In response to the growing prospect of N.J. legalization, Rutgers professor says effects of marijuana are under-researched
Following Colorado’s 2012 decision to legalize recreational marijuana, a nationwide initiative prompted states to reconsider the parameters that dictate cannabis use. New Jersey is one of the states currently debating its legalization, with a controversy surrounding whether to decriminalize the Schedule I drug.
These changes in state-regulated marijuana laws have generated a growing concern among non-recreational states regarding the use of cannabis and synthetic marijuana strains by underage individuals, said Theodore Petti, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry within the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“States with easier legal access to cannabis are not so much of a problem, (like) in New York and New Jersey with access to marijuana whether medical or recreational,” he said. “I think the problem with synthetic cannabinoids, and there’s probably over 450 available in various varieties, is much more a problem.”
Compared to tractional marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids pose a higher danger as they threaten developing brains and induce respiratory depression with higher levels of their psychotomimetic properties, Petti said.
The distribution of public information to the potential dangers that these synthetic strains, along with traditional cannabis, posses has been poorly handled, Petti said. Particularly as the proportion of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) increases from previous years.
“Up to age 25 it does have an effect on the developing brain, which can even pass onto the next generation for women who are pregnant,” he said.
While the opioid epidemic occupies the country’s attention, very little is being done to advocate the effects of cannabis, Petti said. Short-term risks of cannabis abuse include, but are not limited to, developing psychosis and alteration of the brain’s neurotransmitters.
Additionally, poor efforts have been made to outline the medicinal benefits of marijuana due to malformed research policies, he said. As legalization persists many fear the country will soon see the commercialization of big cannabis, alongside alcohol and tobacco, fighting for the attention of underage users.
As commercialization increases, the THC levels in marijuana increase as well, while levels of cannabinol decrease. Cannabinol is the compound in marijuana that can help mitigate the effects of epilepsy without inducing psychomimetic properties, Petti said.
“A lot of individuals who are older adults into middle age recall the marijuana that was available to them and say, 'well that’s not a big issue, I used it and I’m successful,’ but the THC as it increased has more potential for adverse effects and that’s a really major concern,” he said.
While New Jersey’s medicinal status sets limits on how high THC levels can rise, the same cannot be said about states where recreational use has been legalized, Petti said. Assuming marijuana is legalized in New Jersey there is no telling what shape cannabis will take.
If decriminalized without regulation, New Jersey will find itself in a state of disarray with unrestricted increases in THC content. But if regulated, the standard which limits medicinal marijuana’s THC will take place, Petti said.
"If public education was implemented 20 to 30 years ago when marijuana was actually being used more frequently than it is today by individuals 25 and under, a really concerted effort as is being done with tobacco and alcohol,” he said.
These efforts have since stopped, as the general consensus is that if it is medicinal it must be good and if it is natural it must be better, Petti said. Hope lies in advocacy groups with a focus on the under-25 demographic honing in on the long-term cerebral effects and increasing general awareness.
“There are some effective treatments to help them (under 25 group) get over the marijuana, but the treatments are expensive and most states have not devoted a significant, or even a sufficient, amount of funds from the taxation they're getting to provide those preventive and intervention services,” he said.
Cannabis from 1970 was not nearly as potent in THC as it is today, said Jeffrey Backstrand, an associate teaching professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers—Newark.
“I think there’s no question, and while I don’t know the literature, that particularly young brains are more susceptible to all kinds of drugs and not just illegal ones but medications as well,” he said
Higher levels of THC are most likely a result of users seeking a more potent high, Backstrand said. Synthetic strains are a relatively nuanced drug and are potentially dangerous to the public purchasing unregulated drugs.
“My observation is that high school kids and junior high school kids don’t seem to have a problem finding marijuana," he said. "So I don't think the issue is of access but there should be literature on that or at least some information from Colorado and others."
Christian Zapata is a School of Arts and Sciences junior. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum.