Robin Abcarian means well.
On Dec. 16, the Los Angeles Times staffer published a column titled “Cannabis has downsides, especially for kids. We need to acknowledge them.” Though assuredly seen as anti-cannabis by segments of activists and industry professionals, Abcarian’s overall intent is entirely admirable.
In surveying everything from the prevalence of billboards advertising cannabis brands to her concern for the consequences of mixing cannabis with a developing mind, Abcarian should be forgiven for her overzealous approach given the intent is to ensure the protection of adolescents from a substance we’re still continuing to fully understand and unlock.
What’s concerning about this column is how frequently it relies on anecdotal evidence to arrive at general conclusions — a realization made all the more troubling when one surveys the bounty of data currently available on the subject.
For example, early in Abcarian’s piece, she decries the lack of regulation being placed on cannabis advertising.
“The idea that kids are being protected from cannabis ads is laughable,” she writes, noting the prevalence of billboards for weed companies now dotting SoCal freeways.
On the surface, Abcarian has a point. The sudden, seemingly overnight proliferation of billboards for big-ticket cannabis (and cannabis-adjacent) companies like Eaze and Weedmaps was quite the zero-to-sixty moment for legal weed. However, given one must be 21 years of age or older to buy cannabis, is it really any worse than the alcohol ads that have we’ve all been staring at for as long as we’ve been alive?
Abcarian briefly acknowledges this reality before plunging ahead with more complaints about billboards. But she’s leaving some pretty important context on the table here: legal cannabis companies have virtually no other avenues of marketing available to them. Two of the biggest advertising platforms on the planet – Facebook and Google – continue to give legal weed the cold shoulder, while efforts to branch into television advertising have also largely been met with resistance.
The voters of California opted to legalize cannabis in 2016. By doing so, they birthed a new industry – one, that like all industries, requires some form of marketing to survive. To be clear, the Eazes and the Weedmaps of the world will be fine whether they have billboards or not. But by arguing for a precedent that cannabis companies should be neither heard nor seen, it ultimately hurts the smaller, equity-owned businesses and craft farmers who have to establish their brands if they hope to compete.
For much of the rest of Abcarian’s column, the discussion is about the perceived health risks of those under the age of 21 consuming cannabis. Again, to her credit, Abcarian offers this acknowledgement before highlighting a few stories she feels illustrate the potential dangers of weed to underage consumers:
“Now, of course, anecdotes are not data. Correlation is not causation. And the medical benefits of cannabis for many conditions are indisputable.”
What follows is Abcarian touching on a number of concerns that all fall under the general umbrella of health risks. She touches on “unsuspecting people” who might “ingest too many pot-spiked brownies” and “feel like they are dying.” Though Abcarian acknowledges such sensations are not, in fact, harbingers of any mortal peril, her unwillingness to contrast this vague assertion with decades of empirical data proving the indisputable health dangers of alcohol or cigarettes is troubling.
When one adds in the caveat that the alcohol and tobacco industries have enjoyed the extensive support of the federal government for over a century, it’s just difficult to see why Abcarian feels compelled to speak out on the possible risks of cannabis when the definitive consequences of these other, long legal alternatives is so painfully evident.
Ultimately, the true issue with the column is the fact that it fails to connect safety and legalization. As we all know, cannabis has always been around – it just hasn’t always been legal. And because it was illegal, it prevented any meaningful research that may have allowed us to more quickly realize what a gift this plant could be. Heck, back in 1971, the U.S. government acknowledged as much.
Then they still went ahead and made cannabis super illegal.
But now, with California’s regulated industry entering into its fourth year, safety and research are at last becoming the priorities advocates have always wanted them to be. Legal weed is extensively tested, packaged in child-proof containers, meticulously tracked and traced, and accounts for substantial taxes collected at both the city and state level. In every sense, this is a positive development. Oh, and there are numbers to back it up!
According to a 2019 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association which analyzed data from more than 1.4 million high school students, “legalization of marijuana for adults was associated with an 8% decline in past 30-day marijuana use and a 9% decline in frequent use among teens.” This study is one of many highlighted in a survey published by the non-profit Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
Another, which MPP describes as “a meta-analysis of 55 academic papers and multiple data sources published by the journal Current Addiction Reports in September 2018” resulted in the researchers concluding that “liberal forms of medical cannabis regulation … have not to date increased rates of cannabis use among adolescents.”
Taking things up to the present (or close to it), MPP concludes by noting that, “[as] of November 2020, the available data suggests that regulating marijuana for adults’ use does not impact marijuana use among youth.” They then include tables featuring 30-day marijuana use rates for teens in ten states both prior and following the implementation of adult-use legalization laws.
“In five of the states,” MPP notes, “government surveys indicate a slight decrease in teens’ marijuana use rates, while in the other half, surveys suggest a slight increase. In most cases, the changes were within the confidence intervals. Taken as a whole, rates are unchanged. Meanwhile, two nationwide surveys show a modest decrease in teen use since states began legalizing cannabis for adults.”
Well, for one, it suggests that youth rates of cannabis consumption certainly aren’t being made worse by legalization. And to accept that truth is to more or less deny any credibility to the need for more columns like the one Abcarian wrote last month. We’ve spent decades speculating. We have facts now. Let’s use them.