Cannabis Potency is Under Attack. It’s Time to Respond

For decades, opponents of cannabis legalization have relied heavily on scare tactics, untruthful rhetoric and increasingly unpersuasive propaganda to cast cannabis in a negative light. From the Reefer Madness” era of the 1930s to the declaration of a formal war on drugs” in the 1970s, significant efforts continue to be made encouraging a return to prohibition.

Despite the decades-long effort to denigrate cannabis and cannabis consumers, public perception surrounding the plant continues to evolve, and two-thirds of Americans now support legalization. Even better, despite cannabis remaining federally illegal, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for adult recreational use, and 36 states permit its medical use.

In order to combat this shift in opinion, prohibition proponents have become increasingly sophisticated, more coordinated and better funded in recent months. Plus, they have rebranded themselves, shifting their stance from being fundamentally opposed to legalization to instead claiming to favor legalization while simultaneously demonizing the industry and pushing policies that are designed to destroy the industry under the illusion of sensible regulation.

The latest such tactic, and one that is gaining momentum among the industrys adversaries, has been to focus on regulating the potency of cannabis products.

The Potency Problem

When it comes to the potency of cannabis products, opponents’ new narrative hearkens back to the tried-and-true tropes they have employed since the Reefer Madness” era: concerns surrounding public health and children.

Since the data does not support the tired narrative that legalization will inevitably lead to a spike in teenage use, opponents have pivoted to discuss increased behavioral health issues among teens based on potency. In fact, a recent editorial in the Denver Post called for a restriction on the potency of marijuana, claiming that high-potency marijuana concentrates are causing psychosis” in adolescents.

As usual, though, the evidence materially depends on personal anecdotes, scare tactics and a lack of actual scientific data. But that hasnt stopped the battle over the potency of commercial pot products beginning in states like Washington and Colorado.

What started as an approach to keep cannabis illegal has morphed into an effort to target potency, and Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM)s argument, according to its president, Kevin Sabet, is simple: Several years in, we are now seeing significant increases in high-potency marijuana use among Coloradans and drastic developments in the perception of harm from use among young people. Use among younger kids also spiked this past year. We cannot afford to allow this trend to continue.”

SAM and like-minded organizations, such as Smart Colorado and Blue Rising, now have boots on the ground and are utilizing existing infrastructure and resources in individual states like Colorado and Washington to mobilize around the issue of cannabis. Prohibitionists have strategically identified the first two legal marijuana states to attack. The strategy has tapped moms and health care professionals to be the voice of cannabis opposition in the name of protecting kids. They have found Democratic women with a background in pediatrics and behavioral health to drive the legislation.

To that end, discussions began with Colorado state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a lawmaker with a background as a pediatrician. A draft of her bill, which would effectively ban any form of legal cannabis — recreational or medical — testing over just 15% THC, is already making its rounds in the Colorado Legislature. The bill also calls for a number of restrictions to the state’s medical marijuana program, including requiring dosing for medical marijuana patients and an allotment of certain products, much like a drug prescription. Finally, the bill proposes limits on the potency of edibles, and it would ban any roadside signage for cannabis, as well as prohibit cannabis companies from hiring social media influencers who appeal to minors in order to market its store.”

Additionally, a public hearing was held in February on a bill to address serious mental health consequences of high-potency cannabis products by regulating the sale of cannabis concentrates” in Washington state. Much like Colorado, House Bill 1463 in Washington would set a potency cap, though it would only focus on concentrates at 30%.

Why Potency Caps are Bad for the Industry

If such bills were to pass and potency caps were allowed, the industry would forever change. Under the rules proposed by the Colorado bill, it would become nearly impossible for cannabis companies to provide anything other than flower — and, even with advances in how cannabis is grown, capping cannabis flower at 15% THC would be extremely difficult. Despite only focusing on concentrates at 30%, a similar situation is likely to play out in Washington if HB 1463 were to pass.

By limiting the potency of cannabis products and campaigning against the expansion of our industry, opposition groups would dismantle the legal cannabis industry and force a myriad of cannabis and cannabis-adjacent businesses to shutter.

And then not to state the obvious, but rules eliminating concentrates would only push products to the underground market, which creates a dangerous situation for consumers. Unregulated cannabis products contain dangerous additives, like vitamin E acetate and harmful pesticides. The CDC has found that vitamin E acetate is strongly linked to the e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) outbreak. Potency caps would only empower an unregulated market.

Now is the Time to Respond

While we should all be concerned about the rise in mental health issues among young people, we cannot fall into the Reefer Madness” and just say no” traps of years past. Instead, policies surrounding potency should focus on research, education and treatment — not criminalization.

If high-potency” cannabis is even close to as dangerous as opponents claim (and they actually support cannabis legalization and regulation like they say), then why would they want to force these products to the illicit and unregulated market?  There would be no quality control of product, no safety regulations for manufacturing, no barriers to acquisition by minors. Legalization has successfully shifted demand for cannabis to a well-regulated marketplace, and pushing products back to the unregulated and dangerous underground would be devastating in terms of public health and safety.

The cannabis industry is in a unique position to make a difference by improving education and awareness. It is our responsibility to ensure the public is fully aware of both the possibilities and risks that cannabis offers. As such, its time to put an end to the false narratives once and for all by addressing our responsibility to educate consumers and the general public.

Absent of an industry-wide public awareness and education campaign around potency and responsible use, we will continue to lose ground to opponents. Cannabis industry voices are falling woefully behind the opposition; we must respond now or lose this fight.

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