Physician perspective: Advance public health in Connecticut through the legalization and regulation of cannabis

This year, Connecticut has the opportunity to join the 15 states that have replaced the failed policy of cannabis prohibition with sensible and effective regulation. Now that the bill has advanced from the Judiciary Committee, we urge the Finance Committee to support Senate Bill 888, “An Act Responsibly and Equitably Regulating Adult-use Cannabis” and send it to the General Assembly floor for immediate consideration.

Doctors for Cannabis Regulation is a national organization of physicians — including a former surgeon general — who recognize that legalization combined with effective regulation will do more to protect both cannabis consumers and the public than prohibition ever has. While the mission may surprise some, medical ethics requires physicians to “First, do no harm.” Criminalizing cannabis hurts people in many ways, while sensible regulation protects them.

The most obvious harm done by prohibition is depriving individuals of their liberty to use a substance that is far safer for adults than alcohol and tobacco. Those two drugs still account for more than half a million deaths a year in the U.S., while most large studies do not show an increase in mortality associated with marijuana use. Prohibition has also stymied research into the medical uses of cannabis and has made it difficult and expensive for those with legitimate medical reasons to gain access to it. Finally, while some claim that decriminalizing cannabis possession goes far enough, as long as there is a demand, there will be supply, and under decriminalization, individuals who sell cannabis continue to be torn from their lives and families, with minorities being disproportionately prosecuted and imprisoned.

Legalization, by going beyond decriminalization, empowers regulators to implement common sense measures to control the cannabis industry, educate the public and consumers about possible risks, and thus advance public health. Regulation ensures cannabis products are tested for safety before they reach the hands of consumers. It also allows regulators to mandate warnings about the health risks of cannabis.

Regulation is also Connecticut’s best option to address crises like the wave of vaping-related illnesses and fatalities that have swept across the country. Most or all of the products associated with these illnesses were obtained from illicit and unregulated sources. CannaSafe, a government accredited laboratory, tested illegal and legal products being sold in California. All of the illicit vape cartridges contained a banned pesticide that can convert to cyanide when heated, and 13 of 15 illegal vapes contained the vitamin E compound that the CDC identified as the likely culprit in the recent outbreak of vaping-related illnesses. Neither these nor any dangerous heavy metals were present in any of the legal products that CannaSafe tested. This points to the need for regulation of cannabis products, both at the federal and state levels. With prohibition, regulation and control are impossible.

As cannabis legalization has increased product safety and dramatically reduced the number of arrests and searches, the worst fears of opponents have not materialized. For example, a common yet misinformed concern is that legalizing cannabis will increase teens’ cannabis use. That is not the case. Study after study has shown that legalization has not increased teen consumption, and a recent report from the Journal of the American Medical Association that analyzed federal data from more than 1.4 million high school students found that cannabis legalization is actually associated with a decline in teenagers’ cannabis use.

Legalization is not a panacea. The illicit market may persist in legalized states. It can take a few years to fully transition adult consumers to a legal, regulated market. Slow licensing and “dry” cities and counties can make that transition slower or less complete, as has been the case in California. In addition, as long as the vast majority of the country prohibits cannabis, demand from prohibited states will continue to fuel illicit production.

After eight decades of prohibition, there is no doubt: the criminalization of cannabis has simply not stopped people from using it, except, ironically, many of those who could benefit from it medically. It’s time to take our heads out of the sand and implement thoughtful regulation with provisions to foster a diverse, equitable industry. Ask your lawmakers to support Senate Bill 888, “An Act Responsibly and Equitably Regulating Adult-use Cannabis.” We must reduce harm to cannabis consumers and prevent collateral harm to the public.

The longer we wait, the more senseless damage will be done.

Hugh Blumenfeld, MD, Ph.D.  has worked as a family physician in Hartford since 2010. He is also a member of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana and a spokesman for Doctors for Cannabis RegulationDavid L. Nathan, MD, DFAPA, a psychiatrist in Princeton, is the founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, a national organization of physicians dedicated to the legalization and regulation of cannabis in the United States.

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