To ensure public health and safety, impose a two-year moratorium on marijuana legalization (The Hill)

To ensure public health and safety, impose a two-year moratorium on marijuana legalization (The Hill)

To ensure public health and safety, impose a two-year moratorium on marijuana legalization

Marijuana legalization is gaining momentum across the country, backed by supportive public opinion, politicians, Wall Street investors and the increasingly influential for–profit cannabis industry. By 2025, the legal U.S. marijuana market could be a roughly $50 billion business as a cornucopia of cannabis-based products become easily available in shops and online.

But in the rush to legalize marijuana, we are not taking adequate precautions and lack comprehensive and conclusive scientific evidence about what the impact might be. In today’s largely unregulated environment, for example, marijuana marketers can seemingly tout the purported benefits of pot to relieve anxiety and aches and pains and even treat Alzheimer’s disease, without any oversight, regulation or recourse for disappointed users.ADVERTISEMENT

Consumers would be better served if we first implement a two-year moratorium on further legalization to ascertain the potential risks and possible benefits of marijuana. Under the current haphazard laws and rules adopted by states that have legalized, we are simply not able to ensure public health and safety as marijuana becomes mainstream.

Pausing the runaway train of legalization would provide the opportunity to study the impact so far on health and social behavior in legalized states, as well as in Canada, which legalized last year. We would want a definitive understanding of the effect pot has on everything from driving impairment to workplace performance and learning development in young people.

It would be critical to examine the shifting consumption patterns and toxicity of today’s highly potent cannabis edibles and leaf. Researchers could explore the relationship between marijuana and vulnerable population groups including adolescents and their susceptibility to Juul-like products and sales pitches.

Seniors, for their part, would be better informed about whether a cannabis-based ointment does in fact relieve arthritic joint pain. While there are promising outcomes from some marijuana studies, conclusive evidence has been elusive.

As a psychiatrist who has treated substance abusers for decades, I understand that calling for a legalization slowdown might suggest a return to the fear-filled Reefer Madness past. But it is more about being responsible, especially as many clinical studies indicate that pot is not as benign as many would like to believe and can be addictive as well as potentially harmful to the developing teenage brain.

Clearly, the same sensible precautions required of any new drug or food product should also apply to marijuana. Warning labels, dosage recommendations and information about possible side effects, interactions and potency levels are critical for consumer safety, along with education programs and outreach.

That way parents will have a better idea of what to do if their teenager pops a gummy laced with THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana and has a bad reaction. Or perhaps they would be able to recognize the signs of substance abuse and prevent that from happening in the first place.

Today, legalization is racing ahead of regulation and the rules and messages are confusing. In California, luxury retailer Barneys is opening a high-end pot boutique in its Beverly Hills branch selling cannabis and swanky accessories; but in New York City the health department recently raided a Brooklyn coffee shop and confiscated chocolate chunk cookies infused with CBD, the now hip cannabis derivative. CBD is showing up in food, beverages and cosmetics but nobody is quite sure what it actually does.  

To safeguard public health, we need clarity and consistent guidelines on a federal level for the legalization and commercialization of marijuana. Questions abound about the appropriate age of consumption, where cannabis should be located — hopefully not near schools and parks and playgrounds — and whether marijuana is an effective treatment for opioid addiction, as many claim.

A two-year moratorium on marijuana legalization would enable us to answer many of these questions and lead to practical and enforceable guidelines based on scientific evidence, not the hyped claims of pot marketers.  Consumers — especially parents — have the right and the need to know.

Mitchell S. Rosenthal is a psychiatrist who founded Phoenix House, the national substance abuse treatment organization and is now president of The Rosenthal Center for Addiction Studies in New York City.

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