Essay: Today’s pot is not safe

Surgeon general warns of health effects on teens, pregnant women

By Lynn Silver

On Aug. 29, the U.S. surgeon general released an advisory warning about the effects of marijuana on teens, young adults and pregnant women. He was accompanied by representatives of the National Institutes of Health and of national associations of pediatricians and obstetricians, who also spoke out to combat the false perception that today’s marijuana is a healthy product.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams noted, in particular, that no amount of marijuana use is safe for adolescents and pregnant women. Marijuana use by adolescents, he said, impairs learning and leads to declines in school performance and IQ and increased rates of school absences, dropouts and suicide attempts. He also warned that marijuana use also is linked to risk for early onset of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. Higher doses of THC can produce anxiety, depression and psychosis. The higher the THC concentration, the greater the risks of addiction and other negative consequences.

Of course, the cannabis industry—like the tobacco industry before it—needs a steady supply of new customers. And like the tobacco industry, it is happy to play the edges of what’s true and legal to peddle its product.

In the Aug. 22 issue of SN&R, several Sacramento-area cannabis businesses placed a full-page ad that attempted to mislead the public on the impact of marijuana on adolescent brains. The ad cherry-picked a study that looked at adults who used marijuana as teens in the 1980s or ’90s, though THC concentrations have tripled since then.

The bulk of science and studies—including by the same researcher cited in the ad—overwhelmingly support the Surgeon General’s conclusion: Marijuana harms youths.

Lynn Silver is a pediatrician, professor at UC San Francisco and senior adviser at the Public Health Institute who directs the Getting it Right from the Start project.

What would actually help youth?

For one thing, changing how we have used marijuana arrests and sentencing to disproportionately penalize young men of color, and making sure we don’t perpetuate that process among youth today. Ending mass incarceration for marijuana doesn’t have to mean that we close our eyes to the fact that it is a harmful product, despite having some medical uses. Nor does allowing legal sale necessarily mean letting this new tobacco-like industry make any product it can think up, no matter how dangerous or unknown its safety.

Marijuana is not a safe solution for kids to resolve real stress and trauma in their lives. The solution is investing in real opportunities, mentors and supports for our children and youth. Cannabis tax revenues should be reinvested in youth and in the neighborhoods hit by the war on drugs.

We ask the Sacramento City Council and other leaders take the Surgeon General’s warning to heart. Dispensaries should be required to have prominent health warnings for pregnant women and adolescents.

The cannabis industry should not be allowed run wild, pushing products that will exacerbate our existing health disparities in low-birthweight babies or high school graduation rates. Overly potent products, flavored products for vaping or smoking or drinks such as cannabis-infused orange soda designed to attract kids have no place in the legal market.

Billboards and ads should be prohibited or limited as much as possible and required to carry honest health warnings. And ads shouldn’t peddle slanted or misleading information packaged as science.

It’s time for more prudence.

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