Marijuana is addictive, dangerous and hurts communities.

Those were just three points of many, but points that were emphasized over and over by a trio of speakers that presented on cannabis use, Wednesday, Sept. 18, in Staples. The talk was put together by Wadena County CHAMP (Chemical Health Awareness and Multi-Drug Prevention) and Todd County CAD (Creating A Difference). Speakers at the event included Kim Bemis and Dr. Ken Winters of Smart Approaches to Marijuana - MN and Sheila Nesbitt with North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale. Those in attendance, including law enforcement, social workers, health professionals, students and government officials filled the entire dining area of the Faith Lutheran Church in Staples.

Winters and Bemis touched on nine common misconceptions about cannabis that they said the group would find useful in having conversations about the subject.

They included the following misconceptions:

"Cannabis is a safe drug."

Not according to Winters. The part of the cannabis plant that is addictive, THC, is addictive, and THC is far more potent these days than in the past.

How much more potent?

Bemis compared it to alcohol. When pot was popular in the '60s, it was like a 3.2% beer. The actual THC levels were around 3-5%. Now, genetically modified plants, which are larger and produce more pot, also have much higher THC levels, of around 13% on the street, and 18-20% commercially, more like drinking liquor.

But in oil or edible form, those levels are even higher, up to 80% or higher in vaping products. In this form, it's like comparing Everclear (a brand of alcoholic beverage, nearly 100% alcohol) to a lite beer, Bemis said.

So what does THC do to you?

According to Bemis THC, contributes to mental illness, learning and memory impairment and impaired driving. It also effects the brain development of those under age 25, the age most brains are fully developed. The Surgeon General recently announced that no amount of THC is good for teens.

Winters shared how the presence of marijuana in vehicle crash victims rose from 9% to 17% in Washington when marijuana was legalized. He added that in traffic stops, there is no way to test if an individual has marijuana in their system, so it's unclear how to determine impaired driving from marijuana.

"Cannabis is medicine."

Maybe, according to Winters. He claims it's too early to say marijuana is effective. Smoking marijuana is not medicine and Minnesota has a medical marijuana program, commercialization is not needed, he added. The Federal Drug Administration has approved only one drug from a cannabis plant and it only has 1% THC.

Dr. Ken Winters, research advisor with Smart Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota, speaks about the misconceptions of marijuana use.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Dr. Ken Winters, research advisor with Smart Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota, speaks about the misconceptions of marijuana use. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

"Cannabis is commonly used."

Winters said that's misleading. Most Minnesotans older than 25 do not use cannabis, with about 11% reporting prior year use. About 37% of those age 18-25 report prior year use.

"Legalization is inevitable."

Winters said that's also misleading because when asked who favors full commercial legalization, only 33 percent were in support. Ten states in the past two years have thwarted attempts at full legalization, including Minnesota.

"Adolescent use will not increase because the minimum legal age will be 21."

That's unlikely because recent data shows a higher rate of underage cannabis use in commercial cannabis states vs. non-commercial cannabis states. Winters brings up the point about how the minimum legal age for alcohol is not working to stop youth from drinking.

"Cannabis users are unjustly punished by law enforcement."

We do not need to legalize cannabis to resolve social injustice issues, according to Winters. Bemis shared that only 3% of inmates in Minnesota prisons are there for drug offenses related to cannabis (likely mostly for distribution).

"Prohibition is a failed policy."

Winters said alcohol prohibition actually worked in resolving public drunkenness, lowering incarceration and creating more family time, however, governments were losing out on taxes because of prohibition. That was the main factor in its demise. He said there are enough issues with alcohol and nicotine, so why add a third to the legal list?

"The black market will be eliminated."

That's not likely as Winters said the opposite has played out in states where legalization has occurred. The black market has expanded as they undercut the price of retail.

"The state will benefit from sizable tax revenues."

Considering the costs associated with the use of drugs on health care, mental health services, law enforcement, businesses and consumers, the negatives outweigh the positive profits. In Connecticut, for example, the state spent $4.57 on fixing what every $1 in tax revenue came in from cannabis.

Taking it in

Whether cannabis is legalized in any form, those in attendance noted that marijuana is already clearly present in the communities and is a chief concern among those dealing with juvenile troubles.

One of several 10th graders at the event, Shawn Misner, said he was alarmed at the amount of students that use marijuana and vape, especially after hearing from presenter Sheila Nesbitt, who commented that there is no way to know what is in the vaping pods, or where and how they were made.

"I think it's interesting," Misner said. "You have no idea where it came from."

He estimated that 70% of students he knows at Staples-Motley have used marijuana and 50% of them "use it consistently."

Teacher Tab Erickson, also from Staples-Motley School District, said the talk opened his eyes to the fact that so little is known about what vaping does to a body. Erickson asked his videography class who would be interested in attending the three and a half hour event and a large number tagged along.Presenters shared how vaping pods are bought commercially, than others ingredients are often added to sell on the streets, often THC. They explained that this could be done in someones bathtub, with anything going into the liquid.

"There's too many questions," Erickson said. "Why would you want to mess with it?"

Many kids are using vaping products on school property, according to Dan Huebsch, Community Concern for Youth youth worker, and that's where he gets involved. Huebsch said the concealment of vaping products is incredible. He's seen students get caught for vaping at school that actually vape through what looks like the string on their hoodie. Vaping or smoking marijuana is now his highest area of referral for students. He's spending more time in classrooms talking about the risks and dangers of using the products than anything else. He used to spend more of his time with youth who skipped out on school, helping them to realign their thinking on their futures.

He's got even more reason to do so after seven deaths have now been linked to vaping and many more illnesses have been reported across the country.

Sherri Adams was another one in the group who spoke about how marijuana is a major focus of her work involving helping people escape their addictions. Adams is a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LADC) at Northern Pines in Aitkin. She said she regularly works with those addicted to or using marijuana. She finds that it's most important to provide education about what smoking or vaping the plants chemicals, about 400, can do. She shared how the mentality of some parents is that they smoked weed as kids, so it's not a big deal if their kids do it. But as the group heard, this isn't your mother's marijuana anymore.

"It's a nice song we have to sing," Adams said of the work that all departments must do to already deal with marijuana use, even before it's legalized.

She looked around the room of officers, probation agents, health workers, counselors, county commissioners and school personnel and noted that the impact of marijuana use involved all the people in that room.

For information on how to address drug use with your children, visit www.champforwc.org.