Marijuana: Task force addiction expert warns about parties, cartoon ads, thirdhand smoke

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In order to address the many questions of marijuana legalization, Governor John Hickenlooper assembled a 24-member task force charged with developing policy recommendations. The addiction expert is Dr. Christian Thurstone, who says his goal is to limit the harm A64 could cause youth. We caught up with him yesterday to get an overview of his main concerns, including worries about targeted ads, parents letting kids smoke pot and third-hand smoke impacts.

Thurstone is a certified addiction psychiatrist, a medical director focused on adolescents with Denver Health's Substance Abuse Treatment Education and Prevention Program, and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver. As we've noted in the past, he has spent a lot of time focused on youth smoking and how addictions and abuse at a young age can, he says, cause a lot of long-term damage.

As the governor's announcement of the task force noted, Thurstone was chosen because he is "a person with expertise in the treatment of marijuana addiction."

Thurstone was personally opposed to the passage of 64, which makes small amounts of recreational marijuana legal for adults 21 and over. Supporters of the measure argue that it allows officials to regulate marijuana and thus limit underage illegal smoking, but for months opponents have been expressing concerns about how legal pot could increase access for teens, who are believed to be more negatively impacted when they do smoke.

Despite his opposition to 64, Thurstone tells us he is pleased to have a seat at the table on the Task Force on the Implementation of Amendment 64, which had its first meeting Monday.

That group, which will meet several times over the next month or so, does not exist to debate the merits of 64 or legalization in general, but rather is tasked with developing recommendations on various frameworks for implementation as the legislative cycle begins next year.

"I was personally sad for kids about the passing of 64," Thurstone says. "But I think that if my service on that task force helps one kid's life, then it'll be worth it to me. I'm not a big fan of full legalization of marijuana, I didn't support it. At the same [time]...if I can contribute to one kid not destroying his or life getting addicted to marijuana, then I will have accomplished my goal."

Thurstone, who spoke out several times at the first meeting, rattles off a long list of ways that 64 could potentially cause harm to youth, and depending on which sub-groups he is part of on the task force, he'll likely have opportunities to raise a number of these questions with others in the group, which includes medical marijuana industry reps, elected officials, government officials and business leaders.

"I've been trying to get the word out there that...marijuana use during adolescence can have very profound impacts that are biological as well as social," he says. "It's not a joke. It's not harmless."

Teens are more likely to become addicted and more likely to face serious consequences as a result, he says.

His concern is that legalization leads to commercialization, which could encourage teens to smoke pot.

"I think it would be really helpful to have restrictions on advertising and marketing," he says. "Do we really want marijuana advertising during morning cartoons?"

And he's not just worried about pot ads during cartoon shows for kids -- he's worried about ads that might actually feature cartoons. "Cartoon advertising has been effective" at getting the attention of children, he says.

He notes that there are regulations on tobacco advertising around targeting youth that he think could serve as some kind of model for marijuana ads in Colorado.

"Anything that can reduce the commercialization of it...would be beneficial from the standpoint of kids," he says.

Neutral labels would help too, he says, noting that it would be problematic if marijuana had the kind of colorful branding that other products have. "We want to avoid cartoons," he says.

Continue for more of our interview with Christian Thurstone.

One idea, Thurstone says, is having a state agency in charge of recreational marijuana, which he says would help "take away some of the profit motive."

That could curb dangerous advertising, for example.

Beyond these areas of commercialization, he's worried about some of the problems he sees on a regular basis in his profession being amplified by legalization.

"Second-hand marijuana smoke exposure -- what should we do about that?" he says.

And third-hand smoking, too, which refers to impacts from smoke that stays on someone's clothes or hands and that can affect someone else in contact with that person. "When you go smoke outside, smoke is on your jacket," he says. "You're still exposing the baby to the chemicals that are on your jacket."

Another concern he raised at the meeting was about "social host issues," which he says is a major problem in his clinical work. This, he says, refers to "parents having the attitude that it's okay if my kid uses alcohol and marijuana as long as they are using it under...supervision in the house, and not driving and doing dangerous things."

He continues, "That can lead to parties in houses where lots of kids are using."

Thurstone says there are state laws around this that make parents liable, but adds that local municipalities can have more specific and harsher ordinances that, for instance, establish liability for parents even if they are unknowingly allowing youth to smoke pot.

"I'm proposing that we discuss this," Thurstone says. "I don't know exactly what the best solution is. I don't think it's a wise choice in general...[to say], 'It's ok for my kids to use marijuana in my house.'"

Warning labels and tamper-proof packaging on marijuana are also a must, he says, so that women who are pregnant are warned of the harms and so that pre-schoolers cannot accidentally be exposed to marijuana.

There are members of the task force who likely share his concerns -- as well as others who no doubt disagree quite strongly with him in many of these areas.

Supporters of 64 -- and there is one A64 representative on the governor's task force -- note that a lot of these challenges can be addressed with regulations similar to alcohol, which proponents have long argued is more dangerous than marijuana. In the months leading up to Election Day, the opponents and backers of the bill frequently debated the science and statistics behind the merits of legalization with both sides regularly throwing out studies to bolster their arguments.

Ultimately, Thurstone says, "When you talk about marijuana, it's young people who are disproportionately affected by marijuana-related problems."

More from our Marijuana archive: Marijuana rescheduling not Amendment 64 "silver bullet," says Mason Tvert

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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