In March, the New Mexico Legislature made the right decision in rejecting Big Marijuana. After a bill to commercialize the drug and put pot shops on every corner passed the House, state senators killed the bill over concerns about public safety and health. Soon after, lawmakers offered a smarter approach and passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession. While this policy is a tremendous win for social justice, Big Marijuana and its backers refuse to give up on so much lost profit, as evidenced by the convening of the Governor’s Working Group on Cannabis Legalization this week.
This group, which features heavy representation from the marijuana industry, has been hand-picked to craft a bill that will push full-scale, Colorado-style legalization through the 30-day legislative session next year. However, the concerns over public health and safety that led senators to press pause on marijuana legalization are not going away. In fact, as more data on marijuana legalization becomes available, their concerns are increasingly justified.
Studies released since the failure of the legalization bill have confirmed concerning links between marijuana use and severe mental illness. One such study, published in the prestigious Lancet journal, found that daily users of average potency marijuana were three times more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis. Heavy users of high-potency products, such as marijuana-infused candies, gummies, sodas, and 99% THC waxes, shatters and dabs were five times more likely.
The National Academies of Science reviewed thousands of studies on low-potency marijuana use and found significant links to additional serious mental health conditions – including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and suicide. Prolonged use has also been shown to lower IQ and motor function and can cause particular damage to the developing brains of young people. If low-potency pot is this dangerous, what is high potency pot – 99% THC – doing to the human brain?
What’s more, because marijuana impairs judgment, motor skills and reaction time, it is incredibly dangerous to use before getting behind the wheel or showing up to work. Marijuana-impaired driving deaths have doubled in states that have legalized the drug, and according to a recent report from Quest Diagnostics, workers are testing positive for marijuana at historic rates.
From discussions with New Mexico lawmakers, it is clear that many in the Legislature are alarmed at the growth of the black market, which is thriving in states like Colorado.
There, foreign cartels and criminal syndicates are using the “legal” status of marijuana as a shield to set up massive growing operations in housing developments and even on federal lands. Additionally, narcotics officers in Colorado have seen a 50% increase in illegal grow operations across rural areas of the state. Legalized states are struggling to meet revenue projections as a consequence. Meanwhile in California, the government has launched public awareness campaigns and dispatched the National Guard to combat the illicit market.
Decriminalizing marijuana rather than legalizing it makes far more sense. It helps to end harmful policing practices and excessive sentencing, all while discouraging drug use in vulnerable communities. But the marijuana industry sees these communities as profit centers.
In Los Angeles, the majority of dispensaries are in predominantly African-American communities. The same is true in Denver, where there are now more dispensaries than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. And the industry’s promises of social equity? They always fail to materialize.
In short, while Big Marijuana pushes a bill allowing expansion of its addiction-for-profit model in New Mexico, lawmakers who opposed commercialization in 2019 should stick to their guns. In a state with one of the highest rankings of child poverty, the stakes are too high.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy is founder of The Kennedy Forum. He served on the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis and is co-author of A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.