For decades, popular media has excelled in reporting the harms of tobacco use, and generated significant positive peer pressure to break and/or avoid the habit among adults and youth alike. As a result, Big Tobacco has been almost irredeemably demonized. Popular media’s treatment of marijuana, in contrast, is often characterized by sloppy reporting, and increasingly appears to have pot fast-tracked for canonization as the panacea to all medical, economic and social ills.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Midterm referenda earlier this month resulted in the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington DC, Oregon and Alaska, which joined the states of Washington and Colorado. This has been hailed by proponents of repealing the federal ban as a triumph in the march against the failed draconian policy of prohibition.
Curiously, a few days later, the sleepy little town of Westminster, Massachusetts received kudos in the media for potentially becoming the first municipality in America to ban the sale of all tobacco products. Exactly why is this “Prohibition” being championed as “progressive” rather than disparaged as “draconian?” According to the article it is because this prohibition will prevent tobacco from impairing and/or shortening the lives of 5.6 million children. While I applaud this focus on children’s well-being, I sorely wish children’s health were the focus of a battle against an enemy with far more dire consequences to children than tobacco : Big Marijuana.
Even medical marijuana alone, which remains scientifically problematic as explained in a previous MercatorNet article, increases the availability of pot among adolescents. A 2014 survey of Colorado teens in substance abuse treatment centers found that 74 percent obtained their pot from a medical marijuana patient. A recent multi-state study, involving thousands of high school seniors, found that 10 percent of non-users would try marijuana if it were legal in their state. Among those seniors in the study who already used marijuana, 18 percent said they would smoke more if it were legal. Already, by 2011, more kids were smoking marijuana than were smoking cigarettes. It seems kids, like their parents and many American adults, view marijuana as less harmful than tobacco. This is a myth with potentially grave consequences.
Consider these facts:
- 25-50 percent of daily users regardless of age become addicted
- There is no such thing as safe-smoking for adults or children: pot contains all the same toxins as tobacco and higher concentrations of cancer-causing agents
- Marijuana carries the same pulmonary and cardiac risks as tobacco
- Marijuana quickly impairs consciousness, short-term memory, concentration and reaction time regardless of age; tobacco is a stimulant.
- Marijuana use during adolescence permanently impairs long-term memory capacity and lowers IQ ; not so tobacco.
- Marijuana is associated with an increased incidence and worsened course of psychotic, mood, anxiety and substance use disorders across the lifespan. Tobacco does not seem to worsen the course of psychiatric disease.
- Marijuana’s damaging effects on the adolescent brain may have immediate and long-term implications, including increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, sexual victimization, academic failure, psychosocial and occupational impairment.
- Legal marijuana lands babies in ICUs – candy cigarettes and tobacco products generally don’t. By 2011, rates of poison center calls for accidental pediatric marijuana ingestion more than tripled in states that legalized marijuana before 2005. In states which passed legislation between 2005 and 2011 call rates increased nearly 11.5 percent per year. There was no similar increase in states that had not legalized marijuana as of December 31, 2011.
- Additionally, exposures in states where marijuana use was legalized were more likely than those in non-legal states to present with moderate to severe symptoms requiring admission to a pediatric intensive care unit. These cases were primarily due to ingesting edible forms of marijuana: cookies, brownies, gummies, etc. The median age of children involved was 18-24 months.
Further legalization will be accompanied by increased marijuana use resulting in more individuals suffering its untoward effects, with children being disproportionately affected. This will deal a devastating blow to America’s long-term national health — both medical and economic — by adversely affecting workplace productivity, academic performance, behavioral and somatic health, automobile safety, parenting and family functioning.
While I breathe a sigh of relief that nearly everyone today acknowledges the harms of tobacco products and sees Big Tobacco for what it is, I fear for the many being duped into sucking in the haze spewed by Big Marijuana. Don’t inhale. Legalization on behalf of corporate greed and adults wanting to get high without consequence is not the answer.
A focus on evidence-based research for medical marijuana, educational programs for drug-use prevention (especially those building parent-child connectedness), mental health reform, justice reform, drug-treatment courts, and smart policing practices are all part of the real answer. Save our children. Save our future. Maintain the federal ban, reverse current and halt further state legalization.
Michelle Cretella MD is the Vice-President of the American College of Pediatricians and chairs the College’s Committee on Adolescent Sexuality.