Commentary, Opinion

Who will pay the price for the state’s ability to sell marijuana?

By Catherine Antley MD and Spencer Smith

After decades of fighting Big Tobacco, is the Vermont Legislature unwittingly inviting Big Cannabis into our state, our towns and our schools? Creating a retail cannabis market is not about decriminalization or social justice. It’s about creating a hugely profitable industry which depends on addiction and youth users to make those profits.

Has the Legislature seen the impact of commercialization of cannabis on other states? Not only has it failed to meet impossible revenue claims, big Cannabis has failed to provide public health guardrails and environmental protections, failed to further goals of racial and/or social justice and most importantly failed to protect the health of citizens, especially the most vulnerable, our children.

States with legal marijuana markets report higher teen use and therefore higher child and teen ER visits for cannabis use. They go to the ER with cannabis-induced psychosis, cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (vomiting), and with toddlers who ingest cannabis and require intubation to survive involuntary loss of breath.

While 69% of medical cannabis shops in Colorado falsely claim that the drug is safe to treat nausea from pregnancy, a new August 2020 study in the  journal Nature shows a near doubling of the rate of autistic children born to mothers who use cannabis. Their babies are more likely to be low birth weight or preterm and to require admission to intensive care.

Legalized cannabis production has also not ended black market activity in commercialized states, because illegal weed is not taxed and can always be less expensive than the price for the legalized product. In some areas the illegal market has grown, which has contributed to environmental damage from an increase in pesticides applied to illegal farms. Water quality is degraded, and smells, allergens, and  volatile organic pollutants all impact the neighboring communities. With low-income neighborhoods targeted as places to produce and sell cannabis product.

Who will protect small Vermont towns against big cannabis and their allies? As the industry builds polluting marijuana processing facilities, and  establishes their shops near public parks, youth sports centers or near high schools. Like Big Tobacco, Big Cannabis creates products aimed at hooking children and teens, using vaping, candies, cookies or even soda containing cannabis.

Eighty percent of commercial marijuana profits come from purchases by just 20% of marijuana consumers. This model of profitability comes from the history of Big Tobacco’s success. Without these heavy users, the industry cannot succeed as private or publicly traded enterprise; thus, the cornerstone of the industry’s profit model is the creation of dependence and addiction. To do this, they make the products more and more concentrated.

According to scientists and experts in the field, THC levels of 15% are considered high, as THC at this level can cause significant psychiatric problems. Frequent use of 10-15% THC is found with one out of every two ER visits for psychosis in Amsterdam, Holland. These patients showing symptoms of severe mental illness would be well except for their marijuana use, according to one of the world’s leading authorities on schizophrenia, Prof.Sir Robin Murray.

More than 93% of marijuana sold in Colorado’s licensed shops is high potency. Half of Colorado teens who use marijuana, use this dangerous high potency THC, according to the latest Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. In fact, teens use nearly three times the high potency marijuana as adults do according to the 2018 Colorado Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System. Kids dab or vape high potency marijuana at school or at home without the telltale smell. The teen brain is also more easily addicted.

Setting a limit of 60% THC, as the Vermont legislature  proposes, is the same as setting a speed limit to 250 mph and then boasting about the public health and safety gains of speed limits.

Will Vermont be able to raise taxes and license fees high enough to pay for the environmental and public health damages to local populations and to significantly invest in proven prevention methods to keep our kids from becoming regular cannabis users?

No surprise, the childhood protection “prevention fund” created in response to this legislation and theoretically funded by marijuana taxes was capped before the bill even passed the Legislature – foreshadowing future cuts to prevention.

Big Cannabis makes a false promise. It has not balanced the budgets of states or improved the standard of living in low-income communities. It actually has contributed to increases in health care costs, while extracting needed income from households with lower socioeconomic standing and redistributing it to the large corporations running the production and sales of cannabis.

Most of their shareholders reside elsewhere, therefore, they do not care about the impact big cannabis has on our state, our community, or our children.

Who will pay the price of Vermont’s ability to sell marijuana? Vermont’s towns, Vermont’s schools, Vermont’s hospitals and Vermont’s children — that’s who.

Catherine Antley, MD, a community medical doctor, and Spencer Smith, a writer and retired Peace Corps volunteer. Both are from Burlington.

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