Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The potency of recreational marijuana has grown stronger in recent decades while messaging around the drug deems it as a safe, natural product with few if any side effects, medical experts told the Missoula City Council on Wednesday.

But backers of a proposal to regulate marijuana sales in Missoula added that such messaging is false and that cannabis use among youth can have irreversible impacts ranging from schizophrenia to suicide driven by high rates of anxiety and depression.

“There’s a low perception of harm. That, combined with the high levels of THC in the product today, is concerning,” said Jacqueline Cline, a certified prevention specialist in Missoula. “There are quite a few health concerns related to cannabis use. Youth who are using are four to seven times more likely to develop a cannabis-use disorder than adults.”

Members of the City Council on Wednesday set a public hearing for July to consider a suite of proposals aimed at reducing marijuana use among the city’s youth. Among them, it would place a moratorium on issuing new business licenses for recreational dispensaries until further notice.

The proposal would also impose new criminal sanctions on those that sell or give marijuana products to anyone under the age of 21. The measure would also ramp up efforts to carry out compliance checks on existing dispensaries and enforce indoor vaping laws.

The health department began tracking the number of dispensaries in Missoula in 2022. At the time, with recreational marijuana legalized by voters, Missoula was home to 42 retail outlets. Now, there are 51 dispensaries operating with storefronts and eight new business licenses are pending.

Two years ago, the City Council adopted regulations around the location of dispensaries in hopes of preventing saturation in some neighborhoods. But in retrospect, some council members said the city could have taken a different route.

Missoula is among the highest of any U.S. city in terms of its number of dispensaries per the population. Officials said the city has one pot shop per 1,500 residents. In comparison, Eugene has one per 3,000 residents and Spokane one per 14,000 residents.

“Two years later, we’ve learned a lot,” said council member Gwen Jones. “The THC potency is much stronger now in many of these products than in prior generations. It’s a different product that’s being legally sold. With our youth population and those developing brains, we’re seeing some really big impacts in our community.”

Health effects of pot use among youth

According to statistics presented on Wednesday, the average potency for THC products in 2000 was roughly 5%. Today, it’s as high as 60%. The more potent the product is and the more frequently one uses, the greater the health effects.

The impacts are also greater in youth, officials said. Those who are using are four to seven times more likely to develop a cannabis-use disorder than adults. The average age of initiation for marijuana use in Missoula is roughly 13.

“The impacts of that are significant,” said Cline. “It’s related to anxiety, major depressive disorder, suicidal tendencies, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychosis. In terms of the physical health effects, we’re seeing issues with respiratory function and cognitive impairment.”

The potency of marijuana products is on the rise. (City-County Health Department)

The potency of marijuana products is on the rise. (City-County Health Department)

Dr. Lauren Wilson, a pediatrician in Missoula and president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said messaging around the perceived safety of marijuana needs to change.

“We all know that recreational marijuana is legal for adults in Montana. But as with many things, the devils are in the details in regard to youth access,” she said. “Literature shows significant negative impacts of marijuana use, specifically early marijuana use, in youth.”

Not all in agreement

The proposed measure has the backing of local educators, family services and law enforcement officials. Missoula Police Chief Mike Collier said he agrees with the statistics and said officers have seen the impacts, especially those work in local schools.

“One of the school resource officers said that within the past four years, he’s had at least six students who were hospitalized for smoking high concentrates of THC. His first and immediate recommendation was to limit access to dispensaries,” Collier said. “Another one told me that the numbers were both staggering and embarrassing in regard to the number of students in his school using marijuana products.”

A recreational marijuana dispensary prepares to open in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A recreational marijuana dispensary prepares to open in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Most of those ideas were widely supported by members of council. But the resolution also calls for a moratorium on accepting new business licenses for marijuana dispensaries and enacting new criminal sanctions on those who sell pot to minors.

The resolution passed committee on a 9-2 vote with council member Kristen Jordan absent and council members Sandra Vasecka and Daniel Carlino in opposition.

Carlino said he agreed with the doctors who spoke on Wednesday but disagreed on other portions of the proposed resolution and changes to city code.

“If we’re going to start not allowing new businesses that harm children to be open in Missoula, we should look at other harmful businesses such as not allowing more gas stations or more car washes, or businesses causing the climate crisis and stealing away the youths’ future,” Carlino said. “Adding criminal charges is only going to exacerbate the war on drugs.”

Most, however, supported the recommendations and set a public hearing for the proposal for early July.

“The fines are for people who are deemed to be distributing cannabis to minors,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “Giving and distributing to minors, especially given the known health effects, should have some heavy penalties, in my opinion.”

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