Marijuana allergies pose danger to Vassar students

“My lips and throat start tingling, my eyes water, I have trouble catching my breath…The first time I went to hospital it took two doses of epipen and I was put on steroids,” described Adele Schroder, a 38-year-old resident of Mississauga, Canada (CityNews, “Woman with dangerous marijuana allergy fights weed-friendly condo board,” 09.21.2018).

“What happens is I get this really sharp pain behind my left eye, it’s excruciatingly painful and it’s just like a hot poker in my eye, and then my chest starts to tighten and my face gets all tingly and my arms and hands and extremities tingle, and it feels like there’s just a vice in my chest where I can’t breathe. It’s quite scary,” reported Doneil Oliphant, a different Canadian patient (CTVnews, “Under recognized and under diagnosed: Could you be allergic to marijuana,” 03.23.2018).

The symptoms described all result from the same allergy. Not peanuts, not milk, not cats, not dogs, not pollen. Marijuana. It’s a surprisingly common allergy. A 1940 study published in the Nebraska Medical Journal found that 22 percent of 119 patients tested were allergic to it. Then in 2000, a study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology found that 61 percent of 127 patients tested shared the same allergy (Live Science, “Marijuana May Trigger Allergies in Some People,” 03.06.2015). A different study done in Colorado post-legalization showed that 10 percent of people with passive exposure to marijuana exhibited some kind of allergic reaction (CTVnews). Now, a 2018 study suggests that people may be more likely to have allergies to marijuana than to cats, molds, dust mites or plants (Medical New Today, “Can you be allergic to marijuana?” 08.03.2018). Marijuana allergies can be especially dangerous because the industry, and legalization, is expanding faster than the rate at which we understand these medical conditions. At present, there is no standardized way to test for a marijuana allergy, and many of those who are allergic won’t find out until they’re exposed (Medical News Today). Even inhaling secondhand smoke can cause a serious enough reaction to send someone to the hospital. One woman told CTV News, “[O] nce it’s legalized, I’m afraid of even just walkingdown the street” (CTVnews).

The purpose in pointing out this information is not to suggest that marijuana shouldn’t be legalized or that there are not any possible medical benefits of smoking it. In 2016, more people were arrested for simply possessing marijuana than for every violent crime combined, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (The Washington Post, “More people were arrested last year over pot than for murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery combined,” 09.27.2017). Allowing such a system to continue is an offense of all human decency.

Furthermore, there are economic reasons to support marijuana legalization. A massive study by Colorado State University-Pueblo found that legalization had a significant positive economic impact, bringing over $58 million to Pueblo County, Colorado in 2016 while only increasing costs by $23 million. The study further found that legalization did not contribute to poverty and did not significantly affect the culture of the area (The Denver Post, “To boost its economy, Pueblo County embrace marijuana. Now a new study reveals whether it worked,” 03.12.2018).

On the other hand, the health benefits of marijuana are questionable and often exaggerated.

While there is a long history of it being used to treat a variety of medical issues, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved it to be used as treatment for any medical condition. However, that has not stopped the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine from saying that it can be effective in treating chronic pain. A study published in Clinical Psychology demonstrated that it can be an effective treatment for addiction. There are also claims that it can help alleviate side effects of chemotherapy, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. While there is some evidence that marijuana use can be helpful, most of these findings were either inconclusive or in serious contention (Medical New Today, “Marijuana: Good or Bad?” 02.21.2018).

With that in mind, the acceptance of marijuana has to be balanced with the needs of those who suffer severe allergic reactions to it. Students with pot allergies are at risk on college campuses all over America. A study from the University of Michigan showed that 39 percent of college students have smoked marijuana and 4.9 percent use it daily (University of Michigan, “National study shows marijuana use among U.S. college students at highest level in three decades; use of most other substances remain steady,” 09.06.2017). Indeed, recreational marijuana use is widespread at Vassar too, to which anyone who has lived on the campus can probably testify. That is not inherently a problem: People have the right to engage in whatever behavior they choose so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.

However, considering the prevalence of marijuana allergies, smoking in a public space, be it a dorm room or in front of a building, poses a threat to other people. Pot on this campus can be unavoidable. Even if you live on a wellness floor, you could still be exposed to it by walking down the wrong hallway or by the wrong stairwell at just the wrong time.

If you didn’t already know this and engaged in behavior that could put someone else at risk, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. Marijuana allergies are underdiagnosed, and a lot of people likely assume that it’s not something that can happen. However, it is on you to change your behavior now that you recognize that this is a problem. That doesn’t mean stop smoking: It means find a space outside where you pose the least danger possible.

As for what the administration could do, I think the best option is to allow for pot smoking on campus but to designate specific smoking areas that are far away from essential places and where people are unlikely to walk by. However, if the school cannot or will not do that, campus security should more strenuously enforce the smoking ban in the dorms and directly in front of buildings, while taking a more lenient approach toward people smoking outside and far away from others. Students should not be punished for taking steps to smoke more considerately and in a way that does not negatively impact the health or educational environment of others.

I imagine that there will be some marijuana users who will be upset at me for pointing out that pot could have any negative effects on other people and for demanding that they change their smoking habits. What I’ll say to them is this: Your desire to smoke does not outweigh any student’s fundamental right to safety on this campus. Every student should be able to go wherever they want without fear that the consequence for doing so will be a hospital visit. All students with allergies have the right to equal access to this college, and if we don’t change how we view marijuana, that right will undoubtedly be violated.

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