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Politicians must recognize Americans’ changing perceptions of marijuana

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An unexpected consequence of both the coronavirus pandemic and the movement for much-needed criminal justice reform has been the spotlight they have put on the nation’s evolving — and often contentious — marijuana policy. 

Marijuana consumption has spiked during the COVID-19 lockdown, leading to heated debate over whether dispensaries should be deemed “essential services.” 

Meanwhile, as protests continue demanding police reforms, many are using marijuana decriminalization/legalization as a way to promote racial justice in communities of color — which have suffered disproportionately high incarceration rates as a result of the war on drugs.

Marijuana’s increasingly prominent role in American society, and therefore in shaping public policy, raises important questions concerning what Americans really think about cannabis — and in line with these shifting perceptions, how we should move forward as a nation with legalization and commercialization.   

The pro-cannabis lobby rightly points to polls that show Americans overwhelmingly favor the legalization of adult-use marijuana. While that support remains strong, more-nuanced opinions are also emerging about both the potential risks and dangers such legislation poses— and how we need to monitor and regulate marijuana products.

For example, just over half of the respondents in the 2020 Rosenthal Cannabis Study believe today’s more-powerful marijuana — including edibles, and other intensely concentrated forms of the drug-containing high levels of THC — are potentially harmful, especially to adolescents. Furthermore, 60 percent are certain or at least somewhat sure cannabis is addictive, and 6 in 10 are concerned about its effects on pregnant women.

The study, conducted by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Rosenthal Center for Addiction Studies, also found that nearly half of those surveyed favor pausing legalization until more research is done to determine the long-term effects of use.

These findings are not only surprising, but they also dovetail with a growing number of clinical studies that detail the downsides of marijuana use, and the consequences of legalization.

These include the negative impact on adolescent cognitive abilities and fetal development and the difficulties of withdrawal for those diagnosed with cannabis use disorder. In addition, a recent report by the University of Michigan Injury Prevention Center, which analyzed data from nearly 14 years of legal medical marijuana in the state, reported an increase in cannabis-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits — as well as a tripling of fatal car crashes in which the driver was under the influence of marijuana.

It was no surprise then that our survey found two-thirds of Americans support curbs on the commercialization of marijuana, and 78 percent want to see warning labels (similar to those on alcohol and tobacco) on pot products. 

Respondents also favor local-level control, with more than 40 percent saying communities should have the right to opt-out of allowing medical and recreational cannabis in their neighborhoods. And around 80 percent endorse mandating marijuana dispensaries be located at least 1,000 feet away from schools, parks, and playgrounds.

Given these growing doubts and fears, the most reasonable approach therefore would be to pause the legalization process in order to better assess both the risks and potential benefits of marijuana. 

And as legalization invariably moves ahead — in one form or another — we must make sure there are proper rules in place — based on facts — to regulate the marijuana market and access to it. 

It would be simplistic to regard marijuana legalization as a cure-all for a number of the nation’s problems. For example, reforming the criminal justice system and helping cash-strapped states raise tax revenues in the post-pandemic period are, of course, worthy goals. 

But they should not come at the expense of safeguarding public health and well-being. 

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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