Commend Biden for Resisting Big Marijuana | Opinion

The Biden-Sanders joint presidential task force recently issued recommendations for a unity platform to move forward on a number of hot button issues. Among them: marijuana legalization, which the task force notably chose not to endorse, siding instead with decriminalization and research. Several commentators—from publications like National Review to The Atlantic and The Nation—chided Biden for not endorsing pot.

But the former vice president should be commended for siding with science, not politics.

The task force's non-endorsement of legalization—which is also shared by almost every single medical association in the country, and a group of prominent scientists like the head of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, the first Black magistrate judge in the U.S., and Harvard professors—is on solid ground. Today's pot is not the Woodstock Weed of the past—it is up to 50 times more potent than it used to be. In fact, these highly potent infused candies and waxes are now sending nearly 300,000 people to the ER every year. This super-pot is also pushed by an increasingly greedy, Big Tobacco-style industry that targets kids.

Does it really make sense to roll out the red carpet for high potency marijuana while we slam the door on Big Tobacco and smoking?

Today's marijuana is often misunderstood, though a plethora of research confirms the drug is harmful. Peer-reviewed research points to the fact that about 30 percent of past year users will have a cannabis use disorder—or addiction—and the drug appears to be significantly linked to a host of mental illnesses, ranging from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia and psychosis, and even suicidality, especially when use is initiated in youth. Furthermore, marijuana use is often a pathway to using other drugs—individuals using marijuana, for example, are more likely to misuse prescription opioids. Though the majority of those using marijuana won't go on to use other drugs, more than 95 percent of those using heroin and cocaine started with marijuana.

Even simply on its own, marijuana use can severely impact brain development in young people, leading to an astonishing eight-point IQ loss and to worse academic, personal and professional outcomes.

The worst part about all of this is that pro-marijuana propaganda is now led by a for-profit industry—and one unabashedly recommending marijuana to vulnerable groups, like pregnant women, even though there are potentially severe consequences for newborns. In states that legalized marijuana, marijuana-related traffic fatalities are significantly elevated. A study published last month found that widespread legalization could result in nearly 7,000 more traffic deaths annually, due to impaired driving.

Marijuana dispensary in Denver
Marijuana dispensary in Denver Theo Stroomer/Getty Images

Furthermore, marijuana is not as popular as advocates would contend. The reality is this: More states have rejected legalization, either via the legislature or at the ballot box, than have approved it. And even in states where it has been legalized, the overwhelming majority of cities and towns have banned any marijuana industry activity. Recent polls giving Americans more than one policy choice reveal only minority support for legalization, and marijuana is not even close to being rated as a top priority for voters.

Yes, we should not arrest people for pot, nor should we saddle them with criminal records. Expungements for past mistakes, while offering prevention and treatment, is the way to go.

And while the pot industry isn't popular at the local level, it's growing very popular in the boardrooms of Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, and Big Pharma. Altria, owner of Marlboro, recently invested billions of dollars into a marijuana grower and has purchased a large stake in Juul (which itself is an offshoot of a marijuana vaping company, at the root of today's youth vaping epidemic). And we can't forget the former head of Purdue Pharma, who oversaw the marketing of OxyContin and then went on to head up a pot company.

These addiction giants have long harmed communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. And now, the data show the marijuana industry is following their playbook. A recent study conducted by the ACLU found that African-Americans are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related charges than whites—even in "legal" states. And despite grand promises of social equity in the industry, less than two percent of the pot industry is owned by minorities—while its storefronts disproportionately litter minority communities. But, of course, it's actually white men who continue to profit off this legalization.

We should all want our leaders to look first to science and data when considering policy. Mr. Biden has done his homework on the thorny issue of marijuana legalization

Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., is a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama administration. He currently serves as president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.