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Anti Marijuana: The Debate Heats Up

September 05, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

Several states have legalized marijuana for recreational use and it is likely that more states will follow including Massachusetts. Although laws are changing, the debate over the legalization of marijuana continues. Some argue that marijuana is just as safe as, or even safer than alcohol, and legalizing it will allow for better regulation.

Others are concerned that long-term, heavy pot smoking can have lingering effects; and, legalization will expose young children and teens to a drug that can harm the developing brain. Also, according to opponents, legalization will lead to the creation of a large marijuana-focused industry similar to “big tobacco.”

The argument has been playing out in national media most notably with a series of opinion pieces in the New York Times, which favors legalization, and an advertising campaign from a coalition of health and consumer organizations that dispute the pro-pot editorials.

This article outlines the reasons why the Grass Is Not Greener Coalition is against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

GrassIsNotGreener.com is an initiative of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (Project SAM), an alliance of lawmakers, scientists and other concerned citizens, co-founded by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy. According to its website, members of the  organization “want to move beyond simplistic discussions of incarceration versus legalization when discussing marijuana use and instead focus on practical changes in marijuana policy that neither demonizes users nor legalizes the drug.” 

Concerned by the editorial series favoring the legalization of marijuana for recreational use published in the New York Times, the Grass Is Not Greener Coalition ran a full page ad in the Times, “Perception/Reality.” The ad depicts a young laid-back man’s face (“perception”) juxtaposed over the body of a high-powered business executive’s body (“reality”) implying that if America is not careful, we will soon have a very large, powerful marijuana industry on our hands. Below the image, the copy reads:

“The legalization of marijuana means ushering in an entirely new group of corporations whose primary source of revenue is a highly habit-forming product. Sounds a lot like another industry we just put in its place. Many facts are being ignored by this and other news organizations. Go to GrassIsNotGreener.com to see why so many major medical associations oppose marijuana legalization.”

Noting that the New York Times was “disregarding the science” when it came out in support of marijuana legalization, the coalition provides 10 reasons to oppose legalization:

Marijuana legalization will usher in America’s new version of “Big Tobacco”

Private holding groups and financiers have raised millions of start-up dollars to promote businesses that will sell marijuana and marijuana-related merchandise.

Marijuana use will increase under legalization

Because they are accessible and available, our legal drugs are used far more than our illegal ones. According to recent surveys, alcohol is used by 52% of Americans and tobacco is used by 27% of Americans. Marijuana is used by 8% of Americans. 

Marijuana is especially harmful to kids and adolescents

Marijuana contributes to psychosis and schizophrenia. Heavy marijuana use in adolescence leads to an average IQ loss of 8 points later in life. And, 1 in 6 kids who try marijuana will become addicted to it.

Today’s marijuana is NOT your Woodstock weed

In the 1960s and ‘70s, THC levels of smoked marijuana averaged around 1%, increasing to just under 4% in 1983, and almost tripling in the subsequent 30 years to around 11% in 2011. Some marijuana concentrates today contain 95% THC.

Marijuana legalization will increase public costs

For every $1 we collect in alcohol and tobacco tax revenues, we lose $10 in social costs. Current alcohol-related arrest rates are over three times higher than marijuana arrest rates.

People are not in prison for small time marijuana use

Statistics on state-level prisoners reveal that 0.3% of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only (with many of them pleading down from more serious crimes). 99.8% of federal prisoners sentenced for drug offenses were incarcerated for drug trafficking. 

Drug cartels and the black market will continue to thrive under legalization

A recent RAND report showed that Mexican drug trafficking groups earn only 15-25% of their revenues from marijuana. For them, the big money is in human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, piracy, and other illicit drugs. Under legalization, a black market will still sell tax-free marijuana to adults and youth.

The Netherlands does not provide a successful example of legalization

Independent research reveals that in the Netherlands, where marijuana was commercialized and sold openly at “coffee shops,” marijuana use among young adults increased almost 300%. Today Dutch citizens have a higher likelihood of being admitted to marijuana treatment than citizens of nearly all other countries in Europe.

Marijuana has medicinal properties, but we shouldn’t smoke the plant to derive those benefits, just like we do not smoke opium to get the benefits of morphine

In states with medical marijuana laws, the average medical marijuana user is a male in his 30′s with no terminal illness and a history of drug abuse. Less than 3% of users have cancer or AIDS. Residents of states with medical marijuana laws have abuse and dependence rates almost twice as high as states with no such laws. 

Experience from Colorado is not promising

  • Two independent reports released in August 2013 document how Colorado’s supposedly regulated system is not well regulated at all. 
  • Currently, the marijuana use rate among Colorado teens is 50% above the national average. Marijuana has been widely available in stores since 2009 (to Coloradans 18+ with a medical card). 
  • Since 2009, drug-related referrals for high school students testing positive for marijuana has increased. Medical marijuana is easily diverted to youth.
  • While the total number of car crashes declined from 2007 to 2011, the number of fatal car crashes with drivers testing positive for marijuana rose sharply.

It is unlikely that the current administration in Washington or Congress will make any significant changes in the current national marijuana laws; the issue will be left up to each state. It is likely that we will have the ability to vote on the issue in Massachusetts in 2016. A Google search on the issue turns up numerous pro and con hits, including a lot of misinformation, and nastiness.

Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use

In its June 5, 2014 edition, the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed the science related to the harmful health effects of the recreational use of marijuana. The article raises concern about teen use of marijuana, noting that “use in this age group is associated with an increased likelihood of deleterious consequences.” The article outlines the adverse effects of the short-term, long-term and heavy use of pot.

Effects of Short-Term Marijuana Use

  • Impaired short-term memory, making it difficult to retain information.
  • Impaired motor coordination, interfering with driving skills and increasing the risk of injuries.
  • Altered judgement, increasing the risk of sexual behaviors that facilitate the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • In high doses, paranoia and psychosis

Effects of Long-Term or Heavy Marijuana Use

These effects are strongly associated with initial marijuana use early in adolescence:

  • Addiction in 17% of those who begin use in adolescence, and 25 to 50% of those who are daily users.
  • Altered brain development.
  • Poor educational outcome, with increased likelihood of dropping out of school.
  • Cognitive impairment, with lower IQ among those who were frequent users during adolescence. Diminished life satisfaction and achievement.

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