Cannabis legalization debate turns to questions of potential potency

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As the legalization of marijuana spreads across U.S. states, so does a debate over whether to define pot-by-potency policy.

Under a law signed last month, New York will tax recreational marijuana based on its amount of THC, the main intoxicating chemical in cannabis. Illinois imposed a potency tax when sales of recreational pots began last year. Vermont limits THC content when its legal market opens as early as next year, and limits or taxes have been discussed in some other states and in the US Senate drug control caucus.

Supporters say such measures will protect public health by blocking, or at least discouraging, what they see as dangerously concentrated cannabis.

“It’s not your Woodstock weed,” says Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group that has been pushing for power caps. “We need to impose certain limits on the products sold.”

Opponents argue that THC limits could cause people to buy illegally, and are back to reverting to banning pot over a concern critics consider exaggerated.

“This is Prohibitionism 2.0,” said Cristina Buccola, a cannabis lawyer in New York City. “Once they start putting on hats, what don’t they put on?”

THC levels have increased in recent decades – from 4% in 1995 to 12% in 2014 in marijuana seized by federal agents, for example. Cannabis concentrates sold in the legal Colorado market average around 69% THC, and some exceed 90%, according to state reports.

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A 2017 in-depth review of cannabis and health by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine identified increasing potency among the factors that “create an increased risk of adverse health effects.”

Some studies have linked the pot high in THC, especially when used daily, with the likelihood of psychosis and certain other mental health issues. But there is debate as to whether one causes the other.

Opposes Cap

Dr. Rachel Knox, a doctor from Oregon who advises patients on cannabis use for various conditions, says she does not see an increased risk of psychosis for people using such products under medical supervision. She opposes the cap potency, but suggests that products with more than 70% THC should be reserved for medical users while research continues.

“I think we should treat it both with freedom and with children’s gloves,” says Knox, former chairman of the Oregon Cannabis Commission and board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, a business group.

But Colorado pediatrician and state representative Dr. Yadira Caraveo says she has seen the dangers of high THC cannabis.

One of her teenage patients who used high-potency pot on a daily basis was repeatedly hospitalized with severe vomiting linked to heavy marijuana use, and another had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital after the drug exacerbated her problems. mental health, Caraveo said. She is thinking of proposing a power cap.

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“I don’t want to go back to criminalization,” says the Democrat, but “the reason I ran, and what I continue to do with the Legislature every day, is to protect public health. “

Various states have regulated the number of milligrams of THC in a single serving, package, or retail, at least for some products. Vermont took a different approach, limiting the percentage of the chemical in any amount of recreational pot – 30% for flower-shaped marijuana and 60% for concentrates.

Virginia Law

Virginia’s new legalization law gives its future cannabis regulator the power to set THC limits, and a proposal to cap THC in medical marijuana has caught the attention of the Legislative Assembly of Florida. Nationally, the bipartisan U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control suggested last month that federal health agencies investigate whether potency should be limited.

Supporters of legalization say the caps will backfire.

“Consumer demand for these products is not going to go away, and re-criminalizing them will only push this consumer base to seek out similar products in the unregulated illicit market,” wrote Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, in a recent op. -ed in the Denver Westword newspaper.

Rather than banning high potency pot, some states are simply making it more expensive.

Marijuana is taxed by sale price or by weight in most states where it is legal. But taxes on recreational pots depend in part on THC content in Illinois and New York.

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The California Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended a potency tax in 2019, saying this approach “could reduce harmful use more effectively.” But that same year, the Washington Alcohol and Cannabis Board said it was not feasible, citing uncertainty over how the state sales tax change would affect consumption, health. public and revenues.

Power taxes have an advantage for states: more stable revenues than sales taxes, says Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a progressive think tank. This is because sales tax totals can go down with prices in a maturing market.

There is a downside to small cannabis companies, says Amber Littlejohn, executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. She fears they will lose if THC taxes drive customers to underground dealerships or large multi-state companies that may be able to cut prices.

Instead, Littlejohn says power politics should focus on research and strict labeling and marketing requirements, and the industry needs to be responsive.

“It’s absolutely an emerging problem,” she said, “and it’s something that needs to be addressed.”

The Bharat Express News editor Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia contributed to this report.

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