Should Marijuana Require Warning Labels?

The true danger in marijuana legalization lies in the lack of knowledge about its side effects. If the state is going to profit from sales, the health risks can’t be half-baked.

03.10.14 9:45 AM ET

Smoking marijuana poses which of the following health risks: A. Cancer; B. Birth defects; C. Lung damage; D. Brain damage; E. None of the above.

The correct answer is: It depends. And when I say, “It depends,” I mean you can find a medical study to support any of the above answers. It’s truly astounding that in 2014 there are still so many conflicting studies and opinions regarding whether marijuana is hazardous to your health.

For example, President Obama commented in January that marijuana is no, “more dangerous than alcohol." The White House’s own website tells a different tale, however, warning that marijuana has a “high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in treatment.” The website further alerts readers that marijuana can cause mental disorders, respiratory illness and that in 2010 more than 460,000 people went to the emergency room for marijuana related incidents.

And that’s just the tip of the conflicting information iceberg on the issue of marijuana health risks. I reached out to groups on both sides of the marijuana legalization issue and the contradictory information I received was simply astonishing.

The DEA official I spoke to, who wanted to remain anonymous, passionately argued that marijuana is dangerous to your health. Both he and a spokesperson from NIDA forwarded me literature that set forth a litany of health hazards that marijuana smoking can allegedly cause, including lung damage, mental disorders and possible birth defects if consumed by a pregnant woman.

On the pro-legalization front, I contacted NORML and Drug Policy Alliance. They, too, provided me with various medical studies in support of their argument that marijuana smoking is essentially safe.

For example, Drug Policy Alliance provided me with a 2012 study featured in the AMA journal that found occasional use of marijuana will not lead to adverse pulmonary functioning and another that refutes the claim that marijuana will lower your IQ. And NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano sent me a WHO report that concluded, “Cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies.” 


Drug Policy Alliance’s Executive Director Ethan Nadelman even urged me to view materials from DEA and NIDA critically because in his opinion, the DEA has “acted as an anti-marijuana propaganda arm since its origins” and the NIDA “has been highly politicized by Congress.” 

My take away is that discussing the possible health risks caused by smoking marijuana with these groups is akin to speaking to Democrats and Republicans about a hotly contested political issue. Each side is ready with their own carefully crafted talking points that bolster their position and counter their opponents. You get the sense that this is less of a battle over science and more about winning over public opinion.

It’s reminiscent of when big tobacco companies in the 1950’s intentionally created doubt about the health risks posed by smoking cigarettes. The tobacco industry went as far as to bankroll purported independent medical studies that concluded cigarette smoking was safe in an effort to encourage Americans to keep buying their products.

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Just to be clear, I’m in no way alleging that either side in this battle are the same as the tobacco industry.  Although Kevin Sabet, who co-founded the anti-marijuana legalization group SAM with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, told me he does believe that the pro-legalization forces are “taking a page out of the tobacco industries’ playbook” and some are “trying to profit off of addiction.” My point is that just as in the 1950’s, there’s confusion today as to the true extent of the health risk posed by something Americans are smoking.

Keep in mind that the debate over whether cigarette smoking was unhealthy continued until 1964 when the United States Surgeon General released the findings of his Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. After an extensive review, this seminal report concluded that cigarette smoking did indeed cause cancer as well as pose other health risks. These findings also inspired Congress to enact a law in 1965 that required warning labels on cigarette packages to alert consumers of the potential health risks.

This is a great model for us to follow now. It’s time that the States profiting off marijuana, like Colorado which predicts it will reap $130 million in tax revenues this year from marijuana sales, spend the money to determine if what they are allowing to be sold is dangerous to its residents. And if these government sanctioned medical studies do determine there are health hazards, then in the same vein as cigarettes, warnings labels should be mandated on all State regulated marijuana sales advising consumers of these risks—even if it means less sales and tax revenue for these States.

We live in a nation where food products like Cheez-Its list the cholesterol per serving and drug companies give us a laundry list of side effects so that we can make an informed decision about what we put in our body. It’s time that the same rules apply to something that may, in fact, be even more hazardous to our health.