- - Tuesday, March 3, 2020

When confusion between two popular substances risks addiction to one of them, it is time for the federal government to educate the public about the difference.

In 2019, one-in-seven adults used cannabidiol or CBD products, but 61 percent of adults did not know what CBD was. Those who knew associated it with marijuana. No wonder, since tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active component of marijuana, shares a molecular formula with CBD. Both come from the “cannabis sativa” plant, called marijuana when THC concentration tops 0.3 percent and called hemp below that number. Given the similarities, how much does THC differ from CBD? In short, a lot.  

THC and CBD have molecular structures that produce different biological effects. CBD is not addictive, while THC is. At least one in 10 who use marijuana become addicted, a proportion that increases with THC level. THC makes marijuana a Schedule 1 narcotic, capable of producing symptoms from depression and anxiety to cognitive impairment and memory dysfunction, according to the American Addiction Centers. Meanwhile, other than drowsiness and liver injury, CBD risks are largely unknown, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Marijuana, with all its banes and boons, has caused heated debate. But facts matter. By 2024, CBD sales are projected to increase by 49 percent compounded annually, with marijuana close behind. Confusion may increase addiction to THC, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) scientists. 

As both markets expand, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has also voiced concerns, including “easier [sale of] mislabeled edible products made from hemp that contain THC,” as well as increased difficulty in “[distinguishing] between marijuana and ‘hemp’.” 

Some cannabis vendors may intentionally mislabel products, but the heart of the problem is an uninformed public. How to solve that problem? Inform consumers. Specifically, policy makers should consider informing the public through a federal education campaign. 

The Department of Education might, for example, work with states to institute public school curricula geared toward educating on differences between CBD and THC. When the NIDA surveyed 42,500 students from 400 schools in 2019, it reported that 11.8 percent of eighth graders had consumed marijuana in the past year.  

Lessons focused on chemical and biological principles can reduce that number. Scientific reasoning is persuasive to younger Americans. In addition, federal funding for nonprofit organizations putting substance abuse prevention programs into private schools would help differentiate between CBD and marijuana. Similar strategies aimed at tobacco saw positive results. The “Project Towards No Tobacco Use,” 1987 to 1993, reported significantly lower tobacco use among youth who received education on adverse biological impacts. With addiction risks high, marijuana education could be similarly valuable. 

The Office of National Drug Control Policy and nonprofit partners might also educate through social media. Between 1997 and 2002, “more than sixty non-profit organizations and other government agencies … received prime time network and cable positions for… anti-drug messages.” “About seventy percent” of parents and youth absorbed those ads. 

Drug-related messages were memorable. 

Some will ask is the federal expense worthwhile. Consider that the Federal Drug Control budget for 2018 had $10.8 billion for medical treatment of narcotics abuse, and addiction to marijuana triples chances of addiction to other hard drugs, like heroin, according to the CDC. So educational programs reducing addiction to marijuana would create a cascading effect.  

According to a 2016 study by the National Institutes of Health, individuals with a history of marijuana consumption show greater likelihood of abusing opioid prescriptions. Less marijuana use would help reduce opioid addiction. Tighter control over labeling, including enforcement of the FDA’s labeling guidelines, may also help. 

In any event, as the American markets for CBD and marijuana expand, the federal government should ensure that users know the difference. The American public should not confuse CBD with its chemically similar but more harmful cousin, THC. The farthest-reaching approach is likely to be an education campaign rooted in historically successful strategies. 

Young consumers of CBD deserve better information. Educating about risks of THC use is important. Today, two-in-three adults believe marijuana should be legal, yet one in ten who try it become addicted. If confusion persists, CBD becomes a gateway to the gateway. In all events, education is a better answer. 

• Sophia Charles is a local high school senior, interned two summers at Harvard Medical School studying CBD, and will attend Harvard College next year.

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