Proper cannabis education: we need it, and we’re not getting it.

Accurate information is shockingly absent in a world where many were brought up with the singular cannabis message of “just don’t do it.” This gaping black hole allows rumors about the plant to fly unchecked on both sides of the debate.

In New Jersey, where the conversation is heating up on local, regional and state levels, this missing knowledge is glaringly obvious. We shouldn’t be too surprised in a world where most cannabis knowledge is formed by D.A.R.E. and Cheech and Chong movies (not that there’s anything wrong with those!) — it leaves New Jersey citizens ill-equipped to properly analyze and rebut claims of addiction and lazy stoners hogging the line at McDonald’s. 

To get some answers to some of the most common tropes against cannabis, we turned to two Garden State-based advocates who use their platforms to dispel misnomers, misconstrued facts and outright lies about this hot-button topic. While there are dozens of reasons to legalize adult-use cannabis out there, we focused on two general, important categories: public health and children.

About our cannabis advocates, Jessie Gill and Ed “Lefty” Grimes

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A freak work accident lurched Jessie Gill of MarijuanaMommy headfirst into a years-long battle with a spinal injury which directly affected her ability to work as a nurse and parent her children. Opiates, Valium, and medication to subside the side effects of opiates and Valium failed. She underwent a spinal fusion surgery — and continued to suffer. After reluctantly trying cannabis, Gill quickly went from a skeptic to a believer, launching her website to share how medical marijuana can restore quality of life to those with chronic pain and other ailments.

Grimes is a medical marijuana patient who found out firsthand that local governments and police departments are not well-versed with New Jersey’s medical marijuana laws. With his organization Sativa Cross, he organizes groups of fellow patients and allies (donning dress shirts and ties, per his request) to shed light on the law at council meetings and police stations, in what is aptly dubbed the “Ignorance is No Excuse” tour. Grimes is known for his direct approach, often consuming his medicine for back pain outside municipal buildings and police stations (New Jersey law allows for the public consumption of medicinal marijuana, as long as the area is not a designated no smoking area). His tour has added many new stops since Gov. Phil Murphy’s election last November, appearing at municipal and county freeholder meetings where even the possibility of banning adult-use cannabis is being discussed.

Both Gill and Grimes quit opiates after switching to medical marijuana.

Myth #1: “Cannabis is addictive.”

Fact: Cannabis addiction rates are lower than alcohol and opiates.

Some advocates say that cannabis is totally harmless, while opponents push its addiction properties as yet another opiate crisis. Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

According to UCLA’s Center for Cannabis Research, the addiction potential for cannabis is around 10 percent — about the same as a serious caffeine dependence. Comparatively, addiction potential for alcohol is 15 percent.

Access to substances with addictive properties is nothing new in American society, or really, any society around the world. Any one of us can walk out the door right now and buy a cup of coffee with the same possibility of serious addiction as cannabis. We can buy a sugar-laden snack cake — also an addictive substance — and eat it before we get back to our cars. We can buy cough syrup and decongestants, which also have abuse potential, at the same stores in which we can buy caffeine and sugar.

Citing cannabis’s addictive properties is not a reason to ban it in light of all the other available substances with addiction potential out there. In fact, it’s the very reason to bring it out from the shadows and regulate its sale, just like the alcohol and decongestants we already have to show ID to buy.

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As advocates, Gill and Grimes acknowledge that cannabis can be addictive — an important truth which shouldn’t be buried in the ongoing adult use debate — while advocating for its full legalization. 

“While it’s true that marijuana can be addictive for some, it’s far less addictive than opiates,” Gill said. “More importantly, marijuana is not deadly like opiates or alcohol.”

Grimes said that addiction is not about availability of the substance, but about the individual who may develop an addiction.

“There will always be people who abuse things: food, sex, gambling, whatever,” Grimes said.

Myth #2: “There will be a spike in DUIs.”

Fact: High drivers are already being busted.

One talking point heard from officials and citizens alike is that the roads will become more dangerous, that legalization means that more people will drive high and states with legal adult-use cannabis have seen an increase in car crashes.

According to Dr. Jeff Chen at UCLA’s Center for Cannabis Research, the risk of a car crash doubles while driving high. Comparatively, driving drunk raises the risk of a car crash 6 to 8 times. Preliminary studies show that the risk of texting while driving is even higher than driving drunk!

The fact is, high drivers on the road are just as much a concern today as they were yesterday and as they will be tomorrow. Laws against high driving are already on the books: Driving Under the Influence charges can be issued for any substance which impairs driving, legal or illegal. People who drive while high get fined, accrue points and have their licenses suspended or lost.

For those who point to an uptick in DUIs in legal adult-use states, it’s important to note that correlation does not mean causation. The data regarding DUIs and cannabis use didn’t exist in Colorado, a crucial point raised during the New Jersey Assembly’s March 5th hearing on adult-use cannabis. Colorado legislator Dan Pabon’s advice? Start tracking the data now so on-the-road dangers can be effectively measured and controlled.

That being said, Grimes told CannaContent that he is concerned about edibles, notoriously more potent than other consumption methods, and their impact on road safety.

“Someone who is high shouldn’t be driving, and you can tell just by looking at them that they’re practically drunk behind the wheel,” Grimes said. “There needs to be awareness about edibles and their delayed effects. What if someone feels fine, and then the edibles hit them while they’re driving home?”

Myth #3: “Kids should not be exposed to cannabis.”

Fact: “Your child will encounter this substance… they should be prepared to handle it.”

Education and awareness does not involve offering a child a pre-rolled joint with a bow on top. Just like abstinence-only education has not fully prevented teen pregnancy, ignoring or demonizing the subject of cannabis will not discourage children from using it.

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Currently, a child’s formal drug education curriculum can be distilled down to the school program Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). Chances are, their friends had the same education, and their parents may have gone through D.A.R.E. or had formal no education at all.

We use education very generously here. The knowledge (is that even the right word?) delivered in these programs does not reflect current research, relies on scare tactics and flat-out falsehoods, and likely contradicts what a child sees in their neighborhood, in the media, or even at home.

When the education system is broken, it leaves children, and even parents, ill-equipped to discuss the issue. That could lead to dangerous consequences down the line, including underage use. That’s why Gill regularly talks to her school-aged son about cannabis, both medicinal and adult use.

“Kids SHOULD be exposed to marijuana — NOT smoke or foods, but open and honest education about the topic,” Gill said. “Just like we teach kids about alcohol, gambling and sex, we should honestly educate our kids about marijuana. There’s a 99.99 percent chance your child will encounter this substance. They should be prepared to handle it… From a medical perspective, if my child, Heaven forbid, ever requires medical marijuana, I don’t want him to fear it any more than he would fear a traditional medicine.”

Myth #4: “If it’s legal, kids will be able to get it easier.”

Fact: “Drug dealers are the ones who don’t care.”

If anything, legalizing adult-use cannabis will make it harder for those under 21, who should not be consuming recreationally (do we even need to say that?), to access cannabis.

“I was able to get cannabis easier when I was younger because it was not regulated — it was hard to get beer,” Grimes said. “We do want to keep cannabis out of the hands of children, aside from medicine of course, and that’s why it needs to be regulated.”

Dispensaries risk expensive fines and even losing their license, which will likely cost millions to obtain, if they facilitate underage sales. What business owner would take that risk to make a few bucks? And if they do, the consequences are the same as a bar which serves alcohol to those under 21: fines, license suspension, or whatever else New Jersey’s future cannabis regulations decide.

“Unionized employees, business owners — they won’t give up their wages and insurance to give a kid a bunch of beer when delivering alcohol, and it will be the same with cannabis,” Grimes said. “Drug dealers are the ones who don’t care.”

Now that you can debunk some cannabis myths, what can you do next?

  • Talk about the subject with friends and family. Much of the rumors and misinformation can be traced back to a simple lack of education on the subject. By framing cannabis regulation in the same terms as alcohol and cigarettes, it will help to explain what cannabis legalization means and the positive impact it can have in your neighborhood.
  • If you’re a parent, speak openly with your kids. If you feel your child is ready to have an open and honest conversation about cannabis, have the conversation. Children could be better-equipped to say no when they have the tools to say no — tools based in fact, not in scare tactics.
  • Consider attending a council meeting or public hearing. Lobbying or speaking at public hearings is an effective way to share knowledge and express public support for legal adult-use cannabis. The state of New Jersey is holding three hearings in April (the third will be held at Middlesex County College). The Ignorance is No Excuse tour has scheduled several appearances over the coming months. Join their Facebook group for more information about future hearings and dates.