North Carolina’s SB 711–NC Compassionate Care Act, would legalize marijuana for “medical” use. This bill currently resides in the Senate Rules Committee, having already passed the Senate Judiciary, Finance, and Health Care Committees. The potential impacts of this bill are enormous and wide-spread.
To explore this hot-button issue, we welcome Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, to this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast. Smart Approaches to Marijuana focuses on a “health-first” approach to marijuana policy in an industry where important health and medical information is becoming less and less valued.
Marijuana policy is “a public health issue,” says Niforatos, “and we need to listen to our scientists and doctors and medical professionals when it comes to policy on marijuana.” What these scientists and doctors—including the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics—are saying is that marijuana is a “harmful, addictive drug.”
A few facts Niforatos shares to highlight the dangers of marijuana legalization are:
What many people don’t realize about marijuana is that a multi-billion-dollar industry has formed around its production, just like with Big Tobacco in the 20th century, and this industry has bred and corrupted the plant to be much more potent and addictive. “It’s called addiction for profit,” says Niforatos. “They derive their money from addiction.”
Another important point Niforatos stresses is that there is no difference between medical and recreational marijuana, and that using the term “medical” is misleading. Many people hear “medical” and think that there must be clinical trials and regulation by scientists. “There are no scientists reviewing this drug,” he explains. “There’s no FDA testing to ensure that it’s correct. […] It works unlike any medication we have in the history of this country. What this really is about is giving the industry a foothold in your state,” so that sometime soon, they can push to legalize marijuana recreationally.
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Luke Niforatos explain just how dangerous and predatory the marijuana industry is, and why North Carolinians should fight against any form of legalization of this drug.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. An issue that’s been making progress in the North Carolina General Assembly this term is the legalization of marijuana in our state. Although tailored to medical uses alone, SB 711—entitled NC Compassionate Care Act—would be North Carolina’s first foray into legalizing marijuana and would establish a supply chain for it. What are the potential impacts?
Well, here to help us explore this issue is Luke Niforatos, executive vice president at Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an alliance of organizations and individuals dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy.
Luke, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
LUKE NIFORATOS: Thank you so much for having me on.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, what does it mean when you say you advocate for a health-first approach to marijuana policy?
LUKE NIFORATOS: So our organization is the nation’s leading national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working on the marijuana issue. From our perspective, we see this as a public health issue, not a profit or revenue issue. It’s a public health issue, and we need to listen to our scientists and doctors and medical professionals when it comes to policy on marijuana. So what the American Medical Association will tell you, and what the American Academy of Pediatrics will tell you, and all the major medical associations will tell you is that marijuana is a harmful, addictive drug that needs to be treated for what it is, which is it is something harmful to be discouraged like any other drug out there. So for a health-first approach, we need to not allow an industry to form around it. And that’s what happens when you legalize marijuana, Traci, is you get a whole new industry now backed by Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol, pouring billions of dollars into that industry. That totally changes the drug, which I can talk about a little bit more later, but it makes it much more addictive and really starts to inflict a lot of harm on public health. So we want to do things to protect the public health, not hurt the public health. And so that’s why we see this approach as being, “Look, don’t legalize it.” We can decriminalize maybe low-level possession of it, so people don’t go to jail for having a joint in their pocket, but let’s not allow the production and sales of this drug.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Wow, you’ve touched on a really important point that I think a lot of people don’t really understand is Big Tobacco or big corporations that are behind this push. And that’s not the way they promote this, is it?
LUKE NIFORATOS: No, not at all. You just look at the history of tobacco: 5,000 years ago, people were smoking tobacco, but they weren’t developing all kinds of cancer from it. We weren’t seeing millions of people across the world dying from it. But about a hundred years ago, we had the invention of the cigarette, the first ever big tobacco industry, the global supply chain, and they adulterated the tobacco plant. They added ammonia and nicotine and other things into the cigarettes and they got people addicted, hooked, and all kinds of cancers and other harms happened. Next thing we know, millions of people across the world are dying from tobacco-related cancer and other forms of disease.
So what we are seeing with marijuana is very similar to that, where we have a plant that has been around for thousands of years—not really used by a lot of people, but it’s been around—but now it’s being taken by a massive multi-billion dollar industry, that has taken over $2 billion from the tobacco industry alone, that has taken marijuana, adulterated it, bred it to be much more potent than it’s ever been. It’s now 99% potency THC—that’s the ingredient that gets you high—compared to just 2 to 3% potency, which was natural to the plant two decades ago. So it’s totally different, much more potent, much more addictive. So now we’re starting to see these harms come out—mental health issues, schizophrenia, issues with pregnant mothers and children in the womb, all kinds of problems that we never really saw with this drug before that we’re now seeing, because of legalization, because of this commercialized model that’s happening. And it’s called addiction for profit. I mean, that’s what this is.
From a company perspective, you want to deliver returns to your shareholders. So when you have Big Tobacco coming in and putting in $2 billion in this industry, they need to give a return on that investment, the marijuana industry does. The only way that they can do that is by selling a ton more weed and making it very addictive. And it’s really interesting, you look at Colorado, just 4% of the marijuana users in Colorado make up 70% of the marijuana sales in our state. That’s from the latest numbers. So 4% make up 70% of the sales for this drug. They are heavily addicted, heavily using this drug. And that is what the industry wants. They, unfortunately, because of that profit incentive, derive their money from addiction. That’s why we need to keep the industry out of North Carolina and not allow this drug to become commercialized.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk a little bit about the difference and is there a difference between medical use and recreational marijuana?
LUKE NIFORATOS: I’m so glad you asked that question, Traci, because there’s just this misnomer out there that there’s a difference between medical and recreational marijuana. Now listen to me, I am from Colorado, so I lived before, during, and after legalization. I was here when we legalized medical; I was here when we legalized recreational. I’m now raising two young daughters in this state with my lovely wife. So I know firsthand what happens, and I will tell you first off that the marijuana being sold in our “medical marijuana dispensaries” is just weed. It’s just the same weed that they’re selling in the recreational dispensaries. In fact, when we legalized recreational marijuana back in 2012, and it went live in 2014, the medical marijuana shops just changed their signs to say recreational marijuana shops, and they continued selling the exact same products.
So that’s the first misnomer out there is that it’s somehow different. The second misnomer and real myth that people think out there is that medical marijuana must go through some sort of clinical trials and be regulated by scientists, then people are getting prescriptions for it. None of that is the case. The FDA has not approved whole plant marijuana, smoked marijuana, or edible marijuana as any kind of medication. So the medical marijuana that you would get in North Carolina if this bill were to pass would just be completely unregulated and prescribable marijuana that you would just smoke or eat or whatever it might be. So there are no scientists that are reviewing this drug; there’s no FDA testing to ensure that it’s correct. When you get the recommendation from your doctor for this medical marijuana, you’re not going to get a prescription. So that means you’re not going to get dosage; you’re not going to get refills; you’re not going to be told what the potency is that you should have; you’re not going to know anything.
So it works completely unlike any medication we have in the history of this country. I don’t know about all of you, but I don’t remember us voting on Advil to be sold out of pharmacies. I don’t remember us voting on any of these other drugs we get prescriptions for. So, what this really is about is giving the industry a foothold in your state. They’re going to call it medical, but it really is the same thing as recreational. And they’re going to try and get more normalization. They’re going to try to get their pot shops and their ads and their products all across your state, build up a market, and get people demanding recreational marijuana. And then the next thing you know, you’ll have recreational. So it’s very important that we understand what is going on here and how this drug is not medical in and of itself. Now, the FDA has approved a few marijuana-based medications that you can get prescriptions for, and that really is what we should be focusing on when it comes to a medical approach to this drug.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What are those? What are those few indications that the FDA has given?
LUKE NIFORATOS: The FDA approved pure THC called Marinol, and that is something that you can get a prescription for from your doctor. That prescription can tell you the dosage and refills and all that stuff. So that has some benefit for cancer patients, for example. Note that it’s got pure THC, so that’s just one component from the plant. That’s the component that gets you high, but there are actually over 500 components contained within the marijuana plant. So it’s an extract of that plant, just that one component. So it’s different from smoking the whole plant where you get all these other things in it too. This is scientifically precise. So that’s one. Then we have pure CBD, which is called Epidiolex. That’s also been approved by the FDA and you can get a prescription for that as well. That’s indicated to help with a few different types of very, very rare seizures that are out there. So that’s been prescribed for that. So those are just two examples.
I think a lot of people don’t realize that the FDA has approved these drugs, that the FDA is actually considering a host of other marijuana-based medications that are currently going through clinical trials. And that is the way the scientific process should work. If we don’t go through that process and we say, “Well, medications should just be unleashed on the public.” Then what you have is these horrific drugs with terrible consequences just being tested on the public at will. I don’t think that’s a good policy for developing sound medications in this country. I think a lot of people could be harmed from that. So we have to be really careful with the way we treat our medications, because it could hurt innocent patients.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, you mentioned earlier national statistics and you were talking about mental health and addiction. I could just hear people that are supporters of legalized marijuana saying to themselves, “Oh yeah, sure. I can just guarantee those are great credible sources.” But they are, aren’t they? What are some of the sources that you use when you’re talking about the problems that legalized marijuana causes?
LUKE NIFORATOS: Certainly, and first of all, I would encourage everyone to go to our website, learnaboutsam.org, and what you’ll find there is information that is vetted by scientists. So our science advisory board is made up of people from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale who are the world’s leading researchers on marijuana. They are literally currently doing research on marijuana right now, as we’re speaking. So these people review our work; they do research studies; they get them published. We also pull from other research that’s been peer reviewed, from peer reviewed journals. So that’s what we reference.
So I encourage you to check out our website, but I will highlight a few key studies that have come out just in the last couple of years. The Lancet Journal of Psychiatry—that’s probably the foremost, one of the foremost scientific journals in the world, just a sterling reputation, a sterling name. They published a research study two years ago that found that regular users of today’s high potency marijuana—the insane product formulations that are up to 99% potency, those high potency products—regular users of them are five times more likely to develop schizophrenia or psychosis according to this study. This study followed over 2,000 people across major metropolitan areas over a number of years. So it’s a very credible study, very concerning findings in terms of mental health outcomes. Another study that came out found that mothers, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, the children in those scenarios—so the child in the womb or the child breastfeeding—is actually two times more likely to develop autism if the mother is using marijuana, which is a deeply concerning study. Obviously that’s early on, we need to see a lot more research on that. But that was a very concerning finding, and that research just came out last year.
And then in terms of addiction, we know this just from the fact of what we’re seeing in our hospitals and clinics, because yes, marijuana is addictive. There’s an industry myth out there that marijuana is harmless and not addictive, but our scientists and our doctors have created a diagnosis code called cannabis use disorder. If you have marijuana addiction, they will diagnose you with it in their medical systems. So we’ve seen diagnoses for marijuana addiction triple over the last decade. So we have now over 4 million Americans that are classified as having a marijuana use disorder. So the addiction rates are skyrocketing as a result of what we’ve seen with legalization, whether it was medical or recreational.
So those are some key areas of concern, but what I’ll finish with, Traci, is there are a lot of concerns around driving. I think that’s one of the things that Americans across the country are very concerned about. Marijuana impairs you while you’re driving, and so Colorado and Washington state both saw our marijuana impaired driving deaths double after legalization. That’s according to the latest federal and state statistics on road deaths, casualties, and accidents. So we’re seeing marijuana impaired drivers kill twice the number of people after legalization as before. In Oregon, half of all of the drivers that they tested on the roads tested positive for marijuana. So we’re seeing a huge increase in impairment on the roads, and so that’s something that we’re going to be watching for as well, because there’s no roadside test, there’s no standard for impairment like we have with alcohol; there’s no 0.08 limit. So it really is the Wild West when it comes to trying to keep our roads safer as a result of these policies.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, excellent information, but we’re just about out of time. Before we go, Luke Niforatos, where can our listeners go to learn more about your organization and what you’ve been talking about?
LUKE NIFORATOS: So our website is learnaboutsam.org. That’s learn about S-A-M (smart approaches to marijuana) dot-org. You’ll find all kinds of materials. All of our sources are peer reviewed; they’re cited properly so you can double-check the research yourself and get informed on this issue. I would just encourage you to make sure your state does not become another victim of big marijuana. They are saying this is medical in your state, but all of the qualifying conditions in the bill are not supported by science to be given marijuana for it. So please contact your legislators in North Carolina and let them know the truth about the science around this drug and how bringing this industry in the door is going to be bad for North Carolina.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Luke Niforatos, executive vice president at Smart Approaches to Marijuana, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.