Luke Albee: Slow down on commercializing pot

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Luke Albee, who worked for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for 20 years and was his chief of staff from 1993-2004. He consults with a non-profit organization called SAM – Smart Approaches to Marijuana. 

In Washington, facts have fallen on hard times. Much to my chagrin, “alternative” facts have been used to estimate inaugural crowd size, debunk climate change, and exonerate the guilty.

Vermont is now having a debate about whether to commercialize marijuana. And in this debate, all of us fact devotees should wipe our collective windshields and see clearly what is going on behind the scenes.  

When Surgeon General Jerome Adams reminded us that today’s high potency marijuana is not “your parents’ marijuana,” it brought me back to our family’s 10-acre Potemkin farm in South Burlington 45 years ago. 

In those days, our chickens roamed without realizing they were “free range,” our sheep were four-legged lawn mowers, and out back on our untilled compost pile, a handful of marijuana beanstalks were growing up to the sky.

Growing marijuana, as several of my family members did, appeared to require all the horticultural dexterity of growing zucchini. 

Pot in those days, including the stuff that wafted through my UVM dorm room while the Allman Brothers played, was roughly 2-3% THC. 

But that was then. 

Now, as the Vermont Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott are considering whether to legalize commercialized marijuana, we need to understand today is far different. We now have a marijuana industrial complex, backed by billions of dollars from the tobacco and alcohol industries. Big banks and hedge funds are lining up to get in the game. The chief investment marketer is former House Speaker John Boehner. 

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The target is our children, both in Vermont and around the country. The real money makers these days are the 60% THC edibles: gummy bears, ice creams, sodas, and cookies; and the 99% THC concentrates: waxes, shatters, and dabs being cooked up in labs.

If these are new facts to you, please look them up yourself.

These products are marketed in kid-friendly ways, with colorful packaging and made to resemble popular treats. The industry wants young people to use their products because they know that research has shown that the younger a person is when they begin using marijuana, the more likely they are to develop an addiction to it. The data proves this, as states with legal marijuana markets have higher rates of marijuana addiction than those without.

While the industry is actively marketing its potent products to young people, it is also pushing harmful “medical advice” on pregnant mothers.

In 2017, a study found 70% of marijuana shops in Colorado were recommending marijuana products to “treat” symptoms of morning sickness. The industry-led normalization of marijuana has resulted in a 75% increase in marijuana use during pregnancy across the country.

The rise in youth marijuana use and use during pregnancy warranted Surgeon General Adams to issue a warning that today’s marijuana products are dangerous and called attention to the growing body of scientific evidence showing regular use increases the risk of psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, suicide, lower IQ, and other disorders.

The industry also frequently targets disadvantaged communities as its profit centers. In Los Angeles, the majority of pot shops have opened in primarily African American communities and in Colorado, where pot shops outnumber McDonalds and Starbucks locations combined, they are disproportionately located in similar areas.

In Vermont, don’t expect a lot of pot shops in Shelburne, Woodstock and Norwich.

Addiction is causing mass devastation in our country. And the peddlers of addiction are wasting no time in cashing in on pot. Altria, a Big Tobacco giant, recently invested billions into a marijuana growing company. Constellation Brands, the country’s largest beer importer, invested $5 billion into Canopy Growth, a Canadian marijuana company with aims to create marijuana-infused drinks. Furthermore, the former CEO of Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for the deceptive marketing of OxyContin, recently went on to head up a marijuana company in Canada.

One little test for those pushing for commercialization in Vermont: Ask supporters if they would consider a potency limit on the products sold in Vermont stores. The answer, after some shoe shuffling and headshaking, will be a resounding and emphatic no. Because potency leads to addiction. And addiction leads to profit.

As Bob Dole used to say: “Something besides good government is going on here.”

The New Mexico legislature last week had the courage to reject commercialization despite massive spending by the marijuana industrial complex. The Vermont Legislature should follow suit and see commercialization efforts for what they are: addiction-for-profit companies looking for the next big payday.

Keep growing your plants in the zucchini patch. If you start your seeds indoors, pipe in music from the Allman Brothers, Pure Prairie League, and the Dead. But let the “millionaires and billionaires” take their addiction money elsewhere.


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