Opinion: Three public health steps needed to legalize adult-use cannabis in CT
On July 15, 2015, my world was changed forever. My beloved son Evan went to heaven. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 24.
To honor my son, I started a parent support group in September 2016. Our group has met every week, with a goal of bringing hope to parents with children affected by addiction. Most of the parents describe cannabis as the primary drug that has caused their children – who are typically age 18 to 25 in our group – to become dysfunctional. Specifically, the mothers and fathers discuss how cannabis has triggered the “failure to launch” syndrome – an inability to leave home and support oneself.
Given my experience with my own son, what I have learned from other parents and the facts from health experts, I strongly object to parts of the amended governor’s bill that cleared the Judiciary Committee on April 6. “An Act Responsibly and Equitably Regulating Adult-Use Cannabis” (SB-888) does have important provisions like the expungement of cannabis possession convictions, which would reduce the harm done to low-income communities and communities of color that have historically been adversely impacted by these unjust laws. Despite these positive equity and justice elements, there are three features of the bill that concern me: legal age of use, unrestricted THC levels of the cannabis products and the regulating agency.
First, the bill sets the legal age of adult use to 21, which parallels the legal age for alcohol consumption. Cannabis use, however, has unique risks to mental health because the brain does not finish developing until 25. For young adults and adolescents with a developing brain, the earlier one starts using weed, the higher the risk of dependency. Along with frequency of cannabis use, high THC amounts and genetic vulnerability, that age factor increases the risks of addiction, interrupted brain development and even psychotic disorders. A legal age for use of 25 would decrease the harm that could be done to younger Connecticut residents and their families.
Secondly, since the THC percentage of weed affects risk of addiction and psychosis, a THC percentage limit should be included in the bill. Marijuana commercialization in legal states has led to the mass production of cannabis with inflated THC levels through modern horticultural and chemistry techniques. From the discussions I hear every week in our support meetings, the cannabis being consumed by loved ones is either smokable product with 15 to 30 percent THC potency levels or concentrates and vape fluids with THC purity up to 95 percent. Since higher-potency weed (greater than 10 percent THC) has resulted in consequences like cannabis-use disorder or even types of psychosis like schizophrenia, cannabis should have a maximum THC limit of 10 percent to reduce the negative public health impacts. There is no specific limit in the amended bill.
Third, in SB-888, the Department of Consumer Protection is the regulatory agency for the bill. The more appropriate agency is the Department of Public Health, which has medically trained personnel. A frequently cited study describes a public health framework that would make it difficult for a new powerful marijuana industry to manipulate policy and thwart efforts to minimize cannabis-related health problems. The first listed component is ensuring a health department leads the regulation effort. While DPH is equipped to lead the continued cannabis health research that is needed to fully understand risks to brain health and mental illness, funding to DPH and other relevant agencies like the Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services would need to be increased.
Significant changes to the bill need to be instituted to protect the public health of Connecticut. Revenues and profits from marijuana commercialization should not be placed above the potential societal damage, especially to young adults and their families. As a founder of a support group of parents with children struggling with addiction, I ask all Hartford legislators: please demand the above revisions to SB-888. Only with specific limits and a public health-oriented framework can the bill simultaneously address the injustices of the past while also mitigating future harm to residents of our state.
Paul Reinhardt, of New Canaan, is founder of the New Canaan Parent Support Group.