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The Sad Truth About Marijuana (with Luke Niforatos)

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Over the last few decades, marijuana has become more potent and dangerous at the same time that it is being touted as “medicine.” The continued effort to legalize marijuana could have disastrous impacts if it is successful.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Luke Niforatos, the Executive Vice President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), to disucss attempts to legalize marijuana and the dangerous impacts that could have.

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Family Policy Matters
The Sad Truth About Marijuana (with Luke Niforatos)

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Nearly every legislative session, a bill is filed in the North Carolina General Assembly to legalize marijuana in some capacity, most recently, for medicinal use. As more states have legalized not just marijuana, but other drugs, we’re able to know more definitively how those policies impact communities and individuals. The Biden Administration recently began the process of reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug. Here to help us explore the complex science, public health, and public policy issues at play in this conversation 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 Niforatos, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.

LUKE NIFORATOS: Hi Traci, thank you so much for having me on it’s great to be back on the show.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So refresh our memories. Who uses marijuana in America and in what ways and how often? What do we know?

LUKE NIFORATOS: Since we last talked, thankfully, the North Carolina General Assembly rejected the legalization of medical marijuana. It did not pass in North Carolina, so there’s no commercial marijuana industry in your state, which is a fantastic outcome. Basically what the data tell us, and there’s actually a recent study that came out looking at the demographics of who is using marijuana today in America, and very sadly, the average user skews on the younger side of things, like young adults, and skews poorer, so less economically rich, and unfortunately, is typically one of the minority demographics, racially speaking as well. We saw, particularly among LGBT youth, higher rates of use among those demographics as well.

So unfortunately, the marijuana industry is doing exactly what we have cautioned against in North Carolina and in other states, which is they’re acting like big tobacco. Because Big Tobacco is their biggest investor, along with alcohol, and both tobacco and alcohol have made their money targeting youth and targeting minority communities, and the marijuana industry is doing the same thing. So it’s unfortunately not surprising to see the data bearing out that it’s typically poorer communities where the use is the highest. And you know, obviously the primary concern is the health impact to the people in these communities, but a secondary concern is for people who are developing addiction to marijuana, which now we know that the addiction rate is one in three people who tries marijuana in the last year will develop an addiction to it. That number was one in 10 a decade ago. For somebody who’s addicted to this product, they’re spending a lot of their expendable income on marijuana in order to sustain that addiction. So for poorer communities where they have less money as it is and now they’re addicted and being taken advantage of by this industry, they’re using even more of their money that they don’t have on that addiction, which is a really big concern as well. So I do think that this is a true social problem, and we need to protect these communities from an industry that, more and more now, is taking advantage of them.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So let’s talk about this addiction issue. Because as I was growing up, we were always taught that marijuana was not addicting.

LUKE NIFORATOS: Yeah, so that’s probably one of the biggest myths out there, in the public and in the media, this idea that marijuana is supposedly not addictive, and it absolutely is. It’s getting more addictive than ever before. Because, basically what happened was, I’m from Colorado. I live here in Colorado. It was the first state to legalize marijuana just about 10 years ago. And the biggest thing that changed, two big things have changed after we legalized. First was the potency. So they have taken this drug that, you know, the average joint in the 1970s, 80s, 90s was 1 to 3% potency. One to 3% THC, that’s the ingredient that gets you high. Now we have products like vaping oils and dabs and other forms of concentrate that are up to 99% potency.

So it is a totally different drug since we legalized it, because this industry started innovating and changing it. And the second thing that happened as a result of that is a massive increase in addiction. So it’s not these kind of Woodstock weed joints that people would smoke a little bit and go to sleep. Now, it’s a very intense drug that has a very intense effect on your mind, and it is very much more addictive than ever before. So you know, in science, it’s not even a debate that marijuana is addictive. There’s an ICD 10 diagnosis code for cannabis use disorder. That’s addiction to marijuana that your doctor will diagnose you with if you have that and you have that addiction issue. So unfortunately, it’s one of the greatest myths out there in the public. This is a very dangerous and addictive drug now, with the potency so uniquely skyrocketed, this is something that was unprecedented. We hadn’t seen it before 10 years ago.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, good to know. So you mentioned medical marijuana, and of course, we know North Carolina came razor thin close to passing that last session define medical marijuana. How is that different than just marijuana for recreational use?

LUKE NIFORATOS: Defining medical marijuana, you know, it’s basically whoever you ask in any given part of the country, because it there is no such thing as medical marijuana. That’s actually the verbatim quote from our second to last Surgeon General of the United States.

So what is it? Well, it’s smoking marijuana, it’s using marijuana, but states have figured out a politically more palatable way to put it by calling it medical and saying that people who have certain medical ailments, which, by the way, that varies from state to state, can get access to it. But it’s not medical. It’s not prescribed because it’s federally illegal and the FDA has not approved marijuana as a medication. The whole plant of it. It’s not something that goes through clinical trials or is regulated in any way. It’s just by political fiat, voted on and called medicine.

This country has never voted on its medicine before. We’ve never been asked to vote on Tylenol or other such things. And hopefully that won’t be the case, because I don’t know the first thing about Tylenol, I would expect scientists and doctors to make that call, and that’s exactly what my organization has advocated for with medical marijuana is, let’s have this go through the FDA, as it currently is. The FDA is overseeing multiple clinical trials right now for marijuana based medications, and that’s a good thing. They should explore and see what the medical benefits are. They’ve already approved, by the way, several marijuana based medications that you can receive a prescription for from your doctor. These medications are indicated for certain ailments, and you can receive a prescription today that is fully regulated. So I think that’s the process our organization would like to see this go.

But as far as defining medical marijuana, it literally varies from state to state. I mean, you have a state like Washington DC, which is technically not a state, but they have a medical marijuana program, and they allow people to self certify their sicknesses and receive a medical marijuana card within minutes. So they’re basically giving their word that they have this sickness, and then they can elect to receive that medication, quote, unquote, for that sickness, which, that’s not how medicine works. That’s not at all how this process is supposed to go.

And then you have the proposal, like, what North Carolina was looking at is looking at again, in this short session, where they’ve hand picked a few different ailments that they think are very severe and are helped by marijuana. But most of the ailments in this list are not scientifically validated at all. You know, PTSD, other such ailments, there’s no clinical indication that marijuana actually helps with those things. In fact, the science shows us that marijuana hurts those things so exacerbates PTSD, for example, so very a non scientific setup for the definition of medical marijuana, and that unfortunately leads to a lot of harm for patients and people who genuinely need help.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so if people that are listening want to talk to their lawmakers, because this issue comes up again, and apparently is coming up again this session, what would you suggest their talking points are? What are the things that are resonating with lawmakers, and particularly here in North Carolina?

LUKE NIFORATOS: Yeah, I think the idea that medical marijuana is just recreational marijuana under a different name, talking about the fact that there is an industry that wants to make profits off of our kids. I mean, the medical marijuana industry acts exactly like the recreational marijuana industry, because they’re the same thing. They target kids. Talking to lawmakers about, we don’t want this in our state, because this is going to allow an industry that’s going to act just like tobacco did, targeting kids with gummies, candies, and ice creams that are all laced with THC. And you know, those lawmakers can say all they want that they have laws written that will prevent child-friendly products, but we have those in Colorado, and yet we have Girl Scouts flavors, Sesame Street characters, all of that is legal under our law, even though it says no targeting kids so telling lawmakers that they know they’re going to write a nice law, but the industry always figures out a way to get around that we have to deal with these consequences for our kids.

Talking about the fact that, you know, allowing medical marijuana into North Carolina would create more access to this drug for everyone, from youth on up. And sure, you can say, you know, we’re going to card people, and you know you won’t be able to buy at a pot shop if you’re under 21 but that has not worked out well for tobacco or alcohol, where those substances are widely available to our youth, that’s going to be the exact same thing that’s going to happen with medical marijuana.

So I think pointing to those things and also saying, We elected you to be lawmakers. We didn’t elect you to be regulators of drugs and medical experts. These lawmakers don’t know the first thing about the medical process and FDA approval process, nor should they. They should be leaving this to the FDA to figure out, not politics.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Speaking of not necessarily being experts on drugs and marijuana. Let’s talk about what’s happening on the federal level, because there’s a push that’s happening to change the current status of marijuana, correct? Give us some detail on that.

LUKE NIFORATOS: Yeah, so I mean, I can go as deep into the weeds, if you will forgive the pun, as you would like. But the big picture is that the Biden administration has asked for a review of marijuana scheduling status. What they have recommended is moving marijuana from the most restrictive level of Schedule I to a less restrictive level of Schedule III. What that means for the general public and for everyone kind of day to day impact is marijuana would remain illegal. It would change nothing about marijuana’s legality from state to state, but what it would do is it would give the marijuana industry access to a pretty sizable tax write off. They would be able to write off their business expenses on things like advertising, which I think is very concerning, because we know the industry is targeting our kids, again, using cartoons, using child friendly products, and the industry would basically be rewarded for that. They’d be able to write off hundreds of millions of dollars of their taxes and have way more profits off of these types of advertising campaigns. And so this would actually financially reward the industry for that.

So that’s really the biggest outcome from this, is that the industry would make a lot more money. There would be no reduction in the criminal penalties for this substance for people, so it wouldn’t address any of the social justice concerns, and there would be really not much of a change as far as research goes.

So really all it does is it gives the industry a tax write off. And to get into a little bit of the rationale, the Biden administration clearly began this process with a predetermined outcome. They said science would lead this review, but it was very evident that they wanted this to reach an outcome where it was going to go to Schedule III, because they basically threw out the entire scientific process that has been used for decades to determine the scheduling status of marijuana. And they basically said, well, because states have voted for this in a few places, that means it must have medical value. And again, politics and votes are not how we decide medical value in this country. It hasn’t been, for a century, since we’ve had the FDA.

So that’s basically where we stand. Essentially where we are right now is this has been a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The clock began, and there will be a 60 day public comment period. So right now, people can go to the Federal Register online, right now and actually submit public comment on this proposed rule, which we encourage people to do and oppose this decision. By the end of 60 days, the DA will have to review all the comments and then issue a final rule or withdraw the rule. So we’re going to be very involved as an organization. We’re bringing in a lot of other partners to get involved as well, with the idea that hopefully they will withdraw this, and if they don’t, if they end up moving forward, then we’ll be looking at legal strategies as well.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk to the parents who are listening, and they have teenage kids, and those kids are saying, marijuana is fine now, you know, it may be illegal in North Carolina, but nobody is getting prosecuted for it. The law enforcement looks the other way. Talk about that, because this is still a problem for young people in this state, right?

LUKE NIFORATOS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what I would tell them is, it’s very hard. Obviously, you know, you can’t beat people and kids, especially over the head with science and facts and things like that. But I think you would just say, you know, look at the industries that are backing this movement. Big tobacco companies are doing this. Big alcohol companies are doing this. Big corporate conglomerates that see your brain as dollar sign are changing this drug.

You know, show them how – you can look this up online, – how the potency of marijuana has changed. Show them how this is no longer just a plant. It’s actually a very high octane drug now that’s got a lot of additives in it. It’s been changed like the cigarette did with tobacco. Talk to them about how this has changed.

And then I would encourage them to have them look up marijuana addiction on Tiktok, for example, or on YouTube. You’ll see all these videos of young people now who are talking about their marijuana addiction, who are talking about their issues with psychosis now. We are seeing a whole younger generation that is waking up to the harm that this industry is inflicting on them, and there’s a lot of stuff online now talking about the problems that have happened here.

So I encourage people to start with who is behind this movement, and then move to look at how this has changed. Look at how this actually is harmful to your mental health. Look at what this is doing to other young people, where they’re talking about the psychosis, they’re talking about the memory issues and all kinds of other issues. There’s a lot of people waking up to it, and you can find a lot of that online. You can talk to the younger demographics about this.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, well, we’re just about out of time for this week before we go, Luke Niforatos, where can our listeners go to learn more about all the resources that your organization makes available?

LUKE NIFORATOS: Yeah, so check us out at LearnAboutSAM.org, LearnAboutSAM.org. You can check out all of our information, resources, materials. You can sign up for our email updates. The other thing I would say is, if you want to get more news on marijuana and just drug policy in general, check out TheDrugReport.org, TheDrugReport.org is a new website we’ve set up, along with an email newsletter and podcast that basically analyzes all the top news stories on drug policy and marijuana policy, and we curate it for you twice a week. It’s a really great resource for people wanting to keep track of what’s going on in drug policy in America. So check out the Drug report.org as well.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Great. Luke Niforatos with Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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