No attention has been given to public-health education about marijuana.
A growing gap exists between how the early marijuana-legalization laws are rolling out in Washington state and what ought to be concurrent education campaigns to give marijuana consumers science-based information to make wise choices.
Initiative 502 earmarked new excise-tax revenues to the state Department of Health to pay for “medically and scientifically accurate information about the health and safety risks posed by marijuana use.”
The initiative also called for a marijuana public-health hotline. To be available statewide, the hotline is intended to provide treatment referrals, brief counseling and educational information about marijuana.
On the road to a more just marijuana policy in the United States, we’re leaping ahead in some respects yet falling seriously behind in others. By turning away from an ineffective marijuana-prohibition policy, clearly enforced with egregious racial inequities, we’re making progress.
However, to date, no marijuana excise-tax revenues have been allocated to the state Health Department. Therefore, these educational efforts haven’t begun. In essence, 29 months have passed since voters approved I-502. During that time, while the birth of this new industry and its ever-growing array of products have been extensively covered in the media, almost no attention has been given to public-health education about the drug.
Now, three bills wending their way through the legislative process would decimate the education, prevention, treatment and research elements of I-502. In the state Senate, a bill would completely eliminate the dedicated marijuana fund and direct all I-502 revenue to the general fund for local government uses and to the education legacy trust account. Bills in the state House would pull the rug out from under the youth-based marijuana prevention efforts intended by the initiative.
At its first opportunity, the Legislature is poised to undermine one of the primary campaign promises of I-502.”
At its first opportunity, the Legislature is poised to undermine one of the primary campaign promises of I-502. Effectively informing the public about marijuana’s health and safety risks is crucial for several reasons:
First, the voters’ decision to legalize marijuana in four states and the District of Columbia is commonly interpreted to mean that using the drug doesn’t risk the user’s health. Indeed, many proponents argue that it ought not to be criminalized because it has no dangers. They’re wrong. In truth, there are compelling arguments to support legalizing marijuana that don’t require the drug to be harmless as a justification.
Second, drug education about marijuana has often been skewed to discourage use. As an example, I can’t recall ever seeing in a government publication recognition that occasional marijuana use by adults isn’t harmful. The considerable distrust in any warnings about harm needs to be addressed.
Finally, the realities of science make it easy to poke holes in research. If a possibility exists, however slight, of alternative explanations for a relationship between using marijuana and a specific danger, some readers would dismiss the findings outright. Not even a slew of similar results across a number of studies would sway them.
Today, based on what can reasonably be concluded from science, there are risks to health and safety. They are important enough to warrant informing marijuana users and those considering using marijuana.
Dependence: Frequently, marijuana is described as not addictive. Some users find themselves continuing to get high despite ongoing experiences of adverse consequences, and this is what addiction means. There is a withdrawal syndrome — not life threatening, but considerably stressful — that many, but not all, regular marijuana consumers experience.
Mental-health difficulties: Regular use is associated with increased anxiety and depression. Consumers need to be aware that marijuana could be the cause and, if frequently depressed or anxious after use, consider the possibility that pot isn’t working for them. The same goes for those with suicidal thoughts when they get high. Today, there’s evidence that frequent use of marijuana high in THC and low in CBD increases the risk of psychosis.
Vulnerable groups: People with cardiovascular disease need to know they are risking heart attack, stroke or transient ischemic attacks if they get high. Those prone to schizophrenia need to know they risk a psychotic episode from consuming pot.
I-502 was written to correct public misunderstandings and to help us live more safely and healthfully with marijuana. We have a lot of work before us, however, to rise above the hyperbole and fully inform the public. The Legislature should soundly reject proposals to defund this vitally important mission. To do otherwise would sabotage a key reason why I-502 was adopted.