By Heidi Heilman
Science and public health must inform drug policy decisions - not public opinion and a national
campaign funded by a giant industry that sells an addictive, psychotropic drug. It’s despairing
that Representative Edith H. Ajello and Senator Joshua Miller are promoting legalization with the
exact talking points of the multi-million dollar, pro-marijuana lobby.
The science is clear: marijuana use directly contributes to mental illness, depression, psychosis, permanent loss of IQ and memory, heightened risk of heart attack or stroke, school drop out, addiction to other drugs, and in men, 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. It’s likely no coincidence Vermont and New Hampshire, both medical marijuana states, and both at the top of the list for youth marijuana rates in this country (VT is #1, NH is #2 ), 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. NH’s heroin deaths have doubled this year; authorities now report having one heroin overdose every 3 days. In February, the Denver Post highlighted how 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 currently burdened with serious issues of street violence and homelessness – direct outcomes of marijuana legalization that doesn’t seem to be reaching New England’s newspapers.
Today’s marijuana is 300% - 800% more potent than the pot of yesteryear. Such dangerous levels of THC heightens mental illness and addiction risks for those who smoke it – especially for kids with developing brains. Research is clear that the teen-brain is primed for chemical dependency: one in six who use marijuana before age 18 becomes addicted. For the big business of marijuana this is basic market research. And like tobacco, in order to build their consumer-base of life-time users, they 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% of the US public uses alcohol – a legal drug, and 7.3%
uses marijuana – an illegal drug. What happens if we legalize marijuana and use rises to 25%,
35% or 50%? Open up the psych wards, treatment centers, and assisted living beds America,
and watch your social and public school costs soar. When half the country is smoking pot the
rest of us will be pulling a wagon full of people dazed in a psychiatric haze of
smoke. Legalization is not the solution to incarceration, as Rep. Ajello and Sen. 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 demonizes users nor legalizes 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. While it may seem that cigarettes are losing popularity in the US, they are still the most traded product on earth and sales are higher than ever. 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 1970’s 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 3 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 calling for her government to declare nicotine an addictive drug and regulate products responsibly, 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 Congressman Patrick Kennedy. She also serves as President for the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance working to protect and promote the health and well-being of youth through sound public health and safety policies.