By Kelly Dame, Published: November 19, 2014 at 2:15 PM

Pitfalls of Pot Legalization Discussed at Midland Meeting

Marijuana is poised to be the next big money maker, marketed the same way cigarettes were decades ago, a former drug policy advisor to multiple presidential administrations told Midlanders Tuesday night.

Kevin Sabet, PhD, was at the H Hotel for the town hall meeting, hosted by the Community Alliance 4 Youth Success. He has 18 years of experience researching and writing about drug policy, markets, prevention, treatment, criminal justice policy, addiction and public policy analysis, and served as drug policy advisor to the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

“My big concern is this: We are creating the next tobacco industry,” Sabet said, highlighting the bigger worry isn’t if people should go to jail for using small amounts, but the legalization and sale of an addictive drug.

“A lot of people think this is a benign drug,” and it’s hard for people to talk about it. Something that’s not always understood is today’s marijuana is much more potent than what existed in the past, due to genetic modification. “Today’s marijuana is not the marijuana of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, even the ’90s,” he said.

Potency has gone from 1 to 3 percent THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — to 12 percent. Concentrations are as high as 50 to 90 percent THC.

“This isn’t your Woodstock weed out there,” Sabet said.

He also pointed out as the perceived risk of pot lowers, the use rate climbs.

“To your brain, addiction is addiction is addiction … Your brain just knows that it wants more,” Sabet said, adding the drug increases the level of happiness in an unnatural way. Drugs hijack the brain when it is learning what it likes, which is why it’s tougher to stop something when it’s started at a young age. It’s known the adolescent brain is not like the adult brain, and does not mature until 25 to 30 years of age.

He cited studies showing 9 percent of adults may become dependent, one in six adolescent users becomes dependent, and 25 to 50 percent of daily users are dependent on marijuana. There also are studies showing users can exhibit withdrawal symptoms from the drug.

“This is a pediatric onset disease … talking about the habitual use that starts young,” he said, pointing to students who show long-term life consequences including lower median income, lower chance of a university degree and lower intelligence. Why add these hurdles to one of the worst times in the nation’s history to find a job or maintain a stable family? Sabet asked.

One study on IQ, in which subjects were followed for 20 years, found those who smoked pot regularly as youngsters lost 6 to 8 IQ points. For a genius with a 150 IQ, a 6 to 8 point loss isn’t the end of the world, but for a person with the average IQ of 100, it’s a problem, Sabet said.

Add to that studies that show all brains are not created equal.

Cannabis is associated with psychosis, and a Swedish study concluded the more marijuana a person uses, the more likely they are to suffer from schizophrenia. Sabet said scientists have isolated the genotype of those most at risk of schizophrenia, and those with the genetic predisposition are 7 percent more likely to suffer from schizophrenia if they smoked marijuana as adolescents.

As far as the medical properties of marijuana go, Sabet took a common sense approach by asking if we take aspirin or chew on willow bark, which is the substance aspirin is derived from. “We don’t choose to do that,” he said, because we want a reliable dosage, free of pesticides. We also don’t smoke opium to get the benefits of morphine. Research on marijuana’s medical benefits continues.

The recent drive to legalize is about one thing, he said — making money as part of a new industry.

The drive paints marijuana in a similar light to early marketing of cigarettes — it’s well funded, and uses the same strategy of positioning an addictive substance as having medical benefits. It also is aimed at youth, with products like THC-laced gummy bears and other candies, building lifelong customers.

Marijuana is projected to be a $10 billion industry in four years, Sabet said.

Questions ranged the gamut from how best to counter the move to legalize, to if there are U.S. studies on marijuana and how to detect marijuana use in a time with edibles and vapor.

Sabet said collecting information on studies and talking about it is the best, grass roots way to combat the legalization push, and that 89 percent of the world’s medical research is undertaken in the United States.

Using marijuana in an electronic cigarette won’t produce any smell, but a drug test will reveal the drug, which stays in most people’s systems for five to seven days, Sabet said.

Sabet and others have founded an organization called SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, to work on policy. For more information, go to learnaboutsam.org