Today, a much-anticipated discussion draft of a bill to legalize marijuana at the federal level has been officially released by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The draft’s release is intended to further conversations around the eventual formal introduction of the bill at an undetermined future time.
“While we applaud Senate Majority Leader Schumer, as well as Senators Booker and Wyden, for their focus on exploring ways to mitigate the harms that have been perpetuated on vulnerable communities, full commercial legalization of today’s highly potent marijuana will only deepen these harms,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama Administration. “Decriminalization of minor marijuana possession and expungement of previous records was a key part of President Joe Biden’s platform and should be the path forward, but we cannot let the interests of the for-profit marijuana industry and its investors cloud the discussion. Much as we have done with COVID, we must heed the science and be cautious with normalizing and promoting marijuana use.”
In response to the release of the discussion draft, the Science Advisory Board of SAM, comprised of a diverse group of world-renowned experts in research, addiction, and treatment from institutions such as Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins, sent a letter to Senate Leadership outlining proposed regulations that should be a key part of any serious legislation.
“We must address the harms of current marijuana policies, particularly toward members of low-income communities and Black and indigenous people of color,” said the letter. “However, it’s likewise critical to address three concerning trends in states that have legalized the commercial sales, production, use, and possession of marijuana.”
The letter expresses the researchers concern over the dramatic, rapid increase in marijuana potency, the proliferation of products featuring upwards of 90% THC (the main, psychoactive component in marijuana) and the rise of the use of such products among youth, and the fact that tobacco and alcohol companies are actively lobbying on legalization and positioning themselves to take over the industry once it is legalized nationwide.
The researchers urge Senator Chuck Schumer to consider the following rigorous regulations in order to protect public health:
- A cap on marijuana potency of 10-15%.
- A ban or severe limitations on advertising the drug.
- Banning any form of flavored or child-friendly products such as flavored vapes and candies which proliferate today.
- Exclusion of tobacco and alcohol industry influence and ability to monopolize the market.
Full Text of the letter and its signers available below:
July 14, 2021
Dear Senate Majority Leader Schumer, Senator Wyden, and Senator Booker:
We understand your concern about the need to address the harms of current marijuana policies, particularly toward members of low-income communities and Black and indigenous people of color. The “War on Drugs” led to disproportionate impacts we must address with proactive, legislative reform, and your leadership on this front is to be applauded.
We agree with you that decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession, expungements, and expanded research into the medical benefits of the drug are vital. We are also proud to see that this is the position of the Biden-Harris Administration.
In considering marijuana legislation, however, we also believe it is critical to address three concerning trends in states that have legalized the commercial sales, production, possession of marijuana.
First and foremost is the troubling rise of marijuana potency. States allowing the marijuana industry to produce and market products are seeing candies, vaping oils, concentrates such as dabs, and other forms of extremely high potency products. To date, the market share of such concentrated marijuana products is rapidly growing and products featuring THC – the main, psychoactive component of the substance – levels upwards of 90% are commonplace on the shelves of marijuana dispensaries.
Concerningly, these products are increasingly popular among youth. In Colorado, the use of marijuana dabs among youth rose five-fold since 2017, while the use of marijuana vapes doubled. Increasing use of high potency cannabis in adolescents and young adults is concerning because it is associated with an increased risk of addiction and with the development of psychosis.
This fact builds upon the second area of concern: states that commercialized the drug are seeing rising rates of youth use, hospitalizations, poison center calls, and other negative outcomes related to the drug.
Once again pointing to the example of Colorado, children under the age of 15 increased their use of marijuana by 15% over the past two years. California, Nevada, and Oregon also saw 20% and higher increases in youth use over the past two years. Keeping the drug away from youth is key to any successful legislation, given the known harm marijuana use poses to developing brains across development, from in utero exposure to adolescence, and other vulnerable populations like pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Third, tobacco companies are positioning themselves for a significant takeover of the marijuana industry. Altria, the owner of Phillip Morris, has invested over $2 billion (along with a $14 billion stake in Juul). They are now actively lobbying for legalization at the state and federal levels. Additional international tobacco companies to invest in the marijuana space include Imperial Brands, the fifth-largest tobacco company on earth, as well as British American Tobacco.
Given our nation’s disastrous history with tobacco and the millions of lives lost, legislation must be written to severely limit or even eliminate their potential influence. The alcohol industry is also positioning itself in this space.
We, as a society, know from painful experience that the business model for the tobacco industry is based on addiction. We see no evidence they would approach the marijuana issue any differently. Minimizing access to and use of marijuana by those under age 21 is critical in order to minimize the harm to these adolescents and young adults by addiction to cannabis.
Given these considerations, though we prefer decriminalization and education, if marijuana were to be legalized entirely for the commercial market, we request that any marijuana legislation at the federal level start with public health and social justice concerns and include rigorous regulations to protect the safety of youth and the public. The following regulations may be a starting place:
A cap on marijuana potency of 10-15%.
A ban or severe limitations on advertising the drug.
Banning any form of flavored or child-friendly products such as flavored vapes and candies which proliferate today.
Exclusion of tobacco and alcohol industry influence and ability to monopolize the market.
We appreciate your consideration of our concerns and welcome the opportunity to discuss them further with you.
Sincerely, the undersigned:
Hoover Adger, Jr, M.D., M.P.H.
Director, Adolescent Medicine
Professor of Pediatrics Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Judge Arthur L. Burnett, Sr.
First Black United States Magistrate Judge
Executive Director, National African American Drug Policy Coalition
Eden Evins, M.D., M.P.H.
Cox Family Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School Founding Director, Center for Addiction Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital
Jodi Gilman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School Director for Neuroscience, Center for Addiction Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital
Sion Kim Harris, Ph.D., C.P.H.
Co-Director, Center for Adolescent Behavioral Health Research Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital
Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School
Marilyn A. Huestis, PhD
Institute of Emerging Health Professions, Thomas Jefferson University
Yifrah Kaminer, M.D., M.B.A.
Professor of Psychiatry, University of Connecticut School of Medicine Professor of Pediatrics, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Injury Prevention Center
Christine Miller, Ph.D.
Former Research Associate Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Kimber P. Richter, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Professor and Director, UKanQuit KUMed Hospital Tobacco Treatment Service
Christian Thurstone, M.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Colorado, Denver
Aaron Weiner, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist Owner, Bridge Forward Group LLC
Kathryn Wells, MD
Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Colorado