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HHS official wants states to know the risks of pot legalization


The top HHS official in charge of preventing substance abuse called for a grassroots effort to inform states of the long-term health risks of marijuana as more states pursue legalization.

Elinore McCance-Katz, assistance secretary for mental health and substance use within HHS, implored attendees at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Prevention Day event to work with states on the health risks of marijuana. Katz, who heads up SAMHSA, said that marijuana today has a higher count of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that creates its mind-altering effect, compared to 20 years ago.

“It is taking time to get attention to the issue but you all can help with that,” McCance-Katz told the audience of addition prevention advocates and community leaders. “There has to be a huge sea change in order for this to be altered at this point.”

The THC count for marijuana in the 1990s was 4% but it increased to 12% in 2014, McCance-Katz said, citing a 2015 study.

“There are risks and adverse outcomes with marijuana, which are downplayed by the industry and ignored by our states,” she said. “There include low-birth weight babies, pulmonary systems, car crashes … and addiction.”

A recent study in Colorado found that after a nursing woman smokes marijuana once then her baby will consume traces of the drug through her breast milk and could last in the body for up to six weeks.

So far 33 states have approved laws to allow medical marijuana and nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but neither the Trump nor Obama administrations enforced the law in states that legalized the drug for recreational use.

More states are considering legalization, with New York’s legislature the latest to consider the issue.

An attendee asked McCance-Katz if the Trump administration was going to do anything to combat the rise of marijuana use and enforce federal laws. McCance-Katz responded that would be an issue for the Justice Department to consider.

“Marijuana is so incredibly prevalent now that from the perspective of a healthcare provider I am trying to help reduce the harm by informing people about the risk,” she said. “That is about as much as I can really say about it.”