Commentary: Cannabis isn’t harmless, and commercialized marijuana shouldn’t be legalized

New York State Capitol in Albany, New York state capital, USA.

During his State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a legislative goal to pass a bill banning flavored nicotine vaping products and ads paid for by the industry that target youth. This was quickly followed up by a call to legalize high-potency marijuana.

That’s where the irony begins.

Last year, despite being massively outspent and told legalization was inevitable, our broad coalition – including the New York State PTA, Medical Society of the State of New York, N.Y. Sheriffs’ Association, N.Y. State Association of Chiefs of Police, county health officials, local elected officials, concerned parents, teachers, and addiction and recovery activists – made their voices heard and stopped the well-financed effort to commercialize today’s highly potent marijuana products.

Now, with today’s national vaping crisis, we have yet another reason to stop the legalization train. Some 2,600 Americans have fallen ill with e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury, or Evali, and at least 60 – including at least two New Yorkers – have lost their lives as a result.

This illness is overwhelmingly linked to the use of marijuana vaping products, including products purchased from so-called “legal,” regulated marijuana shops. Hoping to sweep this fact under the rug, the pot industry has breathlessly tried to point the finger at the underground market and has even gone so far as to use the crisis as a call for legalization and further expansion of these harmful products.

What’s more, some government officials have used this as a springboard for proposals to ban nicotine vaping products while allowing the pot industry to escape scot-free. It makes no sense.

Today’s pot isn’t Woodstock weed. And today’s pot industry looks more like Big Tobacco than Cheech and Chong. Marijuana companies actively promote their highly potent products on youth-friendly social media platforms such as Instagram. One recent study found that one in three youth aged 15-19 in “legal” states engaged with such ads. Those who engaged with marijuana promotions were five times more likely to report using the drug in the past year.

Moreover, efforts to legalize marijuana such as the one Cuomo is leading have led young Americans to believe marijuana is harmless. From a recent release of comprehensive drug use data, we know that the number of young people who perceive marijuana as being harmful is at a historic low. Given the numerous links between high-potency marijuana and serious mental health issues and future substance abuse, this is extremely concerning.

This radical shift in views surrounding the drug has culminated in a multi-year upward trend in youth use in states that have legalized marijuana. As rates of youth use have increased, so has addiction. A study published in November found that cannabis use disorder in teens in states where marijuana is legal was 25 percent higher than in states without a commercial market.

It was not long ago that Cuomo opposed marijuana legalization and admitted the drug was harmful. The time has never been better for him to return to this science-backed position and end this reckless push to legalize marijuana.

We in the public health and safety communities will continue to remind him.

Kevin Sabet