Going to Pot: Legalization is one Thing; Commercialization is Another

December 11th, 2019 | Viewpoint


When it comes to commercial cannabis, competing narratives abound. Depending on the source, from for-profit industry champions to public health experts, the information and anecdotes that we hear shape our perceptions. Yet in spite of the abundance of information, none of us have all the facts about how it will affect our families and communities.

Legalization and commercialization are not the same thing, although they are so often equated. We can decriminalize the possession of drugs and not send people to jail without necessarily permitting retail stores to open and begin marketing and selling mind-altering drugs. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker about how much we don’t know about cannabis, questioning the establishment of new commercial cannabis markets in states. His article’s tagline distilled the debate of cannabis commercialization into a helpful, defining statement: permitting pot is one thing; promoting it is another.

Considering what we have learned about alcohol and nicotine—the strategy of the industry to get customers socially and physically dependent on their products, the millions of dollars of lobbying and advocacy to protect the public from the associated harms, the cost to human life, the compromised health, and the bill for cleaning up the negative fallout delivered to the taxpayers—why introduce a product that is almost a hybrid of the two? Marijuana and alcohol have similar impacts on unsafe driving and similar substance use disorder rates (9%). Also comparable to alcohol, rates of cannabis dependence rise when considering the quantity and frequency of use. Specifically, the percentage of marijuana users developing dependence jumps from 9% to 25–50% for those who use daily[2]. Also, given that commercial cannabis growers want a loyal customer, they have been engineering their product for higher THC levels, the component upon which the brain becomes dependent[3].

Despite these data, most people are not hearing about the downside of cannabis. I recently watched a new 40-minute episode of a tame, family Netflix series during which there were three different scenes involving cannabis smoking by five different characters. This type of media and marketing, perfected by the alcohol and tobacco industries, shows healthy and wealthy people in nice clothes and magazine-cover homes using their products without consequences related to cost, responsibilities, or health. How close to reality is this image?

Back to some facts: Colorado’s 2017 Market Update report on cannabis had a very colorful infographic showing that in Colorado in 2017, 301.7 tons of marijuana flower and flower equivalents were sold Using the ratio of 300 milligrams of THC per the average joint (mentioned in the report), converting tons to milligrams and dividing by 300, that equals 912 million joints, or an average of 711 joints a year for every Coloradan 18 years and older.

None of us has all of the facts. But we all have intuition. Mine says that commercial cannabis will do more harm than good. Given that, I continue to do the best prevention I know with the children and young people in my sphere of influence.

In the long run, however, if the decisions of lawmakers result in a for-profit industry for a mind-altering drug, I’m pretty sure the increase in access to cannabis will lead to changes in the fabric of our communities. A case in point: in a recent Google search for scientific information about cannabis, I landed at a recognizable research organization’s link only after I passed cannabismaven.com, weedcity.com, wikileaf, grasscity.com, the leafnews.com, ilovegrowingmarijuana.com, royalqueenseed.com, weednews.com. The internet appears to mirror the bricks and mortar ubiquity in states like Colorado, where there are more cannabis dispensaries than McDonalds, Starbucks, and 7-Elevens combined.

This explosion of a commercial industry and its aggressive marketing and engineered products will distort even the best data, eclipse reliable narratives, nullify effective prevention, and suppress the strongest of intuitions. And it will be years before we realize just how much we have lost.

Written by Lisa Mure

Partner with Us

We strive to build lasting relationships to produce better health outcomes for all.