The green rush: An industry on the brink

In Oregon, where dispensaries outnumber Starbucks’ and McDonalds’ combined, being a non-stoner college student feels a bit deviant. As I sit with friends while they take bong rips, I can’t help but wonder that perhaps this Oregonian hippie stereotype is all wrong: Is it really still considered nonconformist to smoke weed?

In recent decades, societal views on smoking weed have shifted. From its glorified claim by 60s counterculture to its targeted attacks courtesy of the 80s War on Drugs, weed has long held a spotlight on America’s political stage. Since the early 1990s, though, public favor has proportionally and approximately risen 1.5% each year. Now, marijuana is legal in 18 states.

Once a rebellious political statement, college students now smoke to sleep, watch TV and socialize. For many, weed has become a crutch; and crutches indicate a handicap. Peer pressure, anxiety, addictive tendencies and the belief that marijuana is harmless have all pushed young people to begin smoking. While Oregon college students may be more likely to smoke weed since its legalization, there are prevailing reasons that continue to support Oregon’s 2016 legalization.

Medically, it has aided those with conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s, cancer, chronic pain, insomnia and more. For many, marijuana has provided relief where other medications have failed.

Marijuana laws have also been used to disproportionately target people of color. While the decriminalization of marijuana alleviates some of the impacts made by a racist justice system, it is important to note that racial disparities in marijuana arrests still persist –– even in legalized or decriminalized states.

Legalization’s benefits for those who use marijuana for an illness, as well as those who are racially profiled, are reasons enough to support progressive action. Those who believe marijuana is harmless, however, are mistaken.

It is dangerous for anyone, from a politician to a college student, to spread misinformation. As states continue to join rank with Oregon in the legalization of marijuana, I hope that candidness on cannabis becomes just as readily available as weed itself. The truth is there is much to learn about the effects of marijuana, and labelling the drug as right or wrong to fit one’s personal or political motivations is dangerous because it creates an unreliable narrative.

If educators, for example, demonize marijuana or groundlessly compare its effects to that of higher risk drugs, students may be led to either view the drug as incredibly dangerous or may conversely distrust any negative evidence they go on to hear later in life. Both of these paths have a number of consequences — some may begin smoking at earlier ages and potentially feel the drug’s negative effects, while others may develop prejudice against the drugs’ users or even refuse to try it at all.

Preaching weed as an all evil or all holy substance is without basis. Everyone, especially young people, should be equipped with facts before they roll the unknown into a joint and light up. The problem: Facts about marijuana aren’t easy to find.

While there are many anecdotal accounts from users, conducting research on marijuana can be challenging. Varying doses, administering methods, possible presence of unexpected chemicals and general inaccuracies in self-reporting one’s experience have all complicated assessments on the health effects of cannabis. Societal and legal implications also work to silence smokers’ stories.

The link between psychotic disorders and marijuana use, for example, is often neglected. Like with any mental illness, people who have experienced cannabis-related psychosis may be hesitant to share their stories out of fear brought on by the stigma surrounding their disorder. This hesitance can prevent people from seeking the help that would propel the need for more accurate research. For now, studies suggest that smoking high potency marijuana every day could increase the chances of developing psychosis by nearly five times, compared to those who have never used marijuana. Others conclude that more evidence is needed to establish cannabis as a leading or singular cause of psychosis. Still, marijuana and psychotic disorders have a relationship that warrants both acknowledgement and further research.

The federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance is a prominent barrier in researching it further. This classification makes it harder for private research groups to obtain funding grants and dissuades research in general. Since 1968, researchers have only been allowed to access cannabis from one domestic source, a University of Mississippi-based facility. Events earlier this year, however, brought forth monumental change, as the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it will be allowing and reviewing applicants to register as approved marijuana research suppliers. This signals the lifting of the fog that has long surrounded weed and its effects.

In Oregon, the educational approach on marijuana pilots through this fog.  After reviewing the Oregon Health Authority’s Approach to Youth Marijuana Prevention “Stay True to You” campaign, it was clear the state made an effort to avoid any concrete statements. The campaign seems hesitant. Their homepage reads, “Being a teenager is hard enough. I’m not sure pot or vaping would help.”

I blinked at this for a while and decided I wasn’t so sure this message was all that effective. It turns out my uncertainty was valid. The pilot campaign saw little to no change in preventing youth from using marijuana. Surely, it’s no easy task to explain to teenagers why they shouldn’t use weed –– which they see being sold legally on every other street corner to people not much older than them.

It makes sense that the pilot campaign was accompanied by a push for parents to teach their children how they should feel about weed –– appropriately called “Talk With Them.” (Or as I have both affectionately and cynically dubbed it: Talk With Them so We Don’t Have To.) Something I actually appreciated about the campaign’s commitment to not upsetting anyone, though, was their insistence on using words like “may” or “could”  when referring to the drugs’ effects. I wonder if the campaign would have been more effective, more honest, if it just said how much is unknown about marijuana.

To an extent, taking personal politics out of marijuana is necessary. “Weed is not harmless” should not be a controversial statement, but it may still garner attention because of the entrenched and ongoing societal beliefs surrounding weed. Everyone has an opinion, and mine is that the opinions on marijuana tend to be either vehemently for or against it. Passion clouds judgement and has led many to ignore or discredit those who disagree. Like most partisan issues, it is necessary to remain objective. While weed itself has both positive and negative effects, spreading misinformation on it is harmful. As research becomes more readily available, it is important for states like Oregon to stay as informed (and honest) as possible about marijuana’s effects and unify the narrative of the drug they fought to legalize.

Cale Crueger is an opinion columnist. She is a junior studying public relations and political science at the University of Oregon.