Things you need to know about marijuana

The following article highlights issues that will be be discussed during the SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) Summit, to be held Thursday, March 31, 2016, in Atlanta in conjunction with the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit. Citations for statements in this article are available upon request.

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD

Kevin A.
Sabet, PhD

From pot shops in Denver to medical marijuana for kids, pot is a hot topic these days. But there is a lot of smoke and mirrors in the discussion about the drug in the United States. In this article, Kevin Sabet, President of SAM, uncovers some commonly held notions about the drug – including what it does to the brain, how it has changed in composition since the hippie heyday of the 1970s, and why our young people should steer clear of it.

Myth: Marijuana is harmless, or at least less harmful than alcohol, and therefore should be legal.

Fact: Science has proven – and all major scientific and medical organizations agree – that marijuana is both addictive and harmful to the human brain, especially when used as an adolescent. One in every six 16-year-olds (and one in every 11 adults) who try marijuana will become addicted to it.

To your brain, addiction is addiction. Different addictions have different symptoms, but whether its food, sex, marijuana or heroin your brain knows it wants more of that feeling of pleasure. Just as with alcohol and tobacco, most chronic marijuana users who attempt to stop “cold turkey” will experience an array of withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, restlessness, anxiety, depression, insomnia and/or cravings. This signals that marijuana can be addictive.

Science has shown that one in six kids who ever try marijuana, according to the National Institutes of Health, will become addicted to the drug. Today’s marijuana is not your “Woodstock weed” – it can be 5-10 times stronger than marijuana of the past. Our currently legal drugs – alcohol and tobacco – provide a good example, since both youth and adults use them far more frequently than illegal drugs. According to recent surveys, alcohol use is used by 52 percent of Americans and tobacco is used by 27 percent of Americans, but marijuana is used by only 8 percent of Americans.

Myth: Smoked marijuana is medicine, and therefore should be legalized to help the suffering of the very sick.

Fact: Marijuana may contain medical components, like opium does. But we don’t smoke opium to get the effects of morphine. Similarly we don’t need to smoke marijuana to get its potential medical benefit. We need more research. Research shows that very few of those seeking a recommendation for medical marijuana have cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, or multiple sclerosis; and in most states that permit the use of medical marijuana, less than 2-3 percent of users report having cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, MS or other life-threatening diseases.

Myth: Marijuana should be rescheduled.

Fact: Rescheduling is a source of major confusion. Marijuana meets the technical definition of Schedule I because it is not an individual product with a defined dose. You can’t dose anything that is smoked or used in a crude form. However, components of marijuana can be scheduled for medical use, and that research is fully legitimate. That is very different than saying a joint is medicine and should be rescheduled. It is important to note, too, that rescheduling does not generally correspond with criminalization or penalization. So if your target is to reduce penalties for use, focusing on rescheduling is the wrong target.

Myth: Colorado has been a good experiment in legalization.

Fact: Colorado has already seen problems with this policy. Colorado is now the number one state in the country for youth marijuana use, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Other concerns? The significant rise in the number of parents calling the poison-control hotline to report their kids had consumed marijuana. Marijuana edibles and marijuana vaporizers are now found in middle and high schools. And Denver’s own police department reported that teen arrests for marijuana at local schools have increased since last year. A large construction company in the state recently reported that they have encountered so many job candidates who have failed pre-employment drug tests because of their marijuana use that it is actively recruiting construction workers from other states.

The State of Washington isn’t fairing much better. Marijuana poisonings are up, according to the Washington State toxicologist, as are driving while intoxicated under marijuana incidents. In both states, use among those 18 and up, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, have gone up.

It will take 20 years to assess the damage – from mental health, school dropouts and other factors – but I worry about this new policy. And apparently Coloradans do too – most localities have actually banned the sale of recreational marijuana within their city limits. Denver, of course, has not, but this tells me that many Coloradans do not want a marijuana store on Main Street.

Now this doesn’t mean we have to punish or incarcerate users. We should focus on early prevention, intervention and treatment, and we should also ensure that we do not give criminal records to young people for simply using marijuana. The alternative does not have to be legalization.

Myth: Legalization would help tax revenues.

Fact: With increased use, public health costs will also rise, likely outweighing any tax revenues from legal marijuana. For every dollar gained in alcohol and tobacco taxes, 10 dollars are lost in legal, health, social and regulatory costs.

Myth: Legalization is justified because of individual rights.

Fact: Legalization is not about just “getting high.” By legalizing marijuana, the United States would be ushering in a new, for-profit industry – not different from Big Tobacco. Already, private holding groups and financiers have raised millions of start-up dollars to promote businesses that will sell marijuana and marijuana-related merchandise. Cannabis food and candy is being marketed to children and are already responsible for a growing number of marijuana-related ER visits. Edibles with names such as “Ring Pots” and “Pot Tarts” are inspired by favorite candies of children and dessert products such as “Ring Pops” and “Pop Tarts.” Moreover, a large vaporization industry is now emerging and targeting youth, allowing young people and minors to use marijuana more easily in public places without being detected.

Myth: Legalization would get rid of the black market for marijuana.

Fact: Criminal enterprises do not receive the majority of their funding from marijuana. Furthermore, with legal marijuana taxed and only available to adults, a black market will continue to thrive. The black market and illegal drug dealers will continue to function – and even flourish under legalization, as people seek cheaper, untaxed marijuana.

There are many more myths and facts surrounding issues of Cannabidiol (CBD) to treat seizures, how marijuana affects the workplace, and what can be done to stop this movement to create Big Tobacco 2.0.

Join us on March 31 in Atlanta as we host major national and state figures and devise a plan to stop the new marijuana movement in its tracks!

Kevin Sabet is Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and is Co-Founder of Project SAM.

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