Big Marijuana’s Big Debut

Rich investors try to legalize pot in Ohio — and corner the market

by Kevin Sabet | Updated 04 Dec 2015 at 1:54 PM

A group of millionaires in Ohio is determined to change the perception of marijuana legalization in this country. “Responsible Ohio,” an alliance of wealthy individuals and businesses in the state, announced this month they had submitted enough signatures for a “marijuana monopoly” initiative to appear on the 2015 ballot. Marijuana could be grown only at 10 sites in the state.

This is not your typical “legalize it” ballot measure.

Issue 3 would cement in the Ohio Constitution exclusive rights for these investors to commercial marijuana profits in Ohio, insulating them from any business competition or act of the legislature. The investors who wrote Issue 3 set their own preferential tax rates directly into the constitution — rates that can’t be changed by the legislature like those on beer, wine, and tobacco.

Proponents of Issue 3 argue the initiative only allows a “personal amount” of marijuana to be used. By personal, they mean nine ounces, or about 500 joints. (Details, details.) And the amendment would even legalize pot gummy bears and other candies, brownies, and cookies shamelessly targeted at kids.

Moreover, Issue 3 allows for as many as 1,159 retail marijuana stores. That’s more locations than Starbucks or McDonald's combined, and nearly three times the number of state liquor stores. Cheech and Chong couldn’t have written it better themselves.

The initiative has united some strange bedfellows in opposition. Recently, an unprecedented, diverse group of public health experts stood on stage at the Columbus Children’s Hospital with faith leaders, law enforcement, teachers groups, the Ohio Manufacturers Association, and dozens of other groups to oppose the initiative. Even libertarian activists and Green Party members can’t stomach this constitutional rip-off and are speaking out against it.

lib_4If it all sounds wacky, welcome to the world of Big Tobacco 2.0.

For years, the tobacco industry wrote our tobacco laws and pushed its own “research” to help downplay the risks of the drug. Today’s marijuana millionaires are no different. They consistently deny the research coming out of Colorado and Washington State showing that legalization simply does not work.

After two years of increased marijuana use, a growing proliferation of marijuana candies aimed at children, more arrests in schools for pot, a jump in the number of people publicly using marijuana, and an increase in marijuana-related driving citations, Colorado may finally be having doubts about its move.

In a candid moment, the Democratic governor was forced to concede during a debate last year that he thought legalization was “reckless.” And tax revenue is coming in at about a fifth of the rate promised to voters during the campaign. Washington State is not fairing much better. Just last week, the state’s toxicologist released numbers showing an increase in marijuana-impaired drivers on the roads.

We shouldn't be so surprised. Today’s marijuana is not the pot of the 1960s. Because of new growing and breeding techniques, the marijuana most people smoke today can be five to 30 times stronger than the pot of the past.

Teens and young people are particularly vulnerable to high potency THC pot, since their brains are being primed and are under rapid development until age 25. So it’s no surprise that more youths are in treatment for marijuana dependence than for alcohol or any other drug combined. (See figure below.)

lib_1Dr. Sarah Denny, attending pediatric physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus and executive board member of the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said at the Ohio news conference opposing Issue 3, “We know that marijuana can impair memory and concentration in adolescents, as well as interfere with learning, motor control, coordination and judgment. We also know that regular use is linked to psychological problems, issues with lung health and a higher likelihood of drug dependence in adulthood.”

Because of the new Big Marijuana industry selling pot as harmless, most young people aren’t getting that message — less than half of American teens perceive a “great risk” in smoking marijuana once or twice a week. Yet, research shows that teens who smoke marijuana once a week over a two-year period are almost six times more likely than nonsmokers to drop out of school and over three times less likely to enter college.

In a study of more than 1,000 people in 2012, scientists found that using marijuana regularly before the age of 18 results in an average IQ six to eight lower at age 38 relative to those who did not use the drug before 18. These results still held for those who used regularly as teens, but stopped after 18.

lib_3Perhaps even more seriously, marijuana use is strongly associated with stunted emotional development. In particular, females who smoke marijuana show a great vulnerability to heightened risk of anxiety attacks and depression.

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, daily use among adolescent girls is associated with a fivefold increase in the risk of depression and anxiety. Moreover, youth who begin smoking marijuana at an earlier age are more likely to have an impaired ability to experience normal emotional responses.

The link between marijuana use and mental health extends beyond anxiety and depression. Marijuana users have a six times higher risk of schizophrenia, and are significantly more likely to develop other psychotic illnesses.

Reminiscent of Big Tobacco of the 1950s, legalization advocates often dismiss this link as simply “correlational, rather than causal.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, scientific evidence accumulated that smoking tobacco was correlated with higher rates of lung cancer. lib_2Whenever a policymaker would imply that tobacco smoking actually caused lung cancer, however, Big Tobacco lobbyists would argue that causation and correlation are not equivalent.

Big Tobacco used this as a powerful lobbying tool to dismiss mounting scientific evidence for more than 40 years, and it seems that marijuana proponents are using their predecessor’s technique. Strong correlations exist between cannabis use and schizophrenia incidence, especially those in a dose-dependent fashion, and this should give us all pause as we grapple with an already out-of-control mental illness crisis.

Dr. A. Eden Evins, a medical doctor who holds a master's in public health, is chairman of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“Patients often think that cannabis makes them feel better or more relaxed, but they come back clinically worse," Evins said. "Clinicians should alert patients to this.”

Of course, it is in Big Marijuana’s interest to downplay risks of heavy pot use. After all, they are raking in big bucks from their newfound industry. And just like other addictive industries, their profits derive mainly from heavy, regular users. If you want to know why legalization has become such a hot-button issue in the past five years, you need only follow the money.

Enter the Ohio marijuana monopolists.

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