Would you have voted in favor of having the COVID-19 pandemic? Of course not, but doctors say Missouri voters may bring on the next big public health crisis if they elect to approve recreational marijuana on Nov. 8.
Medical experts tell The Heartlander that legal pot will lead to rampant addiction (especially in adolescents), crippled emergency room budgets, fetal harm, psychotic events, increased crime and violence, more dangerous roads, increased teen suicides, and perversely a more robust market for illegal weed.
“Voters really need to understand what they’re getting themselves into,” warns Dr. Kenneth Finn, an internationally recognized expert in both pain and cannabis in Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.
“They need to be aware that they’re signing off on huge health risks [and] criminal risks,” says Dr. Eric Voth of Topeka, president and chairman of the board of the International Academy on the Science and Impact of Cannabis. “And it’s just a matter of time before they see an acceleration of use that’s going to end up costing society far more than they think they’ll get back with tax revenues, etc.”
“Look at the history of states that have adopted this,” adds Dr. John C. Hagan, III, editor of Missouri Medicine Medical Journal and contributing editor to Kansas City Medicine. “If you do it objectively you would have to wonder, why is anyone continuing to do this? It’s like beating yourself on the head and not stopping. …
“And then we take a retrospective look and everybody’s saying, ‘Well, why didn’t the doctors tell us? Why didn’t people know?’ Ten years from now, maybe less, everybody’s gonna be wondering, ‘How did we let this happen?’
“It will be the next healthcare catastrophe.”
This is not conjecture, the doctors say, pointing to hard-earned experience with legal marijuana in states such as Colorado and California.
“Huge illegal grows, violence, worker exploitation and deaths,” blares a Los Angeles Times headline over a lengthy article chronicling legal pot’s devastating impact on the Golden State.
Despite voters approving them back in 2016, The Times reports that last year legal sales accounted for just 30% of the marijuana market in California.
Meanwhile, cartels and others emboldened by decriminalization have brazenly set up unlicensed – and often menacing – black-market marijuana-growing operations on thousands of acres of public lands, and even private property, sometimes without the owners’ knowledge or authority.
“Residents in these places describe living in fear next to heavily armed camps,” The Times reports. “Criminal enterprises operate with near impunity, leasing private land and rapidly building out complexes of as many as 100 greenhouses. Police are overwhelmed, able to raid only a fraction of the farms, and even those are often back in business in days. …
“Labor exploitation is common, and conditions are sometimes lethal. The Times documented more than a dozen deaths of growers and workers poisoned by carbon monoxide.”
Even more alarming are the public health and safety effects from the growing usage of increasingly more concentrated cannabis products.
Experts and news reports cite links between high-potency cannabis products and psychotic episodes and even mass shootings. In Colorado, a man named Richard Kirk shot his wife in front of their three sons in 2014 after allegedly consuming marijuana-infused candy. Before she was killed, Kristine Kirk told a 911 operator her husband was “hallucinating [and] ranting about the end of the world,” the Denver Post reported.
With the father now serving 30 years in prison, the Kirkses’ sons have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the recreational marijuana industry claiming “the company that made the orange ginger candy and the store that sold it failed to warn Kirk of its potency and possible side-effects of hallucinations and other psychotic behaviors,” The Post writes.
European data show that users have a five-fold increased risk of a first-episode psychosis if their cannabis product is more than 10% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Finn says, warning that most THC levels today are actually much higher than that.
In addition, he says, “You will see an increase in little children getting ahold of product, and end up with poison control calls going up and hospitalizations going up.”
Addiction rates are up, but especially among adolescents and with tragic consequences, Finn notes: “Marijuana is now the most prevalent substance found in completed teen suicide in Colorado, which never used to be the case.”
As for unborn babies, Finn says 70% of marijuana dispensaries in Colorado recommend women use it during the first trimester, apparently for nausea or pain – even though the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology cautioned against women using it during pregnancy.
Moreover, the National Institutes of Health warns that, “Prenatal cannabis exposure following the middle of the first trimester – generally after five to six weeks of fetal development – is associated with attention, social, and behavioral problems that persist as the affected children progress into early adolescence (11 and 12 years of age) …
“These conditions may put these children at a greater risk of mental health disorders and substance use in late adolescence, when youth are typically most vulnerable to these disorders and behaviors.”
Nor are dispensaries manned by doctors, Finn warns.
“There’s no medical training or requirements for the person behind the counter. The only requirements are you need to be 21 years of age and have experience with marijuana and a pulse. You don’t have to have any medical training or background – and they’re making recommendations to women.”
The products themselves may not be safe, either, Finn says.
“The integrity of these products is in question, and there’s plenty of data showing that they are poorly regulated [and] frequently contaminated with products that are dangerous; you’re talking about cancer-causing agents found in these things, heavy metals.”
Then, he says, there’s the potential for “lab directors purposely faking test results, so testing is unreliable and products may not be safe for human consumption.”
With older users there is an enhanced risk of drug interaction problems. And, Finn says, “You’re going to recommend to a person that may already have problems with cognition, memory and balance a substance that’s going to impair cognition, memory and balance.”
Finn said ideally a vote on legalization such as Missouri’s would come only after “a massive public health campaign” explaining the risks and consequences. Voth agreed, but lamented it hasn’t come.
“No, it really hasn’t,” Voth said, “and it seems to me that a lot of the pro-marijuana forces have managed to choke off the discussion and shut down the education of the public.”
“Well, the media completely ignores it,” Finn adds. “There’s a laundry list of medical societies and organizations that have come out and said we don’t support this because of its impact on health, but for some reason the media mob tends to just dismiss it and sweep it under the rug. And then they glorify and glamorize an industry that is causing harm.
“Didn’t we learn our lessons with opioids and tobacco and alcohol? Why are we going down this road? I just don’t understand the rationale.”
The arc of acceptability
Hagan, too, notes the bizarre arc of acceptability and even advocacy that tobacco and opioids, in particular, took over the decades – and which marijuana is now enjoying. Indeed, at first, armed with “research” from tobacco companies, doctors even recommended smoking.
“And then some physicians and some researchers connected the dots between smokers and cancer and lung disease and premature death with heart attacks,” Hagan said. “And when they tried to speak, they had a very small megaphone compared to Big Tobacco.
“And then after a while it became so evident that tobacco was causing disease that everybody wondered why doctors didn’t recognize this before. And then, of course, the next step that happened was the trial lawyers stepped in and got billions from the tobacco industry.”
Voth says he’d like to see an acceleration of that arc when it comes to marijuana – and bring lawsuits forward sooner in the process.
“One of the things I’m really starting to investigate is malpractice suits against physicians that recommend marijuana but don’t do any of the standard-of-care types of protections for patients,” Voth says. “And those people are going to have psychotic episodes. They’re going to have criminal behavior.
“I think you need to pin the tail on the donkey and say, ‘Wait a minute, doctors. You’re prescribing it. Lawmakers, you’re allowing this.’ And really go after causation, go after the industry. Until we do, we’re just gonna see more trouble.”
They all see a bad moon rising, particularly if recreational marijuana is legalized in Missouri.
“It’s just concerning that we have this public health problem that’s not coming, it’s already here,” Finn says. “And I think it’s going to be just as bad, if not worse, than the other substances that have created health care problems: tobacco, alcohol and opioids.”
This is the first of a two-part series about Missouri’s Nov. 8 vote on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. Part II will be on the politics of legal weed.