The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on Thursday that warns about the risks of using marijuana, particularly for pregnant women and adolescents. But it also contains misleading statements about the cannabis legalization movement.
The advisory, the publication of which will be partially funded by a $100,000 donation out of President Donald Trump’s salary, states that no amount of cannabis is safe and emphasizes that THC potency of marijuana products has increased, which Surgeon General Jerome Adams claimed puts consumers at risk of “physical dependence, addiction, and other negative consequences.”
— HHS.gov (@HHSGov) August 29, 2019
“There is a false perception that marijuana is not as harmful as other drugs,” Adams said in a press release. “I want to be very clear—no amount of marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe.”
“I, Surgeon General VADM Jerome Adams, am emphasizing the importance of protecting our Nation from the health risks of marijuana use in adolescence and during pregnancy. Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.”
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) August 29, 2019
While the notice doesn’t explicitly say that states should not legalize marijuana, it contends that the movement to end prohibition and the “normalization of its use” has caused youth to perceive the drug as less harmful.
“In addition, high school students’ perception of the harm from regular marijuana use has been steadily declining over the last decade,” it states. “During this same period, a number of states have legalized adult use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, while it remains legal under federal law. The legalization movement may be impacting youth perception of harm from marijuana.”
Missing from the report, however, is an acknowledgment that the federal government’s own data shows that despite shifting attitudes about cannabis, adolescent marijuana consumption has actually declined in the years since states began legalizing for recreational use.
“Marijuana’s increasingly widespread availability in multiple and highly potent forms, coupled with a false and dangerous perception of safety among youth, merits a nationwide call to action,” the advisory states.
“Today’s advisory serves as an important reminder of the health risks marijuana use poses, especially when it comes to young people and pregnant women,” White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Jim Carroll said. “While laws in some states have changed, the scientific evidence increasingly shows the harmful effects of marijuana use.”
“We are focused on making sure all Americans are aware of the dangers of marijuana use and the impact it has on developing minds,” he said. “The White House continues to make record investments to support community coalitions across the country that are dedicated to preventing youth substance use before it begins.”
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said cannabis is “a dangerous drug, especially for young people and pregnant women.”
— ADM Brett P. Giroir (@HHS_ASH) August 29, 2019
“This historic Surgeon General’s advisory is focused on the risks marijuana poses for these populations, which have been well-established by scientific evidence,” he said. “As indicated by President Trump’s generous donation of his salary to support this advisory, the Trump Administration is committed to fighting substance abuse of all kinds, and that means continuing research, education, and prevention efforts around the risks of marijuana use.”
Today's @Surgeon_General Advisory has a clear message: No amount of #marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe. @POTUS’s salary donation will fund a campaign to educate the public about marijuana's dangers for the developing brain: https://t.co/xSmQo9jcgr pic.twitter.com/c8kphrtp9k
— Secretary Alex Azar (@SecAzar) August 29, 2019
Adams and Azar discussed the advisory during a press conference on Thursday, where the HHS head also said marijuana is “linked to risk for and early onset of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.”
Thank you @SecAzar, I am proud to stand with you to sound a national alarm about the harmful effects of #marijuana use on the developing brain with my new Surgeon General’s Advisory. #MJBrainEffects pic.twitter.com/x2G36sAMoX
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) August 29, 2019
Even while expressing concern about the potential harms of marijuana, Azar emphasized that the administration supports expanding research into the plant’s effects—something that the Justice Department is also encouraging by announcing this week that it is taking steps to approve additional cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
“We want to make sure that research can be conducted effectively, and we know there are significant barriers to the conduct of research,” Azar said. “We want to open that up for much more research, and that is a priority of this administration.”
To be sure, many reform advocates share concerns about potential risks associated with marijuana use by young people and vulnerable populations. That’s why states that have adopted legalization models expressly prohibiting people under 21 from purchasing cannabis and certain legal states like California require labels to warn adults about consuming while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Legalization supporters point out that if marijuana weren’t prohibited at the federal level, the Surgeon General could hypothetically mandate that cannabis product packaging contain warnings similar to those required for tobacco products.
“Almost no activity is entirely without risk, which is exactly why marijuana should be legalized and regulated for adult use,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “While marijuana still remains objectively less harmful to the consumer than currently legal alcohol, tobacco and many pharmaceuticals, it should still be consumed responsibly.”
“Our current model of prohibition represents the utter lack of control over any aspect of marijuana or the marijuana market,” he said. “If he truly has concerns, the surgeon general’s time would be better spent advocating for a structure for regulation under which we can educate Americans about the actual harms and benefits of cannabis through public education campaigns and product labelling, instead of his current fear-mongering.”
David Nathan, a physician and board president of the pro-legalization group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR), told Marijuana Moment that “DFCR physicians share Dr. Adams’ concern about the potential risks of cannabis use by adolescents and pregnant women” but that the group wishes he “shared our concern for the poverty that results from the economic impact of 600,000 cannabis possession arrests every year, as poverty is by far the greatest obstacle to health care access in the United States.”
“Cannabis is less harmful than many legal drugs and is non-lethal in overdose, yet millions of lives have been destroyed by its prohibition, especially in communities of color,” Nathan said. “The vilification of cannabis by the US government isn’t based in science. It is rooted in a misguided morality around adults who choose to use the drug.”
“To prevent access by minors, and to ensure proper labeling about the lack of data around use in pregnancy, the cannabis industry should be regulated rather than prohibited. We must stop using a sledgehammer to kill a weed and enact policies that optimize public health and social justice.”
Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who sits on DFCR’s honorary board, shares that perspective. Elders supports legalization and said in 2017 that the “unjust prohibition of marijuana has done more damage to public health than has marijuana itself.”
The advisory calls for “[s]cience-based messaging campaigns and targeted prevention programming” in order to “ensure that risks are clearly communicated and amplified by local, state, and national organizations.”
“Further research is needed to understand all the impacts of THC on the developing brain, but we know enough now to warrant concern and action,” the notice states, again without acknowledging the role federal prohibition has played in inhibiting such research. “Everyone has a role in protecting our young people from the risks of marijuana.”
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, whose president teased the surgeon general’s announcement in a tweet earlier this week, said in a press release that they “look forward to working with HHS and other federal government officials to help raise awareness to the harmful health impacts of marijuana commercialization and use.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.
Photo courtesy of Twitter/Surgeon General.
Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill
The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.
His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.
“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.
I have filed #SAFEBanking as an amendment to #AmericaCOMPETES b/c cannabis-related businesses – big and small – are in desperate need of access to capital & the banking system in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner & compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) January 28, 2022
“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”
It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.
The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.
Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.
In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.
Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures
Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.
This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.
The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.
CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.
“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”
The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.
Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.
A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).
A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.
There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.
After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.
Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.
Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.
A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”
While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.
The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.
“The higher the content of THC, the greater the likelihood that you will become addicted to the drug… The content of THC has gone up at least 4-fold.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.
The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.
That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.
“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.
Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.
“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”
The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.
She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”
However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.
“We need to provide them [addicts] with treatment, so just to say ok we are going to liberalize everything… and not support treatment for those people under those conditions, I actually think it is quite irresponsible.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.
She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.
Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.