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Who Is Responsible for Marijuana Product Safety?

Ethical cannabis legalization requires science literacy at the top.

Key points

  • Lawmakers do not seem to scientifically understand how THC and CBD impact the brain when legalizing cannabis products.
  • Ethical cannabis policy requires science literacy about potential public health risks.
  • State regulations have focused primarily on assuring the creation of a financially viable cannabis industry rather than cannabis product safety.

President Biden’s recent statement1 on marijuana opened a long-delayed national conversation, but in the enthusiasm for legal reform lies the question of who bears responsibility for assuring cannabis product safety. Policymakers and legislators favoring legalization often fail to recognize this responsibility begins with them. Without thoughtful guidance from the top, regulations governing legal cannabis tend to protect the cannabis industry more than to serve Public Health interests.

The American public is pushing state and federal lawmakers toward legalizing cannabis. Currently, 60 percent of adults support legalization for both medical and recreational use. Another 31 percent support medical use only, while a mere 8 percent disapprove of any legalization.2 The public’s favorable attitude toward legalization has a variety of motivations ranging from compassion for patients whose suffering may be relieved by cannabis, disagreement with law enforcement approaches to drug use, a wish to use cannabis without fear of arrest, increasing tax revenue, and an interest in participating in cannabis industries. Public health benefits take a back seat, except for the yet unrealized hope that legalization will suppress the illicit market, thereby reducing access for youth.

A critical reason states legalizing cannabis develop a regulatory framework is the potential health impacts of cannabis products. If there were no health impacts, the only rationale for regulation would be to oversee taxation, testing of purity and strength, and suppression of the illicit market. The reality is that state regulations have focused primarily on assuring the creation of a financially viable cannabis industry and resultant tax revenue for state governments. Regulations focused on public health have been inadequate and inadequately enforced. A truly ethical approach to cannabis legalization requires legislators, policymakers, and regulators to bear greater responsibility for any negative health effects of products they legalize.

For example, California legislators and regulators permit the legal sale of cannabis products with unlimited strength, including vaping cartridges with up to 90 percent THC, despite reliable scientific evidence that high concentration THC quadruples the rate of schizophrenia-like psychotic disorders. This clearly violates lawmakers’ ethical responsibility to protect the public’s health.

Although the state’s Cannabis Advisory Committee recommended the Department of Public Health undertake a literature review of the impact of high-concentration THC products, no such action has taken place. Meanwhile, free enterprise reigns to the detriment of public health. The state even allowed the addition of flavorings, such as “Bubble Gum,” to cannabis products despite a moratorium on such flavorings in tobacco. Regulations banning flavorings in cannabis were issued only days after voters permanently prohibited such flavorings in tobacco.

Policymakers do not scientifically understand the products they are legalizing. The solution lies in their developing greater science literacy about cannabis. Science literacy is the gateway to genuine dialogue about cannabis legalization and regulation. The science of cannabis requires understanding more than the botany of cannabis and its psychoactive constituents, THC, and CBD. Science literacy also requires a basic understanding of how THC and CBD impact the brain.

THC and CBD are, of course, natural compounds in the cannabis plant, but they are not naturally found within the human body. They impact our brains because they closely resemble important chemistry called the endocannabinoid system. We are wired to respond to cannabis because it resembles our innate chemistry enough to activate our neuroreceptors. This activation is stronger and lasts longer than occurs with our natural chemistry. Most people find this unnaturally strong activation of our endocannabinoid system quite interesting and enjoyable.

A problem arises when cannabis is used too frequently because this reduces our needed cannabinoid receptors up to 60 percent, and this leads to cognitive and emotional impacts that linger long after the immediate high. This modification of the brain’s important endocannabinoid system places youth, developing fetuses, and individuals with psychiatric or addictive disorders at especially high risk.

Apart from these high-risk populations, most healthy adults can use cannabis safely. Only approximately 10 percent ever develop dependence, which is lower than the 15 percent rate for alcohol and with far fewer consequences. A full description of our fascinating endocannabinoid can be found in my book, Marijuana on My Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

The answer to whether cannabis can be legalized ethically is “Yes” if those who legalize and regulate the cannabis industry accept responsibility for managing the potential negative health impacts by preparing themselves to make scientifically informed policy decisions.

This includes the willingness to educate the public about the subtle signs of overusing cannabis (see "5 Signs of Using Cannabis Too Frequently"). This information is not welcomed by the cannabis industry and is often seen as an intrusion on their rights as free enterprise entrepreneurs. Their lobbyists bring potent pressure on lawmakers to stay out of their business. In the end, however, ethical legalization will do more to protect both the industry and the public than bending to the lobbyists’ entreaties.

References

1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/10/06…

1. Pew Research, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/16/americans-overwhelming…

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