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Good news, governor: Cannabis will not kill your kids

Good news, governor: Cannabis will not kill your kids

The governor of Nebraska made international headlines earlier this month by staking his opposition to allowing medical cannabis on the claim that doing so would kill children.

During a press conference held to oppose a medical cannabis legalization bill advancing in his state, Governor Pete Rickets pulled out all the stops to paint cannabis as a dangerous drug.

“If you legalize marijuana, you’re going to kill your kids,” he told Nebraskans. “That’s what the data shows from around the country and that’s why it’s dangerous to go around the established process that we have.”

We’ll get to why in a second, but that’s simply not true. Marijuana does not kill kids.

(Editor’s note: We usually frown upon editorial shenanigans like underlining and bolding words but ultimately concluded that the risk of our readers mistakenly thinking marijuana kills children was simply too great to be bound by petty stylistic concerns.)

Ricketts, who has led several efforts at cutting red tape as a means of encouraging business growth, went on to describe the cannabis industry as “a big industry that is trying not to be regulated and go around the regulatory process and put people at risk.” 

Nebraska: The good life
Nebraska … the good life (Marekuliasz/Shutterstock)

Here are some of the other claims the governor made:

  • “Experts have said that marijuana is dangerous…and we can already see the dangers of this in other states that have already legalized marijuana.”
  • Cannabis “has a big impact on people’s cognitive ability, it changes the brain matter in their brain — damages their ability to be able to develop their cognitive abilities and do well in school, this is something that’s harming our young people and it continues on into the workplace.” 
  • Ricketts also mentioned Levi Pongi, a young student who “killed himself” after he jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating an edible (the coroner ruled the death an accident), and Marc Bullard, a 23-year-old with no history of mental illness who killed himself in 2016 and mentioned dabbing in his suicide note. 

USA TODAY reported that a spokesman for Ricketts pointed to two studies that found an increase in marijuana use among teenagers who had committed suicide in states with legal cannabis programs. 

Standing at the press conference earlier this month, Ricketts railed against cannabis legalization and stated “I urge Nebraskans, to get educated on this” 

Fair enough, but should the governor also educate himself? Let’s look at some of the facts he trotted out.

Wrong: Cannabis will kill your kids

First things first. There is no proof that anyone has ever died of a marijuana overdose, as opposed to the 47,000 people who died of opioid overdoses in 2018 alone according to the Centers for Disease Control

There is also no evidence of any widespread (or non-widespread) phenomenon of parents getting high and killing their kids or of kids getting high and murdering other kids because of marijuana. 

Ricketts may have been referring in part to the so-called “Gateway Drug” theory, which argues that marijuana opens the door to harder drug use. In other words, even if cannabis is harmless, it will lead kids to try harder and harder drugs, and they will die or at least become addicted. 

Luckily, the gateway drug theory has been largely debunked.

The other claim, according to which cannabis is associated with higher suicide rates is just as tenuous. Yes, there have been some studies that associated cannabis use with very slightly higher suicide attempts, but none have come close to proving any sort of causation.

Wrong: Cannabis legalization leads to a big increase in youth consumption 

In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to fully legalize cannabis. A study published in 2020 found “no evidence of an impact on cannabis use or the perceived risk of use” among young people following legalization. 

The report also found “no meaningful difference” in reported cannabis use between Uruguayan students post legalization and their counterparts in Chile, where cannabis remains illegal.

Stateside, a 2018 review looked at 11 studies and found no evidence that the prevalence of marijuana use changes among adolescents when medical marijuana is legalized.

On the other hand, a study from 2019 found that cannabis use disorder prevalence increased from 2.18% to 2.72% among 12-17 years olds between 2008-2016 in states with legalized recreational marijuana.

What can we extrapolate from this? That we may still need to see more comprehensive evidence from more states, but in the meantime, there is no smoking gun that unequivocally proves that legalization leads to a significant increase in youth cannabis use. That is also not to suggest that cannabis is harmless for young people or that they should not wait until they are adults to partake. 

Wrong: Cannabis leads to cognitive decline

The spaced-out stoner stereotype is as old as cannabis prohibition itself, but the science doesn’t really back it up — certainly not unequivocally. 

Yes, a study from 2012 found that cannabis may have a neurotoxic effect on adolescence brains and called for more prevention of adolescent cannabis use. 

More recently, however, a study published in January 2020 examined cognitive decline by looking at pairs of twins in which one used cannabis and the other did not. The researchers “found little support for a potential causal effect of cannabis use on cognition, consistent with previous twin studies. Results suggest that cannabis use may not cause decline in cognitive ability among a normative sample of cannabis users.”

And in late 2020, the “Drug and Alcohol Review” published a report that looked at cannabis use by seniors and found that those who use medical marijuana “did not significantly differ in terms of cognitive performance measures. Furthermore, none of the MC (medical cannabis) use patterns associated with cognitive performance.”

So very wrong: Cannabis is a massive industry looking to skirt regulation 

The governor is right about the cannabis industry – it is massive and growing by the day. According to one assessment from July, 2020, it could have an impact of $130 billion in the United States alone by 2024.

This would have been an unthinkable figure not that long ago, but it still pales in comparison to the alcohol industry – which generates at least $254 billion in revenue in the US alone. This would put it somewhat ahead of the U.S. tobacco industry, estimated to entail a $119 billion share of the global market by 2025. 

Beyond the night and day difference in health costs and loss of life, it is common knowledge that both industries have spent decades lobbying politicians against industry regulation. The cannabis industry, on the other hand, has been begging the government to regulate it. That’s literally what the push for legalization is about.

What should the governor know?

There are a number of very important cannabis facts that any advocate should be aware of if they are advocating legalization — or if they hold statewide office in a state that lacks any form of cannabis legalization. And while legalization should be the result of a rigorous examination of the costs and benefits, if you do kill your kids that is probably not the fault of legalization. 

We would advise though that it is best for young people to abstain until they are of legal age unless prescribed by a doctor, and that parents and legal guardians keep cannabis and cannabis products safely away from their children.

And if you still aren’t convinced, here’s Detective McGrowl with a far more convincing argument:

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