A panel of experts Wednesday advised Maryland lawmakers to carefully consider data collection and public education on potential risks of marijuana use before legalizing the drug for recreational use.
Increases in the potency of THC in modern strains of marijuana have lowered the ratio of the psychoactive chemical to others that might prevent some adverse effects of the drug. Public education is needed for users, including an increasing number of pregnant women, but also adolescents who might access the drug.
“This is not the same product people were using 20 years ago,” said Dr. Susan Weiss, director, division of extramural research, at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Studies are showing relatively flat usage among children 12-17 even though it is illegal for them to buy the drug. Even so, there is concern about an increase in cannabis use disorder among teens that Weiss said might be related to increased potency.
“A lot of parents would say they’d rather their child use cannabis instead of alcohol and cannabis can really affect learning and motivation,” she said. “Again, it is not the same product and getting that message through is important.”
Members of a House work group appointed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones are part of a renewed effort to legalize the drug.
The hearings, which continue through December, are expected to result in legislation that would add adult recreational use to the Maryland Constitution, subject to approval by voters in next year’s election.
Concerns about the policy change, including its impact on public safety, effects on children and adverse effects on adults, are identical to those considered by previous work groups. None of those earlier efforts ultimately offered solutions.
Dr. Patricia Frye, medical director of Takoma Park Integrative Care and a professor of medical cannabis science and therapeutics at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, warned lawmakers that more education is needed even among current users of medical cannabis and licensed dispensaries on the potential effects of use by pregnant women.
“The cannabis community itself has this idea that the plant can do no wrong,” said Frye. “That it’s a plant, it’s natural and it’s better than taking a pharmaceutical.”
“It took a long time to get people to even believe in fetal alcohol syndrome,” said Weiss. “That’s been many years. We’re not there yet with cannabis. There’s this perception that it’s natural, that it’s a plant. Tobacco is a plant. So there is just this nonfear.”
Lawmakers will also have to wrestle with public safety concerns, including impairment. Currently, it is very difficult to determine cannabis impairment because of the length of time that the active ingredients remain in the body.
Some police departments are using officers specially trained to identify impairment.
Taylor Kasky, director of policy and government affairs at the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, said in many cases police departments will use a breathalyzer to determine alcohol impairment but stop before checking for marijuana use.
“They don’t often go to the next step,” said Kasky, who along with other panelists said the state must begin collecting data that can be used to track potential adverse effects of any legalization effort.
“It’s hard to think about the totality of the data that we’re going to need to gather if we’re looking to really gather information about this,” said Del. Robin Grammer, R-Baltimore County.
Grammer has previously sponsored legislation aimed at shoring up the state’s cannabis data collection efforts.
“I think we’re all happy to work on that, but I think we’re all going to have to think clearly,” he said. “Everyone wants data but no one can tell us what data we need. It’s a big question.”
Weiss said it’s important to try to understand the habits of daily users, including how much is used and the frequency. Barring that, she called for consistency.
“I think a lot of it has to do with making sure that the data that’s being collected now is not going to be changing once legalization happens and that these measures are not going to suddenly become important,” she said.