Why Legal Weed Stinks

America is ushering in the next Big Tobacco — this time with a psychoactive drug that can induce lifelong struggles with addiction.

Marijuana legalization stinks.

There, I made a lame pot joke right in the first sentence — only mine, unlike the torrent of American news coverage and media about this issue, isn’t intended to convey that there’s anything fun, humorous, harmless, all-natural, disease-curing, crime-solving or national-debt-paying about this substance.

No, marijuana and the relentless drumbeat for its legalization — either on medical or recreational grounds — isn’t humorous to me, the wife of a world-recognized physician and medical researcher who treats kids struggling with addiction in Colorado, where marijuana is now legal to use when you just feel like getting high.

Smoking marijuana is the number one reason young people in the United States are admitted for substance abuse treatment and the number two reason, behind alcohol, for adults.

Perhaps it was former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who said it best when he called medical marijuana “one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.” Indeed, many users here laughingly admit they no longer pretend it is medicine. They’ve already blown past the claim still being used to usher the rest of the nation to this misguided place of alleged personal freedom, compassion, progressive thinking and enlightenment.

Here in Cannabis, er, Colorful Colorado, we’ve shifted the focus from marijuana as miraculous healing agent to the idea that getting stoned is really no different than enjoying a glass of wine or beer with a meal—and much healthier than alcohol. Recently, the local paper and my former employer, The Denver Post, launched a column aimed at what the writer called her efforts to help marijuana users find “the delicate balance of being a parent and a pothead.”

Weed’s cheerleaders and enablers — many of them sitting in newsrooms and public offices — tend to sidestep mention of the drug’s striking similarities to tobacco, another God-given plant people don’t tend to overdose on. Never mind that tobacco use is our nation’s leading cause of preventable death.

They also sidestep the fact that when it comes to marijuana, the youth of our country are getting the shaft. Older generations are making big bucks from this hard truth: the vast majority of lifelong, heavily using customers from whom the alcohol, tobacco and marijuana industries derive most of their profits start their drug habits as kids.

Still other facts get in the way of all the rosy narratives and editorials:

Marijuana is addictive.

Like alcohol users, most people who try, or occasionally use, marijuana do not become addicts — but let’s not kid ourselves. As we’ve seen from the example of alcohol, a small percentage of people can cause massive amounts of irreparable damage. It’s also worth noting that smoking marijuana is the number one reason young people in the United States are admitted for substance abuse treatment and the number two reason, behind alcohol, for adults.

The reputable and responsible scientific community does not even debate whether marijuana is addictive, nor does it trivialize our nation’s marijuana addiction rates, which are on the rise as our country loosens marijuana laws. Today, 6.5 percent of high school seniors — that’s not including younger students with the same problem — report smoking marijuana daily. That’s up from 6 percent in 2003.

One of every six kids who try marijuana becomes addicted. The rate drops to one of every nine people who try the drug after age 18. While experts continue to accept these rates, some of them (including my husband) are also questioning whether they could be higher given that they were determined decades ago, when marijuana was less potent.

Regardless of how people would like to calculate the chances of becoming addicted to weed, our country should brace itself for more marijuana addiction—which it is already ill equipped to treat. In 2013, past-month marijuana use by the nation’s 8th, 10th and 12th graders increased 1.2 percent, 4.2 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively, over the previous year, according to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future, one of our country’s largest and longest-ranging studies of students’ drug use and attitudes about drugs. You don’t have to be an addiction scientist to know that as more kids use, we will see more marijuana addicts.

Marijuana is associated with other health problems and a wide array of social costs.

As if addiction isn’t bad enough, adolescent marijuana use is also associated with permanent loss of IQ and memory by middle age, psychosis, mood disorders, anxiety, and school dropout. In adults, there are heightened risks of heart attack or stroke soon after use, association with an array of respiratory illnesses, and, in men, association with testicular cancer.

Then there are workplace accidents and traffic fatalities. In Colorado, the number of people killed in accidents involving a driver under the influence of marijuana nearly doubled from 2006 to 2011, according to the state’s department of transportation. Researchers at Columbia University last month reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology that legal weed was found in the bodies of dead drivers three times more often in 2010 compared to those who died behind the wheel in 1999.

The marijuana commonly sold today is more than 10 times the potency of the marijuana of the 1960s.

Its concentrated form, called hash oil, is even more potent and easily hidden in increasingly popular “e-cigarette” or “vaporizing” devices. The one ounce of hash oil that Colorado law permits every state resident to possess yields approximately 560 intense hits stowed in a device — or 2,800 average servings, the equivalent of a well-stocked bakery. Hash oil’s THC content can exceed 80 percent, which is most certainly up from the loose leaves smoked at Woodstock, containing approximately three percent THC. marijuanagrowfinal

Approximately 2.4 million Americans try marijuana for the first time each year — and of those, nearly 60 percent are under the age of 18

Truly responsible marijuana policy will act in the best interests of children before it considers the interests of adults who are looking to push and stretch — in the name of personal freedom — boundaries and limits as far as they can. Ask the adult marijuana smokers you know how old they were when they first tried the drug and, if they’re honest, they’ll tell you they were teenagers, and certainly under the age of 25, the age when the brain is fully developed.

Adolescents are in crucial stages of brain development, making them especially susceptible to addiction. So, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking marijuana, alcohol or tobacco. People who profit from substance addiction know that to develop life-long customers, they have to hook kids.

But don’t take my word or the word of a reputable physician for this. Take it from tobacco companies’ internal memos that have been made public:

“Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market,” R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company wrote.

“The base of our business is the high school student,” Lorillard, another tobacco corporation, said in a statement.

And as tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris griped: “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer. . . . Because of our high share of the market among the youngest smokers, Philip Morris will suffer more than the other companies from the decline in the number of teenage smokers.”

While similar memos haven’t yet been leaked from the files of marijuana industry honchos, let’s not be naïve. Last fall, before a crowd of about 1,100 cheering people in Denver, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, apologized “to those under 21 because we wish we could make it (marijuana) legal for those who are 18. But what we know is that when you look at public opinion polls, those people in the middle get scared.”

During that same talk, Nadelmann also rallied his druggie faithful with this: “What is it we’re fighting for? It is simply to legalize it all…Some of us believe deeply in our hearts that the best way to treat every drug is the way we treat alcohol and cigarettes today.”

Yeah, the way we deal with alcohol and cigarettes is nothing to cheer about. One of the goofiest arguments marijuana-legalization advocates make is that we should legalize weed because alcohol and tobacco have done so much damage. No, we shouldn’t legalize weed, and we should seriously revisit our policies and attitudes about tobacco and alcohol.

Though marijuana is the United States’ most commonly used illicit drug, with about 8 percent of the population consuming, its use rate is far less than the country’s rate of alcohol use, which stands at about 50 percent, and tobacco use at 25 percent.

Legal status has something to do with this, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said earlier this month to thousands of people gathered for an annual meeting of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA).

“Those drugs that are most frequently used are the ones that are legal — and that is not because they are the most pleasurable or the best drug,” she said. “They are the most frequently used because of their legal status, and that has a profound effect on the willingness of some individuals to engage in behaviors that otherwise they wouldn’t do because of the legal nature of the drug.”

Yes, alcohol and tobacco inflict damage on our country that is, arguably, far greater than the damages of marijuana use, but let’s also recognize that marijuana enjoys a reputation of relative harmlessness because it’s illegal and, thus, significantly fewer people use it. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is not readily accessible, socially acceptable or, for most of our country, advertised in the local newspaper or on billboards.

Our nation’s tobacco use rate has fallen by about 25 percent over the last decade as the bodies have stacked up and more Americans finally believed what the U.S. Surgeon General first reported in 1964: tobacco is hazardous to health and may cause premature death. Our country also has invested many millions of dollars and exacted still more money from tobacco companies for marketing and ad campaigns trumpeting tobacco’s harms to health. So as our country has clamped down on laws, not liberalized them, tobacco use has decreased.

It’s troubling that our country is ushering in the next Big Tobacco as if it has learned no lessons — and this time with a psychoactive drug that will, for a percentage of young people, induce lifelong struggles with addiction.

“People are voting without the knowledge,” Volkow said to thunderous applause from her audience in D.C. “And we have to counter investments of individuals wanting to change the culture and (promote beliefs that marijuana) is a safe drug.”

About

Christine Tatum Christine Tatum is a veteran journalist who owns Media Salad, Inc., a research and communications company in Denver. She has worked as a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune and The Denver Post. In 2006-07, she was elected to serve as national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
  • Rex Shea

    Sounds like the same old Reefer Madness paranoia to me: Recycled fears and fear mongering presented as something new and enlightening.

    Your analysis missed a few angles though. What are your thoughts on the failure of prohibition and the rise of multi billion dollar drug cartels based mostly on the illicit weed trade? What are your thoughts on the ever increasing spiral of crime and violence associated with these cartels? What are your thoughts on the failure of the drug war and the waste of trillions on an unenforceable prohibition? What are your thoughts on the fact that Marijuana prosecution is in practice, a vehicle for oppression of the poor and minorities? What are your thoughts on users and small time distributors facing more jail time over these offenses than violent offenders who actually leave an imprint of destruction on society?

    I would assume that these questions don’t fit too well with your shrill fear mongering, so they got no attention. Legalization removes most of the conditions that I raised and also adds hefty new tax revenue streams. Prohibition has failed. Why should we continue to waste trillions in failed enforcement schemes, while locking away minorities at an disproportional rate, when legalization at least offers us a new path with these issues?

    Is the oppressive and untenable status quo your desire for some reason?

    • Christine Tatum

      Hi, Rex. Thanks for your inquiry. I’m actually working on another column for “On Faith” that covers all of these angles — and more. I have researched the issues of policy you’ve raised, and my findings there also have convinced me that marijuana legalization is a very bad idea.
      For now, I’ll write simply that it is not at all necessary to legalize marijuana — and cause profound problems for public health and safety — to reform problem laws regarding the drug and its use.

      • Acebass1

        I’d be happy to debate you, any time any place.

    • beenthere donethat

      why are you so angry Rex? me thinks tho protest too much because the author of this article makes truly valid and compelling points. As a former smoker of all the above mentioned substances I can tell you from experience none of it made me a better person in mind, body or spirit. It just made me stoned. If Timothy Leary was still with us he probably would have grown yet more enlightened and suggest you tune in to life, by not turning on but by connecting with people in full sobriety. that’s what a real man does.. :-)

      • Christine Tatum

        Thanks for sharing just a little part of your story, beenthere donethat. I hope you’ll continue to encourage others to “connect with people in full sobriety.” Love that turn of phrase. I should use that sometime! :)

      • Rex Shea

        Who said anything about being angry? I am sorry that my rapid fire debunking of this piece of wishful thinking made you think I was angry.

        Thanks for the sermon and the judgement, I will try to keep those things in mind as I live my happy life. Oh a special double thank you on what I need to do to be a real man. I don’t know how I have been a successful businessman, husband and a father for these past 50 years without that definition.

        Keep judging people and preaching your attitude as if it is some kind of universal truth, because it seems to help you feel superior and better about yourself.

        Full sobriety certainly has a place in a full life, but so does a little debauchery! ;)

  • Angelina Gregory

    Thank You, so much for this well written, well investigated article. With REAL facts. I pray that more people will open there eyes to what is happening in this country.

    • Christine Tatum

      Thanks for the kind note, Angelina. I hope you’ll share this column with your family and friends. More Americans really do need to study the facts and rapidly building body of reputable science surrounding marijuana. The science and public records are sitting there, and they tell an ugly story a lot of people want to ignore.

  • Julie Schauer

    Christine, This article is great, but I believe marijuana is far more dangerous that tobacco. Tobacco may be more addictive, but it doesn’t have the same potential marijuana has for causing psychological damage. Some marijuana smokers do become quite delusional over time. Others get very depressed. Others need it to curb their anxiety, an anxiety they probably would not have had if they never started smoking pot. One friend who was treated for marijuana addiction about 10 years ago needs to take antidepressants daily. It is after quitting an almost 20-year habit. He certainly does not believe it should be legal. He felt betrayed by those who turned him onto smoking pot, because they insisted it is not addictive. Why does the marijuana community insist on lying about the addiction factor?

    Traditional cigarettes have health risks, but marijuana has health risks plus the risk of psychological problems and later anxiety/mood disorders. Although some drinkers who quit to have lingering depression or anxiety, I haven’t observed that in those who quit smoking plain old tobacco. (I am not advocating for tobacco, but believe it’s less risky than marijuana. It also seems that a lot of people only have a glass of wine or beer to compliment their food, rather than to get high.

    • Christine Tatum

      Thanks much for the thoughtful response, Julie. I agree with you that marijuana poses dangers to mental health that people haven’t stopped to consider and that, yes, marijuana is arguably more dangerous to public health and safety than is tobacco. After all, people who smoke cigarettes don’t often cause traffic fatalities and workplace accidents — while folks who toke do.

      At the same time, I try not to make easy-breezy comparisons between substances because their impact on individuals (even if we’re just considering how they impair someone) and communities tend to be so different. Our public policies should be smart enough to recognize these differences — but they’re not.

      People often ask my husband which drugs are the most dangerous. His answer? “The ones you’re using.”

  • Doug Wilkening

    When I studied for my Ph.D. in Pharmacology many years ago, it was always drummed into our heads that “all drugs are poisons.” This was specifically meant to refer to theraputic drugs, and was a warning to always assess their side effects along with their benefits. But based on my professional experience, I would extend the statement to include all food additives, cosmetics and industrial pollutants. So, when you say that marijuana is toxic, all you are really saying is that marijuana is yet another foreign substance that we put into our bodies. Of course it’s toxic, so is almost everything.

    What is most needed now, since we are well along the path to national legalization, is some high-quality, large-scale, multi-center retrospective studies to identify and quantify the actual risks. What we have today is mostly small-scale studies and individual physicians’ clinical experience, not very impressive, and some of it contradictory. If you decide to pursue your crusade, my guess is that you’ll have much greater impact if you lobby for funding for such high-quality studies, and let the discussion go wherever the good science leads it, as opposed to trying to plug your finger in the dike of legalization.

    Also, you’ll have more credibility if you make a habit of citing your sources, as failure to do so puts you in the category of internet posters who may or may not know what they’re talking about.

    I say this in the spirit of being constructive and of helping you to become more effective. You’ve embarked on an important mission, so don’t flub it.

    • Doug Wilkening

      Christine,

      I saw your reply as you were posting it earlier this evening, although it now seems to have been either withdrawn or lost in a posting glitch. Either way, thank you for the courtesy of a reply.

      I saw that you disagree with much of what I said. Nevertheless, you convinced me to look up the American Medical Association (AMA) position. The most recent AMA position paper that I could find on the status of research is titled “Report 3 of the Council on Science and Public Health,” and states, in part, “Despite the public controversy, less than 20 small randomized controlled trials of short duration involving ~300 patients have been conducted over the last 35 years on smoked cannabis.” This was my conclusion also when I looked at the state of the literature myself, and now reading the AMA report reinforces my earlier opinion that more and higher quality research is needed before valid conclusions can be drawn about the health effects of cannabis.

      Really, the current research on marijuana is in what I consider to be the most unfortunate of possible states for public discourse: not enough public health evidence to support sound scientific conclusions, but enough small studies out there to allow internet debaters of all stripes to cherry pick data to support whatever agenda they wish to push. So I suppose for the foreseeable future we’ll have a lot of heat but very little true light.

      • Christine Tatum

        Yet the world body of science showing the harmful effects of marijuana to individuals and communities is out there and far exceeds the scope you’re citing. The marijuana literature involves tens of thousands of people studied over decades around the world. So, no, scientists don’t look only to those 20 studies you mention. Not by a long shot. For example, the AMA did not limit its policy-making to those studies when it announced in November its opposition to the legalization of marijuana for recreational and medicinal use.

  • Guestt

    Nice, well written piece. I’d like to ask tho, what are your thoughts on those children with epilepsy who use cbd-rich medical cannabis for treatment?

  • fitzfilmfx

    Scouring the internet has led to cherry-picked data. Your article sites singular scientific studies on marijuana use. This is not a scientific consensus, nor does that mean it’s even true. People still think saccharin causes cancer due to one study the media glommed onto. Hell, I can find a study that dimes can cause caner in rats. There IS however mountains of evidence supporting the medical benefits of marijuana. Also there is no evidence that it’s any more addictive than eating food, or even jogging. A person can make anything addictive if they have the personality for it. 38% of the US has used marijuana, making it illegal when tobacco and alcohol are not is silly. Not to mention the complete sham we call the war on drugs, which has sent countless minorities to prison. I’d be more worried about the effects of taking radical amounts of legal pharmaceuticals for everything under the sun, that’s an epidemic worth fighting.

    • Christine Tatum

      First, there is NOT “mountains of evidence supporting the medical benefits of marijuana” — which is why there isn’t a major medical society in the world calling for its use. The American Medical Society recently reviewed the evidence and took a stand against marijuana legalization.
      Second, if you’re going to accuse me of cherry picking data, you should be prepared to cite your own sources.

  • fitzfilmfx

    Why was my comment removed?

  • HK_EXPAT_IN_NEW_ZEALAND

    Christine,I am seriously sitting here and laughing at you,what you wrote was out of William Hearst’s book,you must be making him proud

  • SaraJayyyyy

    Regardless of whether it’s bad or good for you, everyone should be free to make their own choice. The irrational fears of a few should not take away freedoms of many more. Driving a car is dangerous? Should we make that illegal as well?

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