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Marijuana's Pandora's Box in the U.S.

Whoopi Goldberg wrote in her opening 2014 epiphany column (“My Vape Pen and I, A Love Story”) in The Cannibist: “The vape pen has changed my life. No, I’m not exaggerating. In fact, her name is Sippy. Yes, she’s a she. And yes, I named her Sippy because I take tiny, little sips – sassy sips, even – from her. And with each sip comes relief – from pressure, pain, stress, discomfort.”

Five years later America has another huge drug problem: marijuana vaping, with one in 11 American middle (tween) and high school (teen) students using cannabis in e-cigarettes.

Moreover, with increasing numbers of states legalizing marijuana and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentrations climbing as high as 25 percent in pot, university researchers and addiction experts are revealing that vaping and smoking high-potency marijuana is creating a greater degree of addicts among young people and multiplying their odds for psychosis by five times.

Today’s marijuana isn’t the marijuana of the 1960s and 1970s. It is far more potent.

Ziva Cooper, research director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, said earlier this month that “Marijuana plants sold in the 1990s typically contained about 3 percent THC, the ingredient that leads to the euphoric high that pot users hope to achieve in smoking or ingesting it. These days, THC concentrations can be as high as 25 percent in weed sold at medical marijuana dispensaries,” USA Today reported this past week.

Twenty-five percent? That’s eight times the degree of potency that marijuana was in the 1990s, and it already increased manifold then from the 1960s and 1970s. Are we listening, America?

“It definitely is a signal that potency increases the addictive potential of cannabis,” but there are no laws regarding potency, explained Dr. Brian Hicks, an associate professor with the University of Michigan Addiction Center and the senior author of a marijuana co-study with Brown University. (The study appears in the Dec. 17 issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.)

Dr. Harshal Kirane, director of addiction services at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City, explained: “It’s no surprise that the more potent pot is, the higher the risk that it can lead to problematic use. A consistent principle of the biology underlying addictive behavior is that the potency of a substance usually correlates with its addictive potential. It’s a legal substance, but it has the potential for major health consequences.”

Here’s just a small sample of other articles by qualified experts I’ve read recently on the often-overlooked adverse and detrimental effects of modern marijuana:

No surprise that Keith Humphreys PhD, a psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care and a former senior policy advisor for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, “warns younger users that regular cannabis use carries a risk of reducing your ability to concentrate, to plan, and to remember important details,” according to Healthline.com. But it gets much worse than that.

Vaping cannabis has become a very popular fad among young people. The message is pitched to young users that vaping is “much healthier,” not doing damage to the lungs that smoking it does, minimizing harshness on the throat, etc. But experts are saying just the opposite is true because of the multiplied potency of THC in the product and that it more quickly hits the bloodstream–something that clearly points to its additional addictive nature.

Research out of Johns Hopkins Universityin Maryland at the school’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit discovered that no matter the amount of THC, “those who vaped marijuana reported more powerful effects, including serious impairment in their reaction time and overall cognitive abilities … including one research subject who experienced hallucinations.”

Dr. Jordan Tishler a Harvard-educated physician as well as president and chief executive officer of the Association of Cannabis Specialists explained that the Johns Hopkins study confirmed what he and other cannabis experts have been saying for years.

The fact is, lobbyists and consumers have often been so impassioned with making recreational and medical marijuana use available that state politicians have put the cart before the horse, or the consummation ahead of safety, health and societal issues. Those are alarming facts when one considers that 10 states and even the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C. already allow recreational marijuana use, and over double that number of states allow its medical use. And many more are soon to jump onboard in both categories. (I’m not debating legality here, or even the different property values and medicinal qualities of CBD and THC, but only the problems with the proliferation of unregulated higher-potency THC in marijuana and its related products.)

What pot-pushers want is the total liberty to sell and buy without a drop of government regulation, even regarding potency. But the researchers of the Michigan-Brown joint-university study are recommending states with legal marijuana should fine-tune their laws to make THC levels in pot products clearer for consumers. But who will enforce or police those regulations? Again, the truth is that they won’t stop the risks of the myriad of THC-laced products that are hitting shopping shelves that masquerade as normal grocery items. They include candy bars, cookies, brownies, gummies, beverages and even dog treats.

Marijuana’s multiplied potency is compounded when one considers that edibles, snack foods, desserts and even liquid refreshments are right now widely available and unfailingly provide high – even super high – levels of THC as well.

How bad does it get? The Business Insider just reported, “A mysterious syndrome that makes marijuana users violently ill is starting to worry doctors.”

The article documents that: “A new study documented a sharp rise in emergency-room visits linked with marijuana following legalization in Colorado. One of the key drivers of the ER visits was a mysterious syndrome characterized by severe nausea and repeated vomiting. Little is known about the condition, called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS. The only known way to cure CHS is to stop using marijuana. Researchers still aren’t sure what causes it.”

The Business Insider also reported this week that: “There’s been a spike in ER visits in Colorado following marijuana legalization, and edibles are doctors’ biggest concern.”

Cannabis was legalized medically in Colorado in 2009 and recreationally in 2014. Published on Monday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, a team of clinicians reviewed and chronicled nearly 10,000 emergency-room visits between 2012 to 2016 to the University of Colorado Health’s Anschutz campus in Aurora, a large public hospital 30 minutes from Denver. More than 25 percent or 2,500 emergency room visits were marijuana-related, and more than 10 percent of those were tied with THC edibles – a three-fold higher rate than expected.

The Insider explained, “While the hospital saw about 200 cannabis-linked ER trips in 2012, that figure jumped to roughly 800 in 2016, the authors of the study found. The uptick was chiefly driven by [higher potency] smoked marijuana, where people who experienced troubling symptoms like severe nausea and vomiting tended to show up in the emergency department after chronic or heavy use. Edibles were another big problem. Pot brownies, cookies, and other sources of cannabis that are ingested can confuse patients and lead to issues like paranoia and intoxication.”

In May 2018, Reuters reported that marijuana-related emergency room visits for teens have doubled, and “half of the patients were sent home after their emergency visit, [though] 30 percent were admitted to the hospital and the rest were transferred to different facilities.”

In February 2019, Dr. Sam Wang, assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine for Children’s Hospital Colorado (Children’s Colorado), explained, “We anecdotally noticed that we were seeing a lot more kids testing positive for marijuana and saying that they used marijuana.”

Dr. Wang and his colleagues’ study, “Impact of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado on Adolescent Emergency and Urgent Care Visits,” which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in August 2018, confirmed their observations of an increase in marijuana-related emergency room visits.

UCHealth.org reported their surprise: “What they did not expect was the magnitude of the increase. Annual marijuana-related visits jumped from 161 in 2005 to 777 in 2015.”

Imagine even similar marijuana-related emergency room visit increases occurring in hospitals in every community across America in all the states it is legalized. The implications are staggering!

Dr. Hicks from the University of Michigan Addiction Center advised, at very least: “We really need to look at the idea of regulating potency levels, and examining how potency relates to things you’d care about, like [your children or the] ability to drive and addiction potential. … Levels have really gone up the last five years,” particularly in pot products such as edibles and concentrates.

Brooke Arterberry, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University and the leader in a marijuana study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, summarized that the primary problem is researchers do not know what constitutes “safe levels” of THC.

The university summary noted that: “While there are many similarities between cannabis use and alcohol use disorders, Arterberry says we do not know as much about cannabis as alcohol. For example, alcohol is sold based on volume and there is a specific blood alcohol level for impairment. However, there are no regulations or limits on potency in states where medical or recreational cannabis is legal, Arterberry said, adding that some concentrates have THC levels of up to 80 percent.”

Eighty percent?! Are we really listening, America?? And those edible and beverage THC effects, according to experts, “can also last for up to 12 hours – putting the trip length on par with that typically seen for the psychedelic LSD.”

You might know others who voted for legalization, but did anyone really have any idea of the Pandora’s box that would open with high-potency vaping and edibles? And, what’s coming next for a greater and more intense high? Makes one wonder who was the April Fool in legalization?

Marijuana’s legalization is like the old frog in the kettle effect. It all starts with just a simmering of “recreational marijuana is no big thing,” “it will bring in tax revenue,” “take marijuana off the black market” or “medicinal marijuana helps many like seizure victims.” But it ends and boils with high-potency THC being vaped by teens and THC-laced brownies and chocolate-chip cookies being eaten accidentally by small children and tweens across the country. That’s a much, much bigger societal and familial problem here than proper labeling and education alone can provide a solution for.

You’ve heard the old saying, “Be careful what you ask for because you might get it.” I think it applies here.

It reminds me of a verse in the Bible that states, “Everything is permissible, but not all things are beneficial.” It’s true. (Read the article by Andy Crouch, “You’re Free to Toke up. But Don’t.”)

America, it might be high time – literally – to reconsider the power that Mary Jane plays in your family, community, workplace and other social circles. Indeed, I would encourage all my readers to share this column on their social media to warn and educate your friends and loved ones about this important issue.

For more information, I highly encourage everyone to RSVP for the LIVE-streamed event on Thurs., April 18, from 12:00-1:00PM: “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence,” co-hosted by the Institute for Behavior & Health and SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). I also encourage those with children and grandchildren to read other free expert materials like the Children’s Hospital Colorado’s “How to talk to your kids about marijuana.” The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse also has more about marijuana and addiction.