October 22, 2021

Which way on weed?

Communities facing choices on pot sales, use

Photo illustration/MetroCreative

Decisions made by citizens and their municipal leaders in New York will determine whether marijuana can be sold at a dispensary, or consumed at a business.

Municipalities across New York have until Dec. 31 to opt out of allowing marijuana dispensaries and consumption sites.

Some communities, such as Homer and McGraw, will let voters decide via referendum. And even if a municipality opts out, it can later opt in — although communities that initially opt in cannot later opt out.

You and the people you elect can benefit from a basic understanding of what marijuana does. The decision you or your municipal leaders make won’t change the legality of marijuana — people can still possess and use the drug — but those decisions will determine whether the product can be sold at a dispensary, or consumed at a business.

So here’s what you might want to know:

HOW DOES MARIJUANA USE COMPARE TO TOBACCO USE?

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that smoked cannabis has many of the same cancer-causing substances as smoked tobacco, as found in a 2008 study.

However, because cannabis use often overlaps other behaviors related to lung cancer, such as tobacco use, the CDC says more research is needed to know whether smoking cannabis increases a person’s risk for lung, head and neck cancers.

Other studies, including research by the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine in 2017, found little statistical evidence that cannabis use is connected to these cancers.

“We know that tobacco smoking is associated with potentially adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, and raising the risk of stroke and heart attack, but questions remain whether cannabis smoking independently possesses that same risk,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.

It is oftentimes hard to weed out the distinction of data because many of those studies include marijuana smokers who also smoke tobacco.

“Nonetheless, there are potential concerns there,” Armentano said.

A 2021 pilot study by Nicotine & Tobacco Research found people who smoked cannabis exclusively showed less evidence of toxic exposure than people who smoked just tobacco, or people who smoked both.

Also, cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke are not equally carcinogenic — marijuana is less carcinogenic — although this does not mean smoking is without its dangers.

“We really don’t want to be putting anything into our lungs but clear air,” said Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa. “Whether it’s legal or not, there are damaging effects to the tissues in the lungs whenever you smoke anything.”

Due to the potential risk to lung health, the CDC strongly cautions against smoking cannabis and tobacco products alike.

WHAT ABOUT PREGNANT OR BREASTFEEDING WOMEN?

Data so far are inconclusive on whether in utero cannabis exposure contributes to pre-term birth or other neonatal problems, although the CDC states smoking cannabis during pregnancy is linked to lower birth weight. The chemicals found in cannabis, including edibles, may be bad for babies, but few studies have been done on consuming edibles during pregnancy.

“We would encourage any mother to stop smoking anything — whether it be tobacco or marijuana or any other substance — during their pregnancy and while breastfeeding,” Kruppa said. “We talk about brain development for teens and adolescents, and it becomes even more critical when we talk about infants. So we want to limit it wherever possible, including not passing along those chemicals to our infants during pregnancy or through breastfeeding.”

Experts recommend breastfeeding mothers reduce or avoid marijuana use until they’ve weaned their infant. The chemicals from cannabis, particularly THC, can be passed to a baby through a mother’s milk, however, data are limited and conflicting on the effect of cannabis exposure through breastfeeding.

“We know that THC can be transferred from the mother to the infant via breast milk, but whether there are health implications associated with the infant being exposed that way, I don’t believe we have an answer yet,” Armentano said.

HOW ADDICTIVE IS POT?

Data compiled by a researcher at the RAND Corp. reports the risk of dependence among heavy marijuana users appears to have declined since 2002 from roughly 1-in-4 users down to 1-in-6 users.

By comparison, a study in 2002 found that adolescent tobacco cigarette users displayed symptoms of dependence within two months of starting. Up to 33% percent reported symptoms of addiction when smoking at least once a month, 49% by the time they were smoking once a week, and 70% before they became daily smokers.

A study in 1995 by the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry found that tobacco use disorder was the most common substance use disorder in the United States — 60% to 80% of smokers fit the criteria for drug dependence.

The study defines “dependence” as meaning the users fail to keep limits set on their substance use, reducing one’s engagement in important activities, continuing to use the substance despite emotional, physical or emotional problems, spending an inordinate amount of time obtaining it, or failing to reduce one’s use despite intending to do so.

Studies found that about 9% of people who experiment with cannabis at some point in their lives go on to use it regularly, in comparison to the 33% of people who tried tobacco and became regular users, the 30% of heroin users or 15% of alcohol users, Armentano said.

“The question is not ‘does marijuana have any level of dependence liability?’ — It does. The question in context is what is the degree of dependence liability relative to other substances,” he said.

People dependent on cannabis who then stop using may experience withdrawals. Symptoms may be physical, such as having difficulty sleeping that first night, or psychological and emotional, such as feeling irritable.

“They’re relatively short-lived, as in about 24 hours, and the symptoms are relatively mild,” Armentano said. “But are these symptoms significant enough that it would encourage one to reinitiate their behavior in order to get rid of the symptoms? Most people have trouble quitting tobacco cigarettes because of significant symptoms of withdrawal, so it’s easier to go back to smoking cigarettes. And if somebody is a hard-core alcoholic and suddenly stops drinking alcohol, they could actually die because the withdrawal symptoms are so severe.”

WHAT ARE THE RELATIVE DANGERS OF MARIJUANA USE?

“This isn’t something that innocuous, it isn’t something that lacks any harm whatsoever,” Armentano said. “We recognize that this is a mood-altering substance, it can impair judgment and behavior, and there are potential high-risk populations that are of greater risk of experiencing adverse effects.”

Cannabis users may experience dysphoria, accompanied by paranoia, panic attacks, changes in their perception of time feelings that could make the user uncomfortable, anxious or scared. Other symptoms may include tachycardia, or rapid heartbeat, and can increase the risk of a heart attack in the hours after cannabis use, the CDC reports.

The CDC also reports that heavy cannabis use is associated with the development of schizophrenia and other psychoses, social anxiety disorders, worsened symptoms in people with bipolar disorders, and users are more likely to report thoughts of suicide than non-users.

“One of the unique challenges with marijuana that makes it different than tobacco, is tobacco today is regulated — we have an idea of what’s in tobacco and it’s easier to understand the effects,” Kruppa said. “Because marijuana is not yet regulated, you can’t really know what you’re smoking. Generally speaking, THC levels are higher in marijuana smoked today than decades past, but we don’t know what other chemicals are being used in the manufacturing.”

WHY DON’T WE KNOW MORE ABOUT CANNABIS?

Research has been limited because cannabis remains a schedule 1 narcotic, according to the federal government.

“Changes to regulations could expand research opportunities, and the findings could be used to develop an evidence base that informs public policy and regulations,” said Gretchen Schmidt, director of criminal justice programs and the cannabis control school of graduate studies at Excelsior College.

Despite limited research, there is conclusive evidence of the efficacy of cannabis as medical treatment, Schmidt said.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences found substantial evidence that cannabis or other cannabinoids are an effective pain treatment, and can treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and spasticity related to multiple sclerosis.

Another study by the academy showed moderate evidence for sleep disturbance and stated more research is needed to understand cannabis’ impact on treating other conditions including Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy.

“While we do not have a lot of definitive answers due to lack of research, one thing we do know is that alcohol and tobacco are already legal, and most studies show that cannabis is less harmful than these other substances in terms of dependency and lethality,” Schmidt said.

WHAT ABOUT CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS?

Long-term cannabis use can have permanent effects on the developing brains of adolescents and young adults, the CDC reports.

Studies show that if a child uses cannabis before the age of 16 for a prolonged period, it could lead to dependency, could impair academic performance, and affect their social lives.

“One of the most important things is protecting children,” Kruppa said. “We don’t want children to start using marijuana at a young age, not only because it leads to more chances of addiction but because the brain is still developing until our mid20s. Any type of drug being used during that time can be detrimental to that development.”

Experts caution adult users to keep their stash away from children and keep the packaging child-proof.

“We look at where some young children have inadvertently consumed these products — typically we’re talking about edible products, like cookies or gummies that look safe to eat — and the worst-case scenario is the parents take them to the emergency room,” Armentano said.

One-time consumption of marijuana is unlikely to significantly affect a child, he said, and medical professionals generally administer fluids to prevent dehydration.

“Although it’s a serious concern at the moment for the parents and the child, we do know that THC — regardless of how much is taken — cannot cause an overdose death,” Armentano said.


What communities are doing

  • The Cortlandville Town Board voted Wednesday to opt-out of allowing dispensaries and consumption sites.
  • The Homer Town Board voted Aug. 5 to leave the decision up to town voters in a Nov. 2 referendum.
  • The village of McGraw board voted in July to put the question to a referendum.
  • The village of Homer opted out for allowing consumption sites, but not for marijuana dispensaries.
  • The village of Marathon board will discuss the issue Sept. 1.
  • The city of Cortland’s Common Council hasn’t publicly discussed whether the city should opt-out.

Photo illustration/MetroCreative

Myth vs. reality: Some straight dope on pot

  • Marijuana is a gateway drug. MYTH. The CDC states more research is needed to know whether cannabis use leads to using other drugs. Researchers have found that most consumers of illicit substances first experimented with either alcohol or tobacco, and statistics show an overwhelming majority of people who try marijuana do not go on to use other illicit drugs, and most users typically stop using marijuana by middle age.
  • Driving high is the same as driving drunk. MYTH, but let’s drive sober anyway. Driving while under the influence of cannabis is an offense in every state, regardless of the legality of the substance. In a 2019 assessment by the Congressional Research Service, researchers found that people typically demonstrated only modest changes in psychomotor performance after consuming cannabis. However, when combined with alcohol there was a significant reduction in performance and increased odds of an accident.
  • Marijuana leads to violent crime. MYTH. A 2021 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found little evidence to suggest recreational marijuana laws and the subsequent increase in cannabis consumption encouraged the use of harder substances or violent crime. In fact, some studies showed cannabis had a crime-reducing effect in Colorado and Washington after legalization.