By Flora Jewell-Stern and Elise Luter
In 2012, along with the majority of Coloradans, we voted to pass Amendment 64 and legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado. When we cast our votes, we believed that we were voting to legalize pot. Weed. You know, like we had in college or as young adults. We hoped that greater access would help children with life-threatening seizure disorders and cancer patients get the comfort they need. We believed, and still do, that voting in favor of legalization would be a victory for social justice, that it could lift the threat of criminalization and incarceration from communities that had already been decimated by the War on Drugs. We are still in favor of all of this.
Amendment 64 delivered on a lot of this. Unfortunately, it also delivered a host of unintended consequences and gave rise to a class of high-potency THC products that had never existed before. As parents all over the state can tell you, the “pot” that we voted for has morphed into something completely different due to high levels of THC potency and the lack of regulations on the industry. According to one researcher, these concentrates are “as close to the cannabis plant as strawberries are to frosted strawberry Pop Tarts.”
The pot back in the day was about 5% THC (THC is the “stuff” that gets you high, and is a different chemical than the more medicinal CBD or cannabidiol). With these new ultra high-potency substances, you can buy products that are 95% THC. And we say “products” for a reason: This isn’t pot. The way these THC products are consumed is dramatically different than rolling up a joint. These days, it’s about dabbing, vaping, shatter and wax. These products are not “natural.” They are concentrates made with butane or propane, mass produced to be as strong as possible.
What happened? How did the industry that we voted to legalize become this? When recreational consumption was legalized, a corporate profit model took over the young industry. They brought in enough chemistry, machinery, market research, and money to research, develop, and sell as much product as possible. This is how we ended up with THC products that didn’t even exist before legalization.
And here’s the bigger problem: When THC is consumed at this potency, it is not only addictive but can cause or exacerbate depression, anxiety, sleep problems, hallucinations, psychosis and suicidal ideation. The Netherlands — where many substances are legal — labels THC above 15% potency as a hard drug, the same category as heroin.
We are moms of teens, and our community has seen firsthand how these new high-potency THC products are ruining the lives of teens and young adults, worsening mental health crises, and tearing families apart. Colorado’s teen suicide rate increased 58% — yes, 58% — from 2016 to 2019. In 2017, THC was found in 36% of 15-19-year-olds who died by suicide.
So what can we do about this? Education and awareness are incredibly important, of course, but they aren’t enough. We believe that it is imperative that our elected officials use science and research to craft legislation that will keep up with the dangerous regulatory gaps on high-potency THC. As a society, we rose to the challenge of regulating alcohol and tobacco, to mitigate the harm they pose to vulnerable members of our society. Now it’s time to do the same with this industry.
Along with other local advocates, we are working on a bill for this legislative session. If you are interested in learning more and getting involved, contact [email protected].
Flora Jewell-Stern and Elise Luter are mothers and community activists from Arapahoe County.