Thursday of last week, April 20, was “4/20,” the so-called unofficial holiday for pot users across the land. Unsurprisingly, with the recent passage of Question 1, which legalized recreational marijuana use in Maine, there was much coverage by Maine media outlets.

In particular, there was a lot of coverage of the spectacle created by Crash Barry, who set up in Portland’s Monument Square to give away free pot to the public. This was a flagrant exploitation of the provision in the new marijuana law that allows giving the substance to others.

Perhaps the marijuana activists who drafted Question 1 had such spectacles in mind, but the leaders of the Yes On 1 campaign certainly never told voters passing Question 1 would mean people dealing free drugs in public spaces in front of children. Yet that was precisely what happened.

Let’s call this what it was. It was a publicity stunt and advertisement for Mr. Barry’s marijuana enterprise, set up to cash in on the new marijuana law. Mr. Barry counted on copious media coverage and he got exactly that. While the amount of coverage wasn’t terribly surprising, what was troubling was the total absence of any public health voices in the coverage, voices that would not only provide balanced coverage, but a perspective on why this kind of spectacle is quite harmful to public health and a glaring weak spot in our efforts to address Maine’s addiction crisis.

Beyond the discussion of providing free advertising for a marijuana business, there is the larger issue of contributing to the normalization of marijuana. To be clear, I understand why the media would cover the stunt, mere months after Question 1 passage. The issue is the balance. When only one side of this story is provided, intentionally or unintentionally, by default it normalizes marijuana.

Let us remember that half of Maine voters voted No on Question 1. The majority of municipalities in Maine had a majority of voters vote No on Question 1. This was the case because of voters’ significant concerns that marijuana legalization will put children at greater risk. Despite the Scott Pruitt-like rejection of established addiction science by marijuana legalization supporters, marijuana is an addictive substance that hooks one out of six kids who try it and significantly interrupts and compromises child brain development.


Covering these spectacles is fine, but due diligence demands we be fair and provide a full perspective on what they mean. We are in the middle of a severe addiction crisis in part because of complacency that built for decades. We also went through decades of allowing Big Tobacco to obscure science while ignoring the public health experts who told us nicotine was bad for lung health and child development. We are still dealing with those consequences today.

These are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat. If we are all really going to be serious about solving the addiction crisis and promoting healthy child development, we cannot have a blind spot for the drug that is the primary drug for treatment in over half of youth substance use disorder treatment cases.

Drug normalization was a central theme of our No On 1 campaign. The science is crystal clear on the powerful impact normalization has on rates of youth drug use. National data from the Monitoring the Future survey tracked since the ’70s proves this. In the ’80s, youths’ perception of risk and harm from regular marijuana use was at an all-time high and we had some of the lowest rates of marijuana use among 12th-graders. When that perception of risk started to decline in the ’90s, rates of use increased before some stabilization of both trends in the late ’90s and early 2000s. We are now in this period again where perception of risk is dropping rapidly, and we are seeing a subsequent increase in rates of use among 12th-graders.

Perception of risk is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to drug normalization. This is precisely why the 4/20 spectacle is serious, and why it is necessary and, I would argue, an ethical obligation to provide rounded coverage that includes the implications for child health and public health. If we fail to be serious about advancing truly responsible regulations, practices, and ethics around this new law, we will be utterly failing our children and future generations.

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