Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Opinion | Marijuana keeps growing more dangerous. The FDA needs to step in.

Opinion | Marijuana keeps growing more dangerous. The FDA needs to step in.

The legal U.S. marijuana industry has grown into a behemoth, raking in roughly $30 billion in 2022. By comparison, Americans in the same year spent $7 billion on ice cream, $20 billion on chocolate and $28 billion on craft beer.

Yet, unlike any of those other sinful delights, marijuana has not been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This reality should bewilder any reasonable consumer. And it needs to change.

The federal government’s stance on marijuana is the least responsible one possible. In 10 years, it has moved from imposing a total ban on recreational use to enabling the drug to become widely available across most states with zero national safety standards. This has allowed the cannabis industry enormous leeway to market its products as remedies for all sort of ailments, often without good evidence, and to cultivate ever more potent — and dangerous — formulations.

The consequences should surprise no one: New variants of cannabis are continually popping up with little regulation to ensure safety. More and more Americans are developing addiction to the drug, with an estimated 16 million suffering from cannabis use disorder in 2021. Hospitalizations from marijuana use are also steadily rising, especially among kids.

Then there are the long-term health effects that researchers are only beginning to understand, including cardiovascular disease and links to aggravated mental health conditions such as schizophrenia.

Whenever attention is paid to these problems, marijuana advocates reflexively swat them away. This is understandable: It took decades to dispel stereotypes about the drug and to persuade the public that adults should be free to choose whether to consume it, as they do with alcohol. Most Americans, it turned out, agreed with them. It’s unreasonable to expect this to change any time soon.

But leaders in the cannabis industry would be wise to acknowledge the real harms their products are causing and to embrace regulation for their industry, including to ensure safety. Yes, this would restrict what products they could sell, but it would also prevent their industry from becoming a more pungent version of Big Tobacco, which spent decades downplaying the harm of its products.

The first step would be for Congress to finally remove marijuana’s Schedule 1 status under the Controlled Substances Act, thereby federally legalizing it. At the same time, lawmakers should task the FDA with setting strict standards by which companies could market and sell cannabis products.

Crafting the right regulations would be difficult and take time, especially because marijuana is poorly understood. But there’s one obvious place to start: potency caps. Marijuana companies have competed to make their products stronger, cheaper and more thrilling, but in the process have also made them more addictive and dangerous. A typical marijuana plant in 1980 was 1.5 percent THC (marijuana’s primary psychoactive component); today, that number reaches upward of 30 percent. Some concentrates (often in the form of oils) surpass 90 percent THC.

Research clearly shows that people who regularly use more potent marijuana are more likely to experience addiction and psychosis. This is a main reason two states — Connecticut and Vermont — limit the amount of THC that can be included in a cannabis product. Countries that have legalized marijuana, including Canada and Uruguay, have done the same. The United States needs similar regulations at the federal level.

Marijuana sellers have long argued that such caps would push more potent products to illicit markets. Perhaps, but regulators can craft rules to keep people from buying on the street.

They could, for example, carefully set the THC cap at a level that’s well below dangerous levels but still high enough for consumers to feel marijuana’s intoxicating effects. They could also eliminate or ease states’ marijuana licensing limits to make sure legal sellers are accessible. The goal should be to give marijuana sellers a competitive advantage over illicit markets with their convenience and a guarantee that their products are safe.

Meanwhile, the FDA should crack down on irresponsible marketing. No cannabis company — including those in the burgeoning CBD industry — should be able to make therapeutic claims that aren’t backed by evidence. Doing so would be much easier once Congress removed marijuana’s Schedule 1 status, thereby flinging open the doors for better research on the drug.

Regulators should also rain fire upon any business that presents cannabis products to look like candy or child-friendly snacks, as the FDA and Federal Trade Commission have started to do. After the scandals involving kid-oriented vape products in the past few years, there should be zero tolerance for such practices.

No regulation of marijuana will succeed without dedicated funding for enforcement. Just as important is support from the White House to make it happen.

Unfortunately, it seems there is little appetite in the Biden administration for confronting the marijuana problem. But the longer the federal government waits to step in, the worse the dangers will become — and the stronger the cannabis industry will grow politically. Best to tame the beast before it’s too big to control.

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