SANTA ANA, Calif.—At first glance, the lure of permitting retail cannabis sales in cities across Orange County, California, seems compelling. A number of industry professionals see the county as an untapped market, while city governments are scrambling to generate more tax revenue in the wake of the pandemic.
But though this may seem like a mutually beneficial economic victory, many citizens are concerned that legal cannabis retail will cause significant negative impacts on children and teenagers in their communities.
“Marijuana is more normalized and glamorized than ever,” Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy, told The Epoch Times. “People might have voted for Prop 64 [2016’s Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act], but it doesn’t mean that they voted to have pot in their own community.”
The Epoch Times spoke with a leading authority on marijuana policy, a therapist in Orange County, and the founder of a national support group who are critical of marijuana legalization. They argue that more access to retail cannabis could lead to normalization, hamper productivity and motivation, cause behavioral problems, and possibly lead to psychotic episodes.
Sabet said that when Californians voted to decriminalize marijuana, they likely weren’t aware of the consequences.
“They might have been fine with an adult smoking a joint now and again, [but] that’s very different than bringing a store next to your kid’s school that sells high potency gummies, sodas, candies, waxes, and dabs. That’s just a very, very different thing,” he said.
Those in favor of marijuana say the drug is safe, tested, and cite many benefits of its use, including for medicinal purposes.
“Cannabis is the safest thing you can put in your body,” Elliot Lewis, founder and CEO of Catalyst Cannabis in Santa Ana, told The Epoch Times. “It’s safer than your food, … safer than your wine, [and] safer than your water. … The testing is more restrictive than your daily stuff that you would eat.”
A 2021 study of cannabis use by youth in Canada, where recreational marijuana became legal nationally in 2018, indicates there have been no pronounced changes in usage among teenagers since that time. The analysis, published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, looked at marijuana use by over 100,000 youth, both before and after legalization.
Strong Concentrates and Vaping
Sabet, who served as an advisor to three U.S. presidential administrations, has studied, researched, and implemented drug policy for over two decades. His forthcoming book, “Smoke Screen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know,” is an exposé about the rise of today’s highly potent form of marijuana.
“The pot today is not the marijuana that parents might have used in college 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s much stronger—30 to 50 times stronger—depending on what it is.”
Sabet cited a 2019 study from “European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience” that examines the increase in marijuana potency over the course of one decade. Between 2008 and 2017, the concentration of THC, the central psychoactive component in cannabis, rose from 8.9 to 17.1 percent in marijuana plants. During the same period, the potency of cannabis concentrates skyrocketed from 6.7 to 55.7 percent.
The boost in potency of concentrates—which are used for vape pens—is a key source of concern. Marijuana usage via vape pens has doubled or nearly tripled among children in middle and high school over the past three years.
Between 2017 and 2020, marijuana vaping within the past year had risen 5 percent among eighth-grade students, 11 percent among 10th-graders, and over 12 percent among 12th-graders, according to annual surveys funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A study on adolescent drug use by Monitoring the Future found that marijuana vaping “increased significantly and substantially” in 2019—nearly tripling in monthly use among 12th-graders between 2017 and 2019. However, the same study noted that overall marijuana use (including smoking, vaping, and eating) did not significantly increase, suggesting that students may be using vaping as a supplement to traditional methods.
“Nowadays, vaping is a way to hide marijuana really easily,” Sabet said. “And it’s become very, very popular. … Lids are messing with their jewel pens to add in the THC vapor, and they’re getting addicted to it. And they’re having to spend a lot of money on treatment.”
But Sabet said the issue is even thornier: Parental marijuana use poses an increased risk of substance use among adolescents and young adults who live in the same household, according to a 2019 study published by the American Medical Association.
“What parents think they know about marijuana is often wrong,” he added.
Impacts on Teens and Families
Lauren Goodman, a marriage and family therapist who founded Teen Therapy OC, told The Epoch Times she has seen this dynamic in her practice.
“Kids who know their parents use cannabis are more likely to think it’s not a very big deal,” she said. “I have seen situations where a parent is addicted. They tend not to be very strict if their adolescent children try it. What can they say? The kids know about their parents’ usage.
“Parents … need to understand that words are hollow if they are backed with hypocrisy. Kids listen better to what you do than what you say.”
Goodman said the ability to obtain vape pens has contributed to more cannabis use in teens over the last few years because it’s odorless and harder for adults to detect.
During her career, Goodman has seen how continual cannabis use in teens leads to a decreased interest in engaging with mentally stimulating activity. Chronic users exhibit a decline in athletic and academic output, tend to pull back from their religious communities, and often take a hostile attitude towards their families, she said. On rare occasions, she has seen teenagers experience prolonged confusion after using cannabis.
“Chronic users of cannabis often confide in therapy they do it because their anxiety is unmanageable, they do it because of insomnia, or they do it because of chronic pain,” Goodman said. “[But] there are safer alternatives than using cannabis.”
Two leaders in Southern California’s cannabis industry explained to The Epoch Times why they support adult usage of marijuana as a medicinal alternative.
Mike Moussalli is CEO of Se7enLeaf, a cannabis manufacturing and distributing company in Costa Mesa. He said the proper use of cannabis helps him regulate an autoimmune issue.
“I’ve seen all the doctors and nobody could really identify what the exact issue was; they could just identify [it] was an autoimmune issue,” Moussalli told The Epoch Times. “I tried taking some of the standard medications out there for autoimmune conditions. And they were horrible, and I did not see any results.”
That changed when Moussalli began taking a cannabis tincture made at his facility. Unlike purely THC concentrates, the tincture he uses has a “very high” CBD (cannabidiol) content with a “very low” THC component. CBD doesn’t typically contain the psychoactive properties of THC.
“I take that tincture daily, and it absolutely helps regulate my immune system,” Moussalli said.
Catalyst Cannabis’ Lewis sees more nuance to the issue of adults using cannabis, whether medicinally or for recreation.
“I think it’s hard to say at what point the medical ends and the recreational begins,” he said. “Tell somebody with debilitating anxiety that smoking pure flower isn’t something that they need to get out of bed in the morning … [or] the guy that’s dying of cancer that needs it for pain relief.”
He said the products are tested for THC levels, CBD levels, and every “toxin under the sun” to keep them safe, adding that the use of cannabis is “less black and white” than people might think.
“I have customers I know [who] come in in a wheelchair, and it really helps them with their pain,” he said. “Cannabis is their go-to, as opposed to some antidepressant or something else that allows them to make it through the day.”
He added: “If you overuse it, and you don’t use it in moderation, there are potentially negative impacts. But I do think the vast majority of the people that utilize cannabis know their limits. At the end of the day, [they’re] happier, better, more productive people [than] had they not utilized cannabis, I think.”
Lewis said he supports adults who use cannabis as part of their daily routine as long as they don’t impinge on other people’s lives.
Goodman, on the other hand, encourages her clients to engage in a frank discussion with a physician to find a “more controllable and safe way” to manage their conditions. One risk she noted is the slippery slope from recreational use to addiction.
“Just because you think you are invulnerable to addiction doesn’t mean you are,” she said. “The benefits are short-lived, but the risks you are taking if you use cannabis are greater than you think.”
“Marijuana is a short-cut that will stealthily rob you of your motivation to strive.”
Psychosis and Suicide
The same sentiment is shared by Lori Robinson, founder and director of Moms Strong, a national support group headquartered in California and Colorado.
Robinson told The Epoch Times she founded the group to help inform the public about the harms of marijuana, particularly by sharing stories about young people who have suffered devastating mental and physical health effects. Currently, the group’s website contains 70 personal stories about marijuana’s detrimental impact on young people’s lives.
This became a central mission for Robinson after her son, Shane, committed suicide at the age of 25 after experiencing marijuana-induced psychotic episodes. She said he was 10 when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996.
“My husband and I … brought our sons up to know drugs are dangerous, but looking back Shane was growing up in California with the marijuana culture,” she said. “Our kids are saturated with messages about the ‘medicinal’ benefits of pot and how innocuous this substance is to use.”
Shane began using marijuana at age 19, she said, but his usage increased three years later after he suffered a severe knee injury. He was intolerant to prescription pain medication, and turned to medicinal marijuana as an alternative.
Robinson said her son had exhibited no previous signs or symptoms of mental illness prior to suffering a psychotic episode one night that caused visual and auditory hallucinations.
“It was, to this day, the most surreal, horrific, and traumatic experience as parents—to helplessly witness our always thriving, extremely affable, jovial, outgoing … son suddenly—overnight—descend into a state as if his mind was unraveling,” she recalled.
Robinson and her husband took Shane to a psychiatric facility in Ventura, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His admitted marijuana use wasn’t taken into account, she said.
At the time, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders didn’t contain a section about cannabis. However, in 2013—a year after Shane’s death—the manual was revised to include a section dedicated to cannabis-use disorders.
“The night of Shane’s psychotic break, our son referred to pot as ‘a harmless herb,’” said Robinson. “It’s ubiquitous in the American culture today, yet the harms—especially to the young, developing brain—are unknown.”
She noted former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams’ 2019 advisory: “No amount of marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe. Until and unless more is known about the long-term impact, the safest choice for pregnant women and adolescents is not to use marijuana.”
“I’m flummoxed how society ignores the facts about THC marijuana,” Robinson added, citing a 2018 study in The British Journal of Psychiatry that determined cannabis users have an increased risk of subsequently developing psychotic symptoms or schizophrenia-like psychotic illness.
Results of Community Pushback
Sabet encourages people who don’t want cannabis in their communities to speak up.
“The average person [should] know that their efforts make a difference, to push back, and that this is not inevitable in their community,” he said.
A case in point is the recent repeal of the retail cannabis ordinance in Fullerton. Though the ordinance was passed on Nov. 17, 2020, subsequent outcry from a diverse group of citizens—including parents, educators, business owners, community leaders, a pastor, a teenager, and a young boy—prompted the city council to reverse course on Feb. 16.
One resident expressed concern about how her high school-aged children would perceive legalization in Fullerton. “The word ‘legal’ in the mind of a high schooler means ‘moral,’” she said. “So when you guys make laws … you make it moral for people. … You give them permission to do things that they normally would not do.”
Christy Sims, a 40-year Fullerton resident, presented a list of signatures to the council. “I have in my hand here 869 very precious items. Please take to heart these 869 people who said, ‘Please don’t bring cannabis to our community,’” she said, adding that the signatures were gathered from folks throughout the entire city—not just one neighborhood.
“I think the primary motivation for this is financial,” said Maureen, a Fullerton resident and former D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) instructor. “I hope that our citizens, and our families, and our children in this community take precedence over an unknown amount of money we might make.”
Another resident brought the council five copies of a Newsweek opinion article from 2015 that documented the unexpected side effects of legalizing weed in Denver, Boulder, and De Beque, Colorado. The impacts included an increase in homelessness, drug-related school expulsions, and emergency room visits.
Mayor Bruce Whitaker told The Epoch Times the ordinance “was pushed a little bit too fast for the public.”
“In the end, it’s about government by consent, and I believe the prior council really didn’t listen to the public that much,” Whitaker said.
In a meeting last December, Councilmember Fred Jung quoted musician Miles Davis. “He said, ‘When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.’ So I think it’s clear that this was a wrong note,” said Jung.
Added Sabet, “The Fullerton story just proves what a small, mighty band of people can do to change and influence.”