaping oils, and potency has risen upwards of 99 percent THC.

According to a recent release of data from Colorado, teens are increasingly using these high-potency products at alarming rates. This also coincides with a rise in marijuana being detected in toxicology reports for teens who have died by suicide in Colorado.

Recent research has found concerning links between marijuana use and severe mental illness. One such study found daily users of average-potency marijuana were three times more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis. Heavy users of the aforementioned high-potency products were five times more likely. And despite industry rhetoric, marijuana is indeed addictive. A recent study found one in three past-year users had what clinicians call a Cannabis Use Disorder, or addiction.

Furthermore, a study released in the past month found that teenage marijuana users have double the prevalence of a use disorder than nicotine, alcohol, and, in most categories of users, even prescription drug misusers.

Thousands of similar studies have found significant links to additional serious mental health conditions—including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and suicide. If the risks of low-medium potency pot are this serious, what is 99 percent THC doing to the human brain?

Legalization is damaging public safety, too.

2017 analysis by The Denver Post  found the number of people dying at the hands of marijuana-impaired drivers in Colorado more than doubled since the implementation of commercialization, and in just the last year, marijuana-related DUIs across Colorado were up 48%. A study by AAA found similar increases in Washington state.

A 2017 analysis by The Denver Post found the number of people dying at the hands of marijuana-impaired drivers in Colorado more than doubled since the implementation of commercialization, and in just the last year, marijuana-related DUIs across Colorado were up 48%.

The final issue worth consideration is the fact that legalization has one inevitable endpoint already coming to pass: Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and Big Alcohol monopolizing the market.

In 2019, Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, invested $2 billion into Canadian marijuana company Cronos. Soon after, Imperial Brands, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, invested more than $100 million in another Canadian company to develop marijuana vaping products. Last month, it was revealed that Altria hired lobbyists to push lawmakers in Virginia to commercialize marijuana and craft how sales would unfold.

Astoundingly, after years of laying the groundwork that would invariably allow the corporate addiction giants to enter the marijuana industry, leading legalization advocates are now trying to rewrite history.

Following reporting that Altria and other tobacco and alcohol interests were forming a lobbying group to influence federal legalization, pro-legalization groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, NORML, and others are now feigning crocodile tears over the development. Legalization advocate Shaleen Title even penned an op-ed for the Boston Globe arguing federal legalization shouldn’t occur until Big Tobacco is prevented from taking over.

Such honesty is welcome, but it does sting of irony. Public health advocates have been warning this would come about for close to a decade. And many of those who are now signaling outrage were among those who shouted down such warnings as nothing more than fearmongering.

As we move forward, we must ask ourselves a simple question: are the very real harms that have resulted from legalization worth perpetuating? Is increased substance use something we wish to continue to see? For the sake of the health and safety of future generations, we must halt the commercialization and normalization of marijuana.

Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy advisor the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations. He currently serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). His latest book, Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know, was published April 20th by Simon & Schuster.

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