Weed worry: Why I dread advent of recreational pot

Big Marijuana, like Big Tobacco is counting on cultivating the youth market.
Big Marijuana, like Big Tobacco is counting on cultivating the youth market.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

When people ask me why I am against the legalization of marijuana, I need to take a deep breath and compose my thoughts, for I consistently struggle knowing where to begin.

My biggest concern is that by legalizing this increasingly potent psychoactive drug we are creating the next “Big Tobacco.” At the height of tobacco commercialization, over 50 percent of Americans smoked. That is not “progressive.” That’s an epidemic – and it’s the last thing I think Massachusetts wants and deserves with regards to marijuana legislation.

Legalization of marijuana, as proposed by “Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol” and “Bay State Repeal,” is a vote for commercialization, monetization, industrialization and mass marketing of an increasingly potent, addictive, psychoactive drug.

I don’t trust for-profit corporations marketing a third addictive drug to drive revenue, targeting children to increase heavy use at as early an age as possible (think Joe Camel and Budweiser’s “cute Labrador retriever puppy dog” commercial from the Super Bowl). Early use leads to more lifetime use, equaling more money for big business.

The medical angle
We were legislatively “sold” the idea of marijuana as medicine in 2012 through appeals to our compassion for the sick and desire for social justice. I find it hard to believe we knew we were voting for the sale and distribution of actual candy infused with marijuana. Infused gummy bears, lollipops, brownies and soda are a grave disservice to adult citizens who were genuine in their desire to allow marijuana as medicine.

Edible vitamin chews make sense. I certainly understand the merits of even fentanyl lozenges for people so sick and in pain that a lozenge is the best, most comfortable mode of administration. Psychotropic, addictive chocolate chip cookies with no true understanding of safe and consistent dosage, contraindications or side effects that are not even “prescribed” but “recommended” by a “bud-tender” with virtually no pharmacological training or expertise is explicitly inappropriate as science-based medicine.

We’re not there yet.

And what prevents our communities from developing a responsible relationship with this substance as a medicine are the often offensive and almost-belligerent names of marijuana strains: Bubba Kush, Cinderella ‘99, Jilly Bean, Pineapple Express, Sherbert, Thin Mint Cookies, Ak-47, Green Crack, Kamakazi, Ebola, Poison.

Making the divide between medicinal and recreational even more blurry is that Thin Mint Cookies “recreational” marijuana is the exact same as Thin Mint Cookies “medical” marijuana. These are not the names of compassionate medicines, rather, they target the underage user.

Certain chemical compounds within cannabis may prove one day to do more good than harm when isolated from other cannabinoids that prove detrimental. That can and will be medicine. We unequivocally need more government-funded research today. We have some, but we need more. We’re not ready to call this medicine. Ill-informed agenda-driven referenda have forced us to be ready without informed citizens knowing what they’re voting for.

De-facto legalization
We don’t need more legalization. We already have de-facto legalization with Massachusetts’ decriminalization laws, moving us further and further away from the harmful and failing aspects of the “war on drugs.” Last year, zero people were arrested in the Hampshire/Franklin/North Quabbin area for possession or use of small amounts of marijuana. For the social justice minded, that includes zero minorities arrested and imprisoned as well.

And if we are committed to protecting the at-risk populations of Massachusetts, increasing access to an addictive drug is not a sensible long-term plan. Imagine retail access to marijuana on the corners of the lowest-income, most vulnerable and already marginalized neighborhoods mimicking alcohol outlet density.

Our children will then have to walk to school exposed to the oft-predatory advertisements that hang in the windows of both alcohol and marijuana storefronts, slowly and surely decreasing their perception of these substances’ harm until they become, industry-willing, lifelong customers.

Speaking out
The legalization measures in Colorado and Washington have influenced Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh to speak out on the issue. They reference the January report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that found that while use among minors has declined nationwide in recent years, states like Colorado have seen an increase.

There, young people are 20 percent more likely to have used marijuana regularly since it became legal for adults two years ago. And they’re 40 percent more likely to be regular users than their peers in Massachusetts. In fact, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey through Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment shows even more staggering 30-day marijuana use rates if we dig a little deeper in the data.

Denver and Boulder — the two places with the highest density of marijuana outlets (more than pharmacies, McDonalds, and Starbucks combined) – have significantly higher rates of youth use than Colorado’s state average. Denver’s 11th graders have a 30-day use rate 71 percent higher than the state average. Boulder’s 12th grade use rate is 74 percent higher than the rest of Colorado’s cities and towns.

Youth perceptions of the potential harm of marijuana use has been decreasing consistently over the last decade and when access in cities like Denver and Boulder increases, teen use increases.

Even state Sen. Jason M. Lewis, who has chaired the special legislative committee on marijuana here in Massachusetts, approached the issue neutrally for years before seeing too much evidence that this is the wrong time for “Massachusetts to go down this road, and a commercial, profit-driven market is the wrong approach to take.”

The teen brain
Legalization is already happening without the legislative change. I would argue we need less marijuana use, especially among our youth population — who have the most to lose.

Science shows us that regular use starting in adolescence has been shown to impair brain development, shrink school and career outcomes, and lower IQ. With increasing THC levels — it’s up to seven times more potent than it was in the 1970s — about one in six users who start as teenagers become physically dependent, compared to one in 11 who wait to use until their brain development is complete.

And increasingly, medical science is also showing a correlation between regular marijuana use initiated at an early age and severe mental health issues. We’re moving in good directions with marijuana laws, but if the outcome is more young people having access to a drug that could dull their potential and aspirations, I’m not interested.

In fact, the only group of people that stands to benefit from a rushed and reactive recreational marijuana law is the pending profiteers of the existing marijuana industry.

We know better by now. We deserve better policies and practices than the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has proposed.

Missing models
Show me one retail model of alcohol or marijuana sales that has done more good than harm. I have yet to be impressed by a single U.S. state’s model. In the interest of avoiding “Big Marijuana,” why can’t a state as progressive and mindful as Massachusetts explore the viability of a recreational marijuana model similar to a homebrewer trading or bartering their latest batch of IPA? Why not investigate the potential of community members being able to grow two or three plants on their private property with nonprofit, government-regulated, non-marketed, non-industrialized marijuana that never stands a chance at becoming the next Anheuser Busch or Winston-Salem?

That’s when I would take a serious look at a referendum or legislative law change. Until then, both the pro-marijuana lobby and the voting public have a lot more learning to do about what kind of relationship we want to have with marijuana.

Let’s grow in wisdom, responsibility, and compassion before voting on something that has great potential to do more harm than good.


Paul M. McNeil, director of the Opioid Task Force in Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, lives in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He is the former coordinator of the Northampton Prevention Coalition.