Home Columns Opinion OPINION: Health Agency, School Leaders Are Wrong On Pot Issue

OPINION: Health Agency, School Leaders Are Wrong On Pot Issue


by Stuart Friedman, Middlesex

Last issue’s editorial about cannabis regulation “Slow Down, Answer the Questions — It’s about Children and Youth” lacked balance and research. The author, having had conversations with three school-related associations and taking selective quotes from the Health Department’s “Health Impact Assessment” can hardly be described as extensive or balanced.

The health report was seriously flawed, an assessment that is shared by many other knowledgeable professionals. It confounded association with causation (does cannabis use lead to poor school performance OR are those who are performing badly more likely to use?), it data mines (using old studies from distant locales while ignoring more contemporary, local studies that are contrary to the conclusions drawn) and fails to enumerate health benefits of cannabis regulation.

The notion of “slowing down” what is described as a “fast track” process ignores history. In 1971 the Nixon-appointed Shafer Commission recommended that personal use of cannabis should be legalized. In the intervening years, millions of lives have been ruined by the ineffective War on Drugs policies promoted by politicians (including those who did not inhale).

One (unnamed) person is quoted “how can we ignore brain research?” Aside from the fact that any school that sponsors football is ignoring very sound research on brain trauma, stands the fact that this rush to using brain imaging as explanations for behavior is reductionist and fails to account for social and economic factors. Similarly, pseudo-science was used in the early 20th Century to “prove” that non-white races were incapable of high level intellectual thinking, a belief that, in Vermont, led to the sterilization of hundreds of people, targeting French-Canadians, Native Americans and other racial minorities. Led by the University of Vermont professor of zoology Henry Perkins, the work gained wide credibility and was finally deposited in the trash bin of history when the Nazis used the pseudo-science to justify the Holacaust.

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Students identified as poor performing, adults who have legal entanglements, and families that draw the attention of protective services are overwhelmingly people living in poverty or near-poverty circumstances. It is poverty and inequality that, according to many studies, lead to the ills described in the Vermont Department of Health’s report, including the misuse of cannabis and other drugs. A retreat into biological explanations further victimizes people already marginalized and deflects our attention from the profound impacts of poverty

Finally, the report fails to acknowledge the model for a successful effort to reduce drug misuse, the program in place for decades to reduce tobacco dependence. It was not through a general prohibition but a population-based approach using a variety of approaches and legal strictures that has led to the impressive reduction of tobacco use.

As it stands now, our approach to youth is “all drug use is bad,” a statement that is contradicted by students’ behavior and observations. If tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, heroin, amphetamines, benzodiazepines are all “bad” then we miss an important opportunity to educate students about the dangers of each substance and how to use some of them safely. Our blanket prohibition prescription undermines any credibility we might have with adolescents (and others), and fails to recognize that for millenia humans have sought to alter their consciousness, with drugs and other means.

Hundreds of thousands of Vermonters, including physicians, legislators and newspaper editors have used cannabis with no untoward effects; outlawing it because a small percentage of people may have problems as a result makes no sense. We don’t outlaw Big Macs because some will develop health problems as a result, nor do we outlaw lotteries or alcohol because of problems they may cause in some. An open, democratic society demands that people be free to make their own choices in matters that do not affect others. Cannabis regulation fulfills that requirement.

The author is an alcohol and drug counselor. Edited for length.