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Want to Protect Kids From Potent Pot? Legalize It

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The availability of highly potent strains of marijuana and marijuana-derived concentrates is nothing new. And neither are alarmist claims that these products pose unique dangers to public health. But such claims require clarification and context.

First some clarification. 'Wax' is slang for concentrated extracts derived from the cannabis plant. These gooey concoctions do not resemble cannabis in appearance or texture. They are typically only available on the shelves of marijuana dispensary facilities where they are labeled as possessing far higher concentrations of THC - the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana - than standard plant material. Also, the retail price points for these products tend to be far higher than that of marijuana. Consequently, consumption of these high-THC products is typically limited to those who have legal right of entry to dispensary facilities and who possess the disposable income to afford their relatively high-end retail price.

Are these concentrated products more powerful than the cannabis flowers they are derived from? Yes. As such, consumers -- particularly those who are relatively naïve to the plant's effects -- ought to proceed with caution if they choose to ingest such products. Are they for everyone? Arguably, they are not. Most adults who socially consume alcohol drink beer or wine, not Bacardi 151 or Everclear. Most adults who take pain relievers consume Advil or Tylenol, not Oxycodone. And similarly, most adults who consume cannabis -- whether they do so for therapeutic or recreational purposes -- do not consume concentrates, which comprise only a fraction of the present marijuana market.

Now for some context: Cannabis derived products, regardless of THC content, are incapable of causing lethal overdose. (The same can't be said for alcohol, caffeine, sodium, or even aspirin -- all of which have lethal dose potential in humans.) Since 1985 an oral pill containing pure synthetic THC, known as dronabinol, has been available by prescription. In 1999, federal officials downgraded dronabinol's classification from a Schedule II to a Schedule III controlled substance -- a change made because of the substance's low abuse potential and impeccable safety record.

That is not to say that the consumption of high-THC products can't have adverse effects. Further, such substances are certainly not for kids. So how do we best reduce the risks associated with these products consumption by adults and restrict their access among adolescents? By legalizing them.

Those of us who advocate for a regulated, above ground cannabis market readily acknowledge that ingesting pot temporarily alter moods and may potentially pose specific health risks (particularly in those persons with a family history of mental or psychiatric illness). But these concerns do not validate the substance's continued criminalization. Just the opposite is true. There are numerous adverse health consequences associated with alcohol, tobacco, and prescription pharmaceuticals -- all of which are far more dangerous and costlier to society than cannabis -- and it's precisely because of these consequences that these products are legally regulated and their use is restricted to particular consumers and specific settings. Similarly, a pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for limited, licensed production and sale of cannabis to adults but restricts use among young people - coupled with a legal environment that fosters open dialogue between parents and children about cannabis' potential harms -- best reduces the risks associated with the plant's use or abuse. It is this precise policy that in recent years has discouraged teen use of cigarettes to historic lows. Similar regulatory principles ought to govern the way society addresses marijuana.

Finally, it is arguable that the policy of cannabis prohibition is largely fueling the growing strength of pot and pot-derived concentrates. Marijuana's illegality persuades producers and distributors of the product to peddle smaller, more potent forms of the substance -- as such products are more easily concealed from the watchful eyes of law enforcement. Likewise, in an illegal market, consumers are more likely to seek out and purchase more potent forms of cannabis, since they can never be sure whether they will have continues access to the product and, as a result, are seeking the gain 'the most bang for their buck.' Conversely, in the Netherlands, where government policies have fostered a stable retail cannabis market in which users are reliably able to buy cannabis of the potency they prefer, studies report that most consumers gravitate toward less potent forms of the plant -- no different than how most U.S. alcohol consumers prefer beer over whiskey.

In short, legalizing and regulating marijuana will curb existing demand for more potent pot, reduce access to such products among adolescents, and best mitigate the associated risks of such products among adult consumers. The continued criminalization of cannabis will achieve none of these desired outcomes.