If kids are vaping (they are), and the vapes include marijuana (they often do), inconsistencies in the public discourse about the impact of legalization and our collective response to the vaping crisis must end (“Vaping reignites fight over legal pot,” front page, Oct. 31).
We know that, before the recent outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses, cannabis vapes had exploded in popularity in states where marijuana is legal. According to New Frontier Data, vaping products grew from a small fraction of overall sales in the legal cannabis market to about one-third between 2017 and 2019.
After public reports of at least two vaping-related illnesses, including one death, following purchases from “regulated” dispensaries, the Centers for Disease Control issued a national advisory against vaping any marijuana — regardless of whether it has been obtained from an illicit market or through a state-regulated dispensary.
It is important to dispel this industry-propagated notion that marijuana is benign. For a significant minority of the population, it causes far-reaching problems. Every year, across the country and in our home state of Minnesota, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation treats well over 1,000 people for cannabis use disorder, which is often accompanied by other substance use and mental health diagnoses, requiring that patients begin their road to recovery at the highest level of residential care. Of those, we see about 25 young patients annually whose disease has become so severe they come to us in a state of active psychosis. If 25 is an unimpressive number, consider that in 2018, almost 90% of those ages 12 to 26 in our national program for young people identified marijuana use in the constellation of problems that led them to seek help.
And a growing percentage of those adolescents and young adults now ingest the drug through vapes.
Addiction is not all that should concern Minnesotans about growing misperceptions regarding marijuana’s safety. Our prevention specialists have surveyed more than 100,000 students in grades 6-12 about substance use beliefs and norms. According to these surveys, students who used marijuana in the last year — when compared with those who hadn’t — were five times more likely to have trouble concentrating on important tasks, more likely to ride with an impaired driver than students who reported using alcohol and two to three times more likely to engage in other risky behaviors.
Marijuana legalization would bring broader societal costs to Minnesota as well, with potentially more significant negative consequences on historically disadvantaged communities. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation has long supported sensible criminal justice reforms that reduce disparities and promote recovery and redemption for people who suffer from substance use disorders. However, legalization itself is not a solution for people with substance use disorders. Just as we have seen a saturation of liquor stores and vaping and tobacco shops in low-income neighborhoods in Minnesota — stemming from the predatory corporate practices of the alcohol and big tobacco industries — so have states like Colorado seen overconcentration of marijuana dispensaries selling marijuana vapes and other products in those same communities. The promise made — that legalization would reduce disparities in the criminal justice system — has failed to materialize.
While our nation’s smartest public health officials continue to research the outbreak of marijuana-related vaping illnesses throughout our country, one thing is clear: It is imperative that we, for the health of our own state, support experts in first researching and understanding, and then advising public policymakers, rather than rush to legalize amid the abundance of risk.
Mark Mishek is the president and CEO of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.