Legalizing cannabis was supposed to be about social justice. About ending mass incarceration of people of color for possessing a small amount of marijuana. About safer legal access.
But there are many things legalization should not be about. It should not be about initiating and hooking more kids, or adding neurologically active and psychoactive substances to our food.
Yet all these things are happening. The cannabis lobbyists are no longer off-the-grid farmers from the Emerald Triangle. They are Altria, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies and Constellation, a major alcohol company. The halls of our state Capitol are replete with cannabis and hemp lobbyists successfully selling their goods.
As this legislative session winds down, at least two dangerous cannabis and hemp-related bills are moving forward.
AB 1302, which recently passed by one vote, will assure that our kids grow up seeing billboards for cannabis, just as I grew up with the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel. When we legalized cannabis, Proposition 64 promised that California would have stringent protections for children, and prohibited billboards. The state turned around and allowed them through regulation. Angered San Luis Obispo parents sued, and this year the courts concurred that the regulation violated Prop. 64’s intent to protect children.
AB 1302, introduced by Assemblymember Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, will make those billboards OK, while a dozen other states effectively prohibit cannabis billboards. Companies use billboards because they work. Research confirms they increase interest in and use of unhealthy products by youth. One study found increased cannabis use and dependency in teen cannabis users exposed to billboards after legalization in six states. Gov. Gavin Newsom should veto this bill that will expose kids to cannabis ads.
A second bill, AB 45, introduced by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, a D-Woodland, claims to create a regulatory system for hemp, but poses different problems. An 11th-hour amendment deal only made public Thursday night will legalize production of a new class of smokable hemp products prohibited in previous versions. It will include flavored hemp e-cigarettes and cigarettes that attract kids – provided the flavors are “natural.” If AB 45 passes, smokable hemp will be the new path to introduce youth to smoking.
There is longstanding Food and Drug Administration policy to keep the pharmaceutical and food markets separate – you can’t sprinkle licensed pharmaceuticals into food. But AB 45 will undermine this policy by allowing addition of hemp-derived CBD, THC and the more than 100 other cannabinoids in hemp to food, supplements and pet products.
Legally, hemp is the same cannabis plant sold in cannabis dispensaries, but with less THC, the main psychoactive ingredient. Hemp’s great for making rope or protein powder. But the cannabinoids in hemp are the same ones in cannabis and don’t belong adulterating our food. Products like CBD sodas would be sold without age restrictions in regular supermarkets or corner stores.
Limits in AB 45 are so weakly drafted that a hemp cookie sold at a grocery store could have more THC than in a legal cannabis edible in an age-controlled licensed cannabis store. A root beer with a tablespoon of hemp extract could have the THC of four cannabis edibles.
Those are not snacks you want your kids picking up in the corner deli on lunch break. Yet AB 45 would allow kids unrestricted access to such products, with only a pitiful “consult your doctor first” warning for pregnant women and kids.
CBD and THC are already sold and regulated as FDA-approved medicines in pharmacies, and in licensed California cannabis stores. While both can be medically useful, they also cause harm. For instance, CBD can cause sedation, diarrhea and liver injury. Hemp needs safer regulation, but AB 45 creates the potential for more harm.
California is making progress in ending the injustices from the war on drugs. But we can allow safer legal access to cannabis and useful hemp products without going backward in our commitments to public health and food safety.
Dr. Lynn Silver is a pediatrician and director of Getting it Right from the Start–Advancing Public Health & Equity in Cannabis Policy, and senior advisor at the Public Health Institute; firstname.lastname@example.org.
CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.