As marijuana use soars, the industry goes into spin mode

Recently, a new study was published in JAMA Psychiatry which details how marijuana use has doubled in the last decade.  Over the last ten years, we have seen the proliferation of states passing marijuana medicine by legislation, along with the handful of states legalizing retail marijuana. At the outset when Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) was launched, this was just one of the many outcomes the group feared would materialize after the legalization and commercialization of marijuana.  So now, with irrefutable evidence that increased access to marijuana leads to increased use and addiction, the industry is seeking to move the goalposts.

In her recent article, BDN blogger and founder of Wellness Connection (operator of half of Maine’s dispensaries), Becky DeKeuster, seeks to spin and repackage the study’s findings to distract from the negative public health outcomes.  First and foremost, one aspect of the study that DeKeuster completely sidesteps, is the fact that the study indicates 3 out of 10 adults, or 6.8 million Americans, were using at a level indicative of a diagnosable marijuana use disorder.  In other words, that is 6.8 million Americans that have developed an addiction to marijuana.

Another outcome DeKeuster skips over is the fact that that study found significant risks posed to young users, in the authors’ own words:

“When examined by age, young adults were at highest risk for marijuana use disorder in both surveys. Clearly, concerns about this age group continue, with prevention and intervention efforts for this group critically needed.”

The authors go on to explain the role normalization has played in lowering the perception of risk of marijuana despite science that clearly lays out the proven risks:

“Further, fewer Americans view marijuana use as risky, although studies have shown that use or early use of marijuana is associated with increased risk for many outcomes, including cognitive decline, psychosocial impairments, vehicle crashes, emergency department visits, psychiatric symptoms, poor quality of life, use of other drugs, a cannabis-withdrawal syndrome, and addiction risk,”

The issue with this is that normalization knows no demographic bounds, in particular when we are talking about an industry that makes and markets brightly colored, highly concentrated edibles such as gummy bears and lollipops.  We know this affects our youth and over 30 years of federal data indicates that lowering of perception of risk is directly linked to increased use amongst youth.

perception of harm and useAt this point, there really is no debating the fact that legalization leads to increased marijuana use and addiction.  The JAMA Psychiatry is only the latest in a large body of science that has proven that.  The industry knows this, and is now shifting to a spin game to reframe increased marijuana use as anything but a risk to youth and public health.

One of the interesting points DeKeuster discusses in her article is the JAMA study finding of dramatic increases in marijuana use amongst minority populations.  The marijuana industry continues to disingenuously brand their effort to legalize and expand their customer base as a social justice movement.  Yet, in her own article, a member of the marijuana industry points out that past-year marijuana use has more than doubled amongst Hispanic Americans and nearly tripled amongst black Americans.  Sadly, we’ve seen this trend before.  Those of us who’ve worked in substance abuse prevention have seen how licit drug industries target and exploit minority populations.  So how does the industry spin these significant increases amongst minority populations?  Paraphrasing, “oh, they just weren’t telling the truth in earlier surveys.”

There are a couple of issues with that line of thinking.  If it were true that the doubling of marijuana use was just people being more honest on surveys because of marijuana legalization, then we would’ve seen this jump in just the past couple of years.  However, the data clearly indicates this trend has been building for the past 10 years or more.  Moreover, what the author doesn’t seem to understand, is the fact that surveys, such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, undergo meticulous crafting to ensure strong survey validity and reliability of results.  As with everything, of course there is always room for improvement, and survey design is not static.  However, backed by rigorous science and survey design, we can be quite sure that these surveys are giving us a statistically accurate and representative picture of drug use trends in the United States.

I get it though, addiction isn’t warm and fuzzy branding for the marijuana industry.  It isn’t exactly great PR.  So the spin and misdirection is not surprising.  But as Mainers potentially face two questions on the 2016 ballot to legalize retail marijuana, it is more important than ever they are presented with the straight truth.  The truth is a commercial marijuana market in Maine would have our marijuana use rates soar, increasing addiction, and increasing the risks to the health and futures of our youth.  That isn’t spin.  That is science and that is the history of alcohol and tobacco, two industries that also have done, and continue to do, their fair share of spinning and discrediting data.  Let’s not be fooled for a third time.

Preview for tomorrow:  SAM just announced this morning that today they will release their 2016 Presidential Candidate Scorecard.  This scorecard will provide a ranking and analysis of each of the candidates when it comes to positions and views regarding marijuana policy.  I will write about and publish the results of the scorecard tomorrow.  


Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.