As more states legalize marijuana, how can parents and policymakers protect young people from the risks marijuana can cause? Partnership to End Addiction CEO Creighton Drury spoke with Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and author of Smoke Screen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know, and Linda Richter, Ph.D., Vice President, Prevention Research and Analysis at Partnership to End Addiction, about the issue and possible solutions.
How is the marijuana of today different from the marijuana of years ago?
Kevin: Marijuana products are not as safe as we are told they are. This is largely due to the amount of THC – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – in products today. The “old” marijuana had 3-4% THC, which was smoked in a joint that was passed around in college. The “new” marijuana is up to 99% THC. There are marijuana products that look like crystal and are almost pure THC. Today’s marijuana is so potent that it’s affecting mental health in such profound ways.
How do we answer parents who say, “Come on, how harmful is marijuana really? I did it, and isn’t alcohol worse?”
Linda: It’s well known that the strength and potency of marijuana today is way higher than in the past, and especially the new ways of using it, through concentrates and vaping, make it much easier to use and to use more frequently throughout the day without being noticed. This means younger people who use marijuana are ingesting fairly high doses of THC and the other toxic chemicals in these products, much more so than their parents did when they were young and smoking a joint.
Also, we know much more now than we did then about the health effects of marijuana, especially the increased harm to kids, whose brains and bodies undergo rapid development well into their 20s. During this developmental stage, their brains and bodies can be harmed by any drug, including alcohol, nicotine or marijuana.
What can parents say to their kids about the risks of marijuana use?
Linda: The research clearly shows worse physical, mental and academic effects for kids who use marijuana versus adults. I tell my own teenage kids how marijuana, like alcohol or any other drug, can interfere with their goals and their current and their future success in academics and extracurricular activities – these are things they care so much about and are working so hard for. Why would you put these roadblocks in front of you?
Something we learned from smoking prevention is that teens are really adamant about protecting their independence. What worked well to turn them against cigarettes was to have them learn about how the tobacco industry preys on kids’ health just to make money. The same can be true for marijuana. When kids really understand that big industries are behind the legalization push and trying to have lifelong loyal customers by targeting them, it can shine a different light on legalization efforts. Teens have a natural desire to be rebellious and non-conformist. However, they see that by using marijuana, they’re doing exactly what the industry wants them to do, and they’re being used as pawns.
Parents often want to be their kids’ friends; some are wary of setting limits and expectations. I’d advise parents to clearly state their expectations: you want your kids to delay use or not use marijuana until they’re at least 21 because it’s not legal and not good for them. That doesn’t mean you have to impose severe punishments or yell at them, but the expectations have to be clear. Some parents come across as sort of wishy-washy on this topic which makes kids not really understand how serious it is.
Kevin: Parents can also emphasize that there is an industry out there that wants to capture their brains. Their brains are essentially profit centers or dollar signs for corporations. We have seen how powerful this has been in reducing teen smoking – highlighting an “addiction for profit” industry and its motivations.
How can laws protect kids against the harms of marijuana?
Linda: Once a drug is legal, it’s virtually impossible to protect kids from its harms given the inevitable increase in exposure and access. However, there are some ways to minimize risk. It takes the public to understand this and push for youth protections within the law.
We’ve learned from tobacco and alcohol regulation about what to do and what not to do. We need to ensure that legalization is not fully equated with commercialization. Other countries that have legalized marijuana have fairly strict rules about advertising and marketing and restricting youth access to marijuana.
Marijuana sellers should not be able to:
- Advertise or promote their products in public spaces, or on television, movies and social media;
- Sell marijuana products in appealing, child-friendly packaging;
- Sell flavored products;
- Sell edibles that look like candy or soda or sweets;
- Have giveaways, contests and promotions as they did with vaping products and as they continue to do with alcohol or
- Place dispensaries near schools or parks or anyplace where kids congregate.
Kevin: We also need caps on the THC potency in these products to prevent the increasing rate of childhood poisonings and exposure to marijuana and the high rates of addiction that are going to follow.
In addition, we should not have industry members serve on the marijuana regulation boards in each state.
In most places, you can opt out of legal marijuana in your community. The majority of cities, towns, villages and states where marijuana is legal have banned the sale of marijuana. That’s because people understand that living near a pot shop is not good for the community. There is research showing how use goes up in local communities where there are pot shops; also property values tend to decline.
What do we know about those who are consuming marijuana in states where it’s legal?
Kevin: We know that the volume of marijuana consumed has increased dramatically in the U.S. in the last 10 years, especially in states where marijuana is legal. We’ve seen increases in almost every state among all populations and definitely among young people. We see higher rates of marijuana use disorder in states that have legalized, like Colorado. So it’s not only about prevalence, but also intensity.
Linda: In states that have legalized, perceptions of risk around marijuana have gone down, compared to states that have not legalized. We know that’s a direct predictor of actual use. We also know there are higher rates of reported use in the past month and past year among kids in states that have legalized. There are also higher rates of starting to use marijuana during the ages of 12 to 17 in states that have legalized it compared with those that haven’t.