Marijuana follows Big Tobacco’s lead

Teen Marijuana Use
Hooking teens is key to Big Marijuana marketing strategy

Science and public health should inform drug policy decisions — not public opinion and a national campaign funded by a multimillion-dollar, pro-marijuana lobby that sells an addictive, psychotropic drug.

The science is clear: marijuana use has been linked to mental illness, depression, psychosis, permanent loss of IQ and memory, heightened risk of heart attack or stroke, likelihood of dropping out of school, addiction to other drugs and testicular cancer. Big Marijuana is doing all it can to cast doubt on these scientific facts in the same way that Big Tobacco succeeded in hiding the dangers of cigarette smoking for more than 80 years.

A growing body of research is showing how the cannabinoid system and the opioid system of the brain are intimately connected. Modifying one modifies the other. Surely, it is no coincidence that Vermont and New Hampshire, both medical marijuana states, and both at the top of the list for youth marijuana rates in this country (Vermont is number one; New Hampshire is number two), also have soaring rates of opiate and heroin use. Not all pot smokers move to heroin, but if they start in their teen years, the risk of evolving to opiate and/or heroin addiction is significantly increased.

New Hampshire’s heroin deaths have doubled this year. In February, the Denver Post reported that Colorado ski towns are experiencing an unprecedented spike in heroin deaths and abuse, and rates in the Rocky Mountain State are at their highest in a decade. Boulder is burdened with serious issues of street violence and homelessness — direct outcomes of marijuana legalization that don’t seem to be reaching New England’s newspapers.

Today’s marijuana is 300 percent to 800 percent more potent than the pot of yesteryear. Such dangerous levels of THC heighten mental illness and addiction risks for those who smoke marijuana — especially for kids with developing brains. Research is clear that the teen brain is primed for chemical dependency: One in six of those who use marijuana before age 18 become addicted.

For the big business of marijuana, this is basic market research. Like the tobacco industry, it must hook the underage population with really high-grade, potent stuff.

The demand for addictive products increases when they are legal, easily accessible and aggressively marketed. Data shows 52 percent of the U.S. public uses alcohol, a legal drug, and 7.3 percent uses marijuana, an illegal drug.

What happens if we legalize marijuana and use rises to 25 percent, 35 percent or 50 percent? Open up the psych wards, treatment centers and assisted living beds, America, and watch your social and public school costs soar.

Legalization is not the solution to incarceration, as Representative Ajello and Senator Miller claim. Sentencing reform that leads to treatment, recovery and strong supports is the better alternative and will yield a more healthy, productive populace. We must focus on practical changes in marijuana policy that neither demonize users nor legalize the drug. Through sound measures, we can reduce incarceration and marijuana rates.

Big Tobacco kept the public in the dark for a half century by clouding evidence that smoking caused lung cancer. It was strategic and it was effective. Smoking remains the number one cause of preventable death, killing 5 million people per year. Big Marijuana is following the same playbook — clouding evidence of harm. As the industry takes root, expect big tobacco companies to take over. A 1970s tobacco industry report on marijuana states, “We have the land to grow it, the technology to mass produce it, and the distribution to market it.”

Just three years ago, in Indonesia, cigarettes were legally sold to children of any age and advertisements saturated the media, associating smoking with independence, sex, adventure and youth. During an interview with Vanguard, Ita Rahma, a young tobacco control activist, referred to tobacco as “Indonesia’s smelly fish,” explaining, “we have a saying: when you hide a smelly fish, you can’t hide it forever because the smell will come out eventually.”

Marijuana is being positioned as harmless, and the emerging industry is luring in our youth. Marijuana is now America’s smelly fish and more and more of us are starting to pick up the stench.

Heidi Heilman is the New England field director for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, founded by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). She also serves as president for the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance.