U.S. Surgeon General warns UC Davis medical students of the dangers of legalizing marijuana
California and other states are going “way too far too fast” in legalizing the powerful marijuana strains being cultivated today, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday at UC Davis Medical School – even as he enlisted the help of physicians and doctors win his work to normalize addiction as a disease.
“There are communities where one in five pregnant women are reporting marijuana use,” Adams said. “We see it in communities where they’ve legalized even medicinal use of marijuana.
“The youth attitudes about the dangers of marijuana are going in the wrong direction. I’m really concerned about the impact of marijuana usage on the developing brain, including the fetus.”
He urged doctors at the Sacramento-based medical school to tell their patients, “This is not your momma’s marijuana, the marijuana of Woodstock.”
A decade ago, Adams said, the psychoactive ingredient known as THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, usually was found at concentrations of about 5 percent in marijuana, but today’s professionally grown strains contain concentrations of 20 percent or 25 percent. And that’s before manufacturers make oil or wax concentrates that can be consumed in vaping device, he said, where THC levels can go up to 90-95 percent.
“That’s like the difference between you going out and having a glass of wine for dinner and you drinking a pint of grain alcohol,” he said. “We need to help folks understand this is a fundamentally different product.”
While the surgeon general said he found that deeply troubling, he doesn’t consider drugs themselves to be the biggest killer.
“Folks often ask me what the biggest killer is out there, what I’m most concerned about: Is it obesity? Is it smoking?” Adams said. “I think the biggest killer out there is stigma. Stigma keeps people in the shadows. Stigma keeps people from coming forward and asking for help. Stigma keeps families from admitting that there is a problem.”
He said he wants to normalize addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing.
“We need to help folks understand that it’s not bad families that it happens to,” Adams said. “My family raised the surgeon general of the United States....They also raised my brother who is now in prison, still with untreated substance use disorder.”
He cited statistics on the cost of incarcerating people: $150-$200 a day, almost $100,000 a year. His brother, he said, was sentenced to 10 years, so taxpayers are going to pay between a half a million and a million dollars to incarcerate him when they could have paid $5,000 for a diversion program, $500 to get his anxiety and his depression treated, $50 for a community resilience program that would have given him positive people to hang out with and a positive way to get high.
Adams, who’s an anesthesiologist, said he thinks physicians and law enforcement suffer from high rates of burnout because they see the same people overdosing again and again, many of them ultimately dying. They want to make a difference, he said, and they need the programs and policies that can help them achieve that mission.
He asked physicians and medical students to begin to set the example by carrying Naloxone, the synthetic drug that reverses the effects of opioids and saves lives. Adams said he believes medical professionals can normalize carrying this life-saving drug in much the same way they have normalized training for CPR.
“Raise your hand if you know CPR. Raise your hand if you carry Naloxone with you,” said Adams, observing that the audience had a few more carriers for Naloxone than he was accustomed to seeing. “The chances are greater that someone is going to come in that door at the back of the room and say, ‘Someone’s overdosing in the bathroom down the hall,’ than they are that someone is going to come and say they need one of you to administer CPR.’ That’s just the truth.”