POT SHOPS will soon be officially open for business in Massachusetts. While this may be good news for the marijuana industry and its lobbyists, state officials need to proceed with caution — especially when regulating high-potency pot products such as gummies, lollipops, and other treats aimed at children. The fact is that we really don’t know what’s in these products, nor do we know about their long-term effects. More awareness is desperately needed about the dangers of today’s highly potent marijuana. Public health — not the pot industry — should be leading this conversation.
Make no mistake: Pot is no longer about Woodstock — it’s about Wall Street. Replicating the playbook of Big Tobacco, the marijuana industry routinely manufactures and markets kid-friendly products with the intent of creating life-long customers. Some of these new edibles and vaping extracts are 99 percent THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets you high. Compare this to the 5 percent potency of the average joint in the 1970s.
While more research and data are needed to understand what these newly engineered products do to your brain, the negative impact of marijuana commercialization is already being felt in other legalized states. In the years since these states moved to liberalize their pot laws, drugged driving deaths have increased, emergency room visits have risen, and more young people are using marijuana. Last month, the National Institutes of Health released a study finding that 1 in 4 12th-graders reported that they would try marijuana for the first time, or use it more often, if marijuana were legalized.
That’s why it is so critical to launch an aggressive public health education campaign in our schools and communities. Studies have shown that children who use any drug are more likely to develop an addiction or substance-use disorder. According to the Center on Addiction, 90 percent of all addictions start during adolescence, and 17 percent of adolescents and teens who begin using marijuana develop a marijuana-use disorder. Our brains are rapidly developing — and are highly susceptible to addiction — until at least our mid-20s. Industries that depend on addicted users have always targeted the young and vulnerable.
What the marijuana industry will not tell you is that regular, heavy marijuana use during adolescence is associated with an 8-point drop in IQ — a loss that is not reversed when marijuana use stops. We also know from several studies that heavy marijuana use among adolescents is associated with lower grades and exam scores, and a lower satisfaction with life. People who use marijuana are less likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college and more likely to earn less income.
Pot potency should be capped. The marijuana industry’s influence on rule-making should be halted. And protections for vulnerable populations should be established and strictly enforced. In Colorado, an undercover study recently found that 69 percent of randomly selected marijuana stores recommended THC products to treat pregnancy-related nausea in the first trimester. Fewer than 1 in 3 of these stores recommended consulting a doctor.
Our choice was never between locking up users or commercializing an addictive substance. But now that we have forsaken a sensible policy of decriminalization for a commercial regime that thrives on addiction, the stakes are too high to let the marijuana industry define the terms of regulation. Public officials have a responsibility to curb industry influence, enforce rigorous THC standards, protect vulnerable populations, and launch comprehensive public health campaigns. Our children, communities, and families deserve nothing less.
Kevin Sabet is a former three-time White House drug policy official and president of SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana.