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.
Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.
Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.
There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.
The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.
The JSC on the Cannabis Control Bill will report to the @TTParliament by February 29, 2020. Trinidad & Tobago's government only required a simple, however, the bill received the support of the country's opposition in its amended form, the context here: https://t.co/o6ibF39KRS
— Clydeen Seeorne McDonald 🇹🇹 (@ClydeenMcDonald) December 12, 2019
Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.
“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”
The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”
“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”
“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”
The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.
New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.
The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.
"If we are successful in placing this question on the ballot next year, the voters will make the final decision," says @JoeDanielsen17 on today's public hearing on legislation that would allow voters to decide to amend the State constitution to legalize adult-use cannabis pic.twitter.com/1Mlt8gcrzg
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.
The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.
“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.
In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.
“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.
Assembly Panel Hosts Public Hearing on @AnnetteQuijano, @jamelholley, @AswTimberlake and @AswMcKnight Measure Amend State Constitution to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: https://t.co/IfEf98LO43 pic.twitter.com/h6gfT9CDwQ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.
Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) December 12, 2019
In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.
As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications
A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.
It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.
But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”
“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”
The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”
“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”
The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.
The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”
“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.
Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.
One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.
DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.
Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.