Big Marijuana Is Not Your Friend

We Need Not Legitimize, Glorify Self-Destructive Behavior By Kevin A. Sabet

Editor’s note: this commentary is in response to the various US ballot initiatives for marijuana legalization at the state level this year (“November Ballots Offer Wave of Marijuana Legalization”). Mike Liszewski has offered acounter-perspective, in favor of legalization.

Remember Big Tobacco? Say hello to Big Marijuana. That’s what we’re about to et if we continue to legalize marijuana here in the United States. Despite warnings from groups like the American Medical Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, and National School Nurses Association, legalization is all about the mighty dollar — the money to be made by big marijuana businesses.

Legalization is a simplistic solution to an incredibly complex program. Indeed, we are ushering in a massive, profit-hungry industry, promoting addiction by commercializing and marketing the drug to our most vulnerable.

In Colorado, which began retail marijuana sales on January 1, Big Marijuana has already begun to emerge. Pot purveyors are selling candies, “ring pots,” cookies, and brownies. They are creating networks for investors and entrepreneurs in the marijuana industry, holding special “shark tank” fundraising sessions. A former Microsoft executive recently announced enthusiastically that he intends to create the “Starbucks of marijuana,” ultimately “mint[ing] more millionaires than Microsoft.” Another investor promises to become “the Philip Morris of marijuana.” And now these various venture capitalists have come together to hire lobbying groups to advocate for marijuana businesses in countless state capitals and in Washington DC.

The Big Marijuana playbook takes its cue from Big Tobacco: hire doctors to promote cigarettes as medicine, downplay harms, infiltrate political leadership, and target kids — since they will be your lifelong customers.

Why should the establishment of another for-profit industry like alcohol and tobacco, that relies on addiction and heavy use, be cause for concern? First, legalizing marijuana would completely normalize use, especially among kids. And this is something we should care about: the marijuana our kids use today is five to six times stronger than what it was in the 1960s and ‘70s (resulting in addiction for one in every six 16 year olds who ever try it). New methods of ingestion such as butane hash oil vaporization (or “dabbing”) are responsible for a growing number of hospital visits and overdoses.

Though it is true that a majority of those who use marijuana will not become addicted, a significant number of users will suffer a great deal of harm in the form of a IQ reduction, mental illness, poor learning outcomes, lung damage, car crashes, addiction, and emergency room admissions related to acute panic attacks and psychotic episodes.

History suggests that the societal costs that accompany increased marijuana use will significantly outweigh any gains in tax revenue. Our experience with alcohol and tobacco shows that for every one dollar gained in taxes, 10 dollars are lost in social costs. In Colorado, tax revenue from the first six months of legal sales is falling well short of previous projections.

We should reject any simplistic solutions that fit on a bumper sticker. Neither “lock em’ up” or “legalize” is an intelligent way to address such a complex issue. Let’s focus on strategies that work — drug prevention, justice reform, drug-treatment courts, and smart policing practices — and implement smart approaches to marijuana. Kevin A. Sabet (@KevinSabet) holds a PhD from Oxford University and is the president and cofounder, with former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).


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