Henny Lasley

Smart Colorado's Henny Lasley speaks at her organization's legislative briefing last January as former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, right, listens. (Photo courtesy Smart Colorado) 

Marijuana has gone from counterculture to cash cow amid a wave of legalization. And that's all the more reason for teens to be wary, Henny Lasley tells us in today's Q&A.

"What do teens rebel against? They rebel against authority and manipulation. Before legalization and commercialization, marijuana use might have been a rebellion. Now resisting cynical marijuana marketing by a billion-dollar industry is the true act of rebellion."

It also amounts to an act of self-preservation, Lasley says, given the mind-bending potency of today's legal cannabis varieties. It's a message she carries with her everywhere and enunciates far and wide as co-founder and executive director of Smart Colorado, whose mission is to expose the perils of pot use.

Lasley talks about her organization's work as well as the challenges of educating the public about a drug that she says has never been so hazardous — now that it's accepted.

Colorado Politics: You seem to view the new wave of marijuana edibles as a game changer in Colorado’s evolving experiment with legalization. What has changed?

Henny Lasley: Today’s edibles are so different from the pot brownie of past generations, where you crumbled marijuana leaves into brownie mix and served it at home. Now edibles are infused with distilled THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The distilled drug is far more potent, packaged in smaller, bite-sized pieces and mass-produced and marketed. 

What hasn’t changed, but what consumers often are surprised by now that we have much higher THC potencies, is that edible marijuana is absorbed differently than smoked marijuana. A marijuana edible takes much longer to make a person high (hours compared to minutes), lasts longer, and the high that person feels may be different every time. A recent review of emergency department visits in Colorado found that marijuana edibles are more likely than smoked marijuana to result in acute psychiatric symptoms and intoxication. 

The legislature just passed a law to allow social consumption of marijuana in pot clubs, retail food establishments, tasting rooms associated with marijuana stores, and other locations. Pitched as a way to get marijuana smoking off the streets and out of the parks, the bill did not actually specify that edible marijuana would be included, yet state regulators have interpreted the bill to allow them. We think this is dangerous based on the delayed and unpredictable effects of edible marijuana. We worry about a consumer eating an edible in a pot club, feeling sober when they leave, jumping behind the wheel of their car, and the edible kicking in when they are on I-25. This will put others unnecessarily at risk.

CP: On its webpage notthesamepot.org, Smart Colorado aims to reconcile parents’ own youthful marijuana experiences with the contemporary realities of higher-potency pot: “…You may have smoked pot when you were younger and you turned out OK. So what do you tell your teen?” Isn’t that in fact the ironic challenge you face regarding marijuana and today’s parents — that, instead of being alarmed at the brave new world surrounding their kids, parents might not be taking the threat seriously enough?

Lasley: Absolutely, educating parents about today’s pot is a challenge. Our efforts are two-fold. We explain the exponential increases in potency and we point out easily hidden marijuana products, including one that looks like an asthma relief inhaler and powder that dissolves invisibly in liquids. 

A state-commissioned study showed a 20% increase in potency for dried marijuana and marijuana concentrates in just a three-year span. Marijuana is now averaging almost 20% THC and concentrates almost 69% THC. When today’s parents were teens or young adults in the 1990s, THC potency averaged less than 4% according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This exponential increase in potency makes marijuana a different drug with an increased risk to developing brains and of addiction. We are way out ahead of our skis with potency and the science is very behind industry potency advances, yet the state has no potency limits.

Another Smart Colorado initiative is THCPhotos.org. Because the state does not provide a public-facing inventory to educate the public, we go shopping at dispensaries and post pictures of actual products sold in Colorado. Colorado originally had no restrictions on the types of edibles that could be sold. The shocking types of products included at one time common children’s candies like Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish sprayed with THC. Smart Colorado was instrumental in successfully lobbying to remove everyday foods from being sprayed with THC.

CP: Do you feel elected lawmakers and other public officials are taking pot’s ill effects seriously enough? Do you find that, when presented with legalization’s down sides, they are all too inclined to wash their hands of the matter and wave off concerns because, “the people have spoken” via Amendment 64? 

Lasley: I do think lawmakers must be reminded that allowing marijuana for adult use inevitably impacts kids too and they must consider sound recommendations from public health and public safety communities. The 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey found teens are shifting their use from smoking marijuana to using ultra high-potency concentrates in dab rigs (a blow torch-ignited delivery system) and edibles. Higher potency increases the risk of addiction and other negative consequences.

Elected officials must not become callous to the fact that they are regulating an addictive substance that science clearly shows harms the developing brain. Last year, the billion-dollar marijuana industry spent $1 million lobbying the State Capitol. We try to ensure they hear from children’s advocates, as well.

Lawmakers need to brush up on their reading if they are using Amendment 64 to justify recent bills to expand marijuana commercialization. The General Assembly just approved social consumption and home delivery, going beyond anything required under this state constitutional amendment. Amendment 64 explicitly stated, “nothing in this section shall permit consumption that is conducted openly and publicly or in a manner that endangers others.” Amendment 64 did not require the unlimited licensing, unlimited potency or unlimited products that we now have.  

CP: How did Smart Colorado get started, how do you drum up support for it to keep the lights on — and do you sometimes feel you are paddling upriver against a strong current of complacency?

Lasley: Following the passage of Amendment 64, Smart Colorado was formed by concerned parents after the public health and safety of Colorado kids was ranked last in the priorities of the task force responsible for implementation. Since Colorado was the first in the country to commercialize marijuana, we were blown away that industry led the charge while many other stakeholders in healthcare, education and prevention were noticeably quiet. We stepped up, put our lives on hold, and became the first organization nationally to be at the table negotiating for protections for kids versus debating the pros/cons of legalized, commercialized marijuana. Many supporters of Smart Colorado voted for Amendment 64, but expected responsible regulations and legislation.

One of the challenges along the way has been to engage citizens and donors to support us. We need to convince them that enacting some protections are better than throwing up our hands and thinking there is nothing we can do. Sometimes it feels like we’re chipping away at an iceberg with a rubber spatula but kids have only one chance to grow up and we need to protect their futures. 

CP: Tell us a bit of your own background and what inspired you to become like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, warning about the perils of pot.

Lasley:  I was a stay-at-home mom active in my three kids’ schools and in the community. I thought marijuana was no big deal. I relied on my own experiences as a young person and didn't research the impacts on learning and adolescent brain development. One of my children paid the price. I resolved that if I can help educate other parents and trusted adults about the harms to kids from marijuana and save them from the heartache my family suffered, my commitment to this cause will have been worth it. 

CP: Do you believe Colorado — or other states that have legalized or are about to legalize — ever will backtrack on the issue as a matter of formal, codified public policy? Will there ever be an outright repeal of legalization?

Lasley: I wish I had a crystal ball, but I don’t! I think that today’s marijuana with no potency limits and no limits on methods of intake may be reined in. Other states have put restrictions in place. 

Sadly, policy decisions that have been passed by the Legislature like pot clubs, may not be reconsidered until more families have been impacted. It's time to remember these are not just statistics but our children, friends and neighbors.

Colorado’s youth health statistics are becoming increasingly worrisome. Colorado youth suicide rates are now nearly double the national average with THC being the number one substance found in youth suicide toxicology reports.  

CP: As long as there are teens, many of them will rebel, experiment, and seek out drugs of choice. What are a parent’s best tools in helping their kids navigate those vulnerable years amid a culture of widespread substance abuse?

Lasley: First and foremost, parents need to learn about today’s marijuana, marijuana potency, new methods of intake and the risks to kids. Leave their own experiences at the door because this is a new day. 

Parents need to take the words “my kids would never” out of their mind-set and talk with their kids about marijuana and what their expectations are. The goal is to delay, delay, delay youth use as long as possible. Teens who know their parents would disapprove of marijuana use are less likely to use.

Parents can tell their teens that the fact that marijuana is “legal” doesn’t make it safe. This is a widespread assumption that must be countered. In the words of one regulator, state officials are “chasing cheetahs with butterfly nets” in trying to regulate the constant innovation of the marijuana industry. For example, THC concentrates are just now being regulated to prohibit certain additives in vaping products. Yet, they have been sold in Colorado since 2014. And sadly, flavorings that are attractive to kids are not even on the chopping block. Nationally, many of the vaping deaths involve THC. So far, the vaping crisis has left over 1,600 sick, 34 dead and some teens with lungs like 70 year olds.

Today’s teens also are faced with an onslaught of social media and marketing that their parents never had to deal with. And it is about to get worse in Colorado. The recent Sunset Review of marijuana regulations opened the advertising flood gates to allow much more outdoor advertising, including billboards. Yet, an ongoing study out of California has shown that increasing exposure to marijuana advertising increases marijuana use among adolescents.

So, parents need to teach their teens to both recognize marketing and question it. If there is money to be made, it is imperative to doubt the messenger.

What do teens rebel against? They rebel against authority and manipulation. Before legalization and commercialization, marijuana use might have been a rebellion. Now resisting cynical marijuana marketing by a billion-dollar industry is the true act of rebellion.

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