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.
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.”