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The Surgeon General Launches a New Anti-Cannabis Campaign

Photo Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now


The Surgeon General Launches a New Anti-Cannabis Campaign

All too predictably, the anti-legalization assumptions behind the new campaign — a further disappointment for activists who held out hope that Trump would legalize — are amply refuted by actual research.

The U.S. Surgeon General, joined by the secretary of Health & Human Services, issued a new warning last week about the supposed dangers of cannabis, especially stressing use by adolescents and pregnant women. Their comments explicitly argued that legalization and the normalization of cannabis were threats to public health.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams, in his official statement, said: “Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.”

Added HHS Secretary Alex Azar in his online statement: “Marijuana is a dangerous drug, especially for young people and pregnant women.” 

Why It’s Wrong to Blame Cannabis Legalization 

In the joint press conference announcing the new campaign on Aug. 29, Adams decried what he called the “widespread and growing access to increasingly potent marijuana through legalization at the state level.” Citing a supposed “three to fivefold” increase in the potency of cannabis over the past few decades, he admonished: “This ain’t your mother’s marijuana.”  

He also cited a supposed “decline in IQ and school performance” among youthful cannabis users and said that such users are “even more likely to attempt suicide.” He asserted: “Marijuana use is a risk to the developing brain.”

And he explicitly blamed the more relaxed atmosphere of recent years: “Over time there has been a change in attitudes about marijuana creating a false sense of security.”

Other federal officials also weighed in. HHS assistant secretary for health Brett Giroir warned against pregnant women using cannabis to relieve morning sickness. “If you have morning sickness, talk to your physician,” said Giroir. “There are FDA-approved drugs to help with morning sickness. Taking marijuana for morning sickness has never been shown to be safe and effective.”

Giroir noted that the National Institute on Drug Abuse is currently funding studies on cannabis use during pregnancy. NIDA director Nora Volkow said she strongly supports the Surgeon General’s warning.

But there is a distinct whiff of “reefer madness” clinging to all of this rhetoric, especially evidenced in this dissing of legalization as exacerbating the supposed dangers of cannabis. In an Aug. 30 tweet, the surgeon general asserted that youth access to cannabis has increased as a result of adult-use legalization in several states. But as The Hill notes, this claim is refuted by the research.

Adolescents’ self-reported ease of access to cannabis has actually declined in recent years, according to peer-reviewed studies.

The Associated Press reported on such findings in July. One study by Montana State University scholars, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found that nationally the odds of teen cannabis use have declined nearly 10% in the years since state-level legalization has been instated. The hypothesized reason is that the regulated market — which does not sell to the underage — has been drying up the illicit market. The findings, based on responses from 1.4 million high school students, appear to vindicate the arguments that were made in favor of legalization: that it diminishes rather than exacerbates the potential social harms of cannabis. 

In what is starting to smell like an anti-cannabis media campaign, headlines have mounted in recent months on the possible deleterious effects of cannabis on the developing brains of young teens. Inevitably, the accounts are one-sided and the political assumptions behind them flawed. It appears to be unregulated illicit markets, not the eroding of the stigma, that encourage underage cannabis use.

And, as we have argued before, there is a case to be made that high-potency strains are beneficial, as they require users to smoke less to achieve the same effect, sparing the lungs exposure to tar and carcinogens. The assumption that users of such strains are all getting significantly more zonked than your mother did when she toked a generation ago is questionable. 

The assumptions about the supposed cannabis-suicide link are similarly flawed. Is cannabis use driving suicidal tendencies, or are those with suicidal tendencies self-medicating (whether consciously or not) with cannabis? A look at the actual research suggests the latter hypothesis. For instance, one study purporting a link between cannabis use and increased suicide risk, published on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2012, emphasized: “Overall, those who attempt or complete suicide are characterized by additional risk factors such as mood disorders, stressful life events, interpersonal problems, poor social support, lonely lives, and feelings of hopelessness.”

And, in fact, the most recent research, published last year by Ontario’s McMaster University, finds that “there is no significant association between cannabis use and suicidal behavior in people with psychiatric disorders.”

As for the risks of use by pregnant women, the research being funded by NIDA is ironically drawing criticism from hardcore prohibitionists. As AP reported last month, a NIDA-supported study by the University of Washington in Seattle is “enrolling pregnant women during their first trimester who are already using marijuana for morning sickness.” But opponents of cannabis legalization say the research “endorses drug use and needlessly endangers fetuses.” 

And, yet again, whatever the actual risks there may be (and there is no conclusive answer yet to that question), prohibitionist prescriptions may be deeply counterproductive. The New York Times reported last month on a study finding an increase in pre-term births in states that had imposed punitive measures on pregnant women who used alcohol, presumably because such measures are a disincentive for such women to seek public health services.

Mixed Signals from White House — But Mostly Bad Ones

The surgeon general’s new campaign will be further cold water in the face of those who looked to Trump’s perceived libertarian instincts as hope for federal cannabis legalization. The administration has shown some signs of bending to more enlightened attitudes about cannabis — but the general trajectory has been back toward intolerance, with a splash of states’ rights, as Trump reiterated today that his administration is allowing states to set their own cannabis policies.

The most significant actual progress, of course, was Trump’s signing of the Farm Bill last year, which legalized hemp and hemp-derived CBD. The Drug Enforcement Administration last month announced plans to expand permitted cannabis research, and acknowledged that CBD is in fact now legal. DEA acting administrator Uttam Dhillon stated, “We support additional research into marijuana and its components, and we believe registering more growers will result in researchers having access to a wider variety for study.” However, the agency failed to provide a timeline for such studies.

Last year, it was revealed that the White House had secretly convened a committee of federal agencies to combat public support for cannabis legalization. The group, apparently dubbed the Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee, was instructed by the White House to gather data demonstrating the most significant negative trends related to legalization.

And when the United Nations General Assembly met in New York last September, President Trump issued a “Global Call” to renew the War on Drugs, much to the dismay of activists and dissenting nations.

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