Public health should drive marijuana policy, not profits

COVID-19 has taken a dramatic toll on the physical health and mental health of Americans. And as the country struggles to navigate a pandemic it wasn’t prepared for, we’re seeing firsthand the importance of sound, preventative public health measures that benefit the greater good. ‘Figuring it out as we go’ is not an acceptable strategy. Indeed, there are many lessons to be learned from this dark period in American history.

It’s time to start applying them to drug policy. As marijuana legalization efforts pick up speed across the nation, we are approaching a dangerous crossroads—one that deserves careful analysis and debate. The issue itself, like most things in life, is not black and white. There are many shades of grey that will have long-term effects on public health. And they are simply not getting the attention they deserve amid a simplified frenzy to “legalize it.”

This argument doesn’t apply to marijuana decriminalization, which is necessary and welcome. It is past time that we stop funneling non-violent drug users into the criminal justice system which compromises futures and contributes to racial inequity. But it does apply to commercialization—allowing marijuana to be positioned as an attractive commodity with no regard for potential health consequences.

We’ve seen too many times what happens when substances are pushed by major corporations. Big Tobacco, for example, has proven that the motivation to increase profits will bulldoze any concerns from the public health community until it is far too late. And while we’re encouraged to use legal substances such as alcohol responsibly, make no mistake, companies are actively profiting off of Americans’ overindulgence, and, in many cases, addiction.

Speaking of these titans of addiction, it’s worth noting they are currently taking steps to cash in on the marijuana industry. Altria Phillip Morris, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, has invested billions into a Canadian marijuana company and the famous vape maker, Juul, which itself is an offshoot of a marijuana vaping manufacturer, Pax Labs. Further, it has recently come to light that Altria is officially lobbying Virginia lawmakers in support of legalization.

Certainly, change to public norms and policies are to be expected. But compounding these changes so they happen at a rate that can’t be tracked and studied for safety is simply irresponsible. Marijuana today is not the marijuana of past generations. Higher potency/THC levels and quicker, easier methods of ingestion such as sodas and gummy candies make marijuana readily available to all age groups in ways and quantities that we have little scientific evidence on when it comes to long-term impact. Couple that with the marketing tactics of the big companies mentioned above, which tend to target younger and younger audiences, and we stand to witness the same problems that other industries have presented in the past.

As marijuana advocates will quickly point out, legalization is not just about recreational use. And yes, medical use is an important conversation. But it’s one that should reside with experts and agencies that have the proper channels for research and evidence-based authorization. The Food and Drug Administration exists for exactly this purpose and can systematically curate safe therapies for responsible use far better than companies driven by profits and aggressive growth strategies.

Advocates will say that marijuana is relatively low-risk and low-harm when compared to other substances that are already legal, such as alcohol or tobacco. But is that really the case? It’s been proven to exacerbate mental illness and some researchers are finding causal connections between high potency THC and psychosis and schizophrenia. Additionally, the consequences of marijuana on adolescent brain health are still unclear. The heaviest users are 18 to 25, a critical age for development. And according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, accidental cannabis overdoses are up, particularly among children.

The reality is, when it comes to comparing the dangers of marijuana to the dangers of alcohol and tobacco, we can’t simply “put the horse back in the barn.” But what we can do is stop another one from joining the group.

Blindly commercializing marijuana is a dangerous move that will have serious implications for society long-term. I, for one, don’t want anything standing in the way of young people reaching their full potential, or those with mental health challenges improving their health—rather than compromising it further. 

Marijuana policy will continue to evolve over the next several years. While we correct some of the misguided criminal justice practices of the past, let’s allow research, regulation, and caution to stop us from barreling carelessly forward at the expense of public health.

More background here…