Legal commercial pot will lead to more teen use – VT Pediatrician

Jill Rinehart, a practicing Vermont pediatrician for over 20 years currently with the University of Vermont Primary Care Pediatrics practice, is an associate professor of pediatrics for the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont and  immediate past president of the Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

As Vermont lawmakers again consider whether to advance legislation to create a legal market for the sale of non-medical marijuana, I want us all to first consider Vermont’s youth. 

Dr. Jill Rinehart

As policymakers, parents and citizens, we can all agree that children should be protected from cannabis use and the legislation is not advocating that we give our youth marijuana. But how do we protect our children when the success of the marijuana industry depends on creating life-long users — and doing so relies on an adolescent marijuana market? Taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook, the cannabis industry knows that today’s youth are the chronic daily marijuana users of tomorrow. In states where commercialized marijuana exists, 80% of the marijuana consumption is by 20% of the users. Chronic daily use and addiction are crucial to building a profitable business.

While our attention is necessarily captured by this global pandemic, we are also in the midst of an e-cigarette/vaping epidemic among Vermont’s youth. We have seen firsthand how targeting young people with appealing flavors, colorful packaging and sleek technology makes for “good business” and capital gains. Additionally, legalization of cannabis has not eliminated black market activity, as once promised by advocates for commercialization. Instead, in states where commercialization has occurred, tax revenue from legalized marijuana sales has been limited by the black market that simply responds to additional taxes by lowering their street prices. 

As a pediatrician, I would like to remind us all that marijuana is not a benign, harmless drug. We should be very concerned about increased marijuana use by our adolescents and population as a whole and here is why.  

Use of marijuana in adolescence is linked to poor school performance and increased high school dropout rates. Chronic use has been linked to IQ declines that do not recover with cessation, and an increased risk for later psychotic disorder in adulthood, worse job prospects, problems with memory and problem-solving and attention. Weekly use doubles the risk of developing anxiety and depression later in life. And increased cannabis use is associated with opioid misuse, heavy alcohol use, and depression.

In America today, 10% of adolescents experience depression, and when you look at those who have used marijuana in the past 30 days depression levels jump to 21%. 

Most recent data from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) indicates that nationwide, young adults age 18-25 have increasing rates of serious mental illness, major depression, and suicidality. This is also the age group with the largest rate of growth in marijuana use with 38% of 18-25 year olds in Vermont reporting they have used marijuana in the past 30 days. 

Unfortunately, this means that marijuana propaganda is working, and young people are growing into adult chronic users. Already more people in Vermont seek substance abuse counselling and treatment for marijuana addiction/misuse than all other illicit substances combined. The mental health of our citizens is suffering. 

Now is certainly not the time to burden our health care system and citizenry further. Our global community is reeling from this pandemic and our state is in a heated battle to keep levels of Covid-19 low.  

Commercialization of marijuana gives our youth the wrong message — that marijuana as legal, must be safe. When youth believe the risk of harm from a substance is less, their use of that substance increases.

Our mighty little state has done well to protect our citizens and our youth from COVID-19, let’s not squander these gains by adding to the enormous health burden that marijuana would place on our community’s health, our health care system and most importantly our children.