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POINT: The Dangers of Legal Marijuana Outweigh the Benefits

For an alternate point of view, see: COUNTERPOINT: PA Should Join Neighboring States to Legalize Marijuana 

When I was in high school 20 years ago, marijuana use was generally confined to buying dime bags of dry flower that had a THC potency in the single digits (THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana that gives the high). No one was vaping marijuana because vaping wasn’t around yet.

Today, not only has marijuana flower been industrialized to produce upwards of 30 percent THC and more, but you have a host of new delivery mechanisms – including vapes that come in a kids’ menu of flavors like Blueberry Cookies and Orange Crush – that can range between 80-90 percent THC and higher.

No longer are teachers and educators just finding a few students smoking weed under the football field bleachers but are now confronting students vaping marijuana in school, not only in bathrooms but right in the classroom as well, with devices disguised as USB drives and even yellow highlighters.

We have never experienced a time in history when the potency strength of manufactured marijuana is as high and in such a diverse set of products as it is today, and children and young adults are using today’s marijuana at record rates. Both facts are colliding, and the impact of this wreckage is made significantly worse by a state government that encourages its recreational use through legalization.

Earlier this year, researchers at Temple University released a study finding that more children and young adults use marijuana because of states legalizing its recreational use, particularly due to the lowering of perceived harm by making it legal. It is a logical conclusion: if you increase access, you increase use.

We know that using today’s industrialized marijuana with upwards of 99 percent THC can have damaging health consequences, including marijuana use disorder (MUD), the medical term for addiction; risks that increase exponentially for those using in their mid-20’s or earlier as it impacts their developing brain.

“The risk of developing marijuana use disorder is stronger in people who start using marijuana during youth or adolescence,” states the CDC. And according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), addiction rates nearly double when you start using before age 18.

Addiction to marijuana? Yes, science has proven today’s marijuana can absolutely be addictive, and rates are steadily increasing. Yet there are some Pennsylvania state lawmakers who dismiss the addictive traits of marijuana. State Representative Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) has gone so far as to claim not only that marijuana is not dangerous or addictive but that the only thing at risk with legalizing marijuana for recreational use is potato chips and Fritos – alluding to getting “the munchies” after use.

Not only is this joke insulting to families who have been directly impacted by the harms of marijuana use, but it denies the existing science and evidence that are contrary to those archaic claims. There’s a reason why every major medical association is opposed to legalizing recreational use.

We know that there has been a significant change in potency strength in the last decade. In 2014, Washington State’s total market of manufactured marijuana extracts was 9 percent. Today, extracts are now 35 percent of the market. This growth has led to calls for potency caps.

“Twenty years ago, prescription opioids were seen as a breakthrough in pain relief,” writes The Seattle Times Editorial Board. “We understand now the human costs of addiction and dysfunction. This state should not make the same mistake with high-potency marijuana.”

We also know that, in states like Colorado, the commercialized sale of marijuana – backed by Big Tobacco and their predatory history of targeting teens for addiction – has led to more marijuana shops than McDonalds and Starbucks combined. This market proliferation is also reflective in the use of social media and billboards advertising these harmful products.

Additional harms caused by marijuana legalization include an increase in DUIs and drugged driving fatalities. Evidence from the two states who started experimenting with marijuana legalization for recreational use, Colorado and Washington State, both witnessed an increase in motor vehicle accidents and fatalities.

A 19-year old woman from Pennsylvania was recently charged with involuntary manslaughter and DUI after having marijuana in her system when she was driving and killed a motorcyclist and father of three. If we don’t want an increase in these types of scenarios, then we should listen to law enforcement and safety associations like AAA and oppose marijuana legalization for recreational use.

When voters are given options of marijuana policy that are not just a one-size-fits-all model for recreational use, options that include ways to address the criminal justice system, voters often do not favor full recreational sales.

Here in Pennsylvania, there are options available to our state lawmakers to improve our medical marijuana program. The question is who do we help: an addiction-for-profit industry or our children? Will we protect public health and safety or subject communities to the harms caused by commercializing manufactured marijuana?

I know my choice.


COUNTERPOINT: PA Should Join Its Neighboring States to Legalize Marijuana

For an alternate point of view, see: POINT: The Dangers of Legal Marijuana Outweigh the Benefits

Recently, Ohio became the 24th state to legalize “Adult Use” (recreational) marijuana. The people of Ohio did so in a referendum by a landslide, resulting in the majority of the American people now living in states where you cannot be labeled a criminal and possibly go to jail for smoking a plant that makes you feel good.

The new respect for individual freedom in Ohio is a huge step in the right direction but still leaves too many Americans, including those of us living in Pennsylvania, under the antiquated, cruel, irrational and racist policy that has governed us for the past 80 years.

Since 1937, authorities have been waging a “war on drugs” that includes treating the use of marijuana as a matter for the criminal justice system. We have spent billions of dollars investigating, prosecuting, incarcerating and monitoring millions of our fellow citizens who have hurt no one, damaged no property, breached no peace. Their only crime was a personal lifestyle choice, which is frankly none of the government’s business.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in an average year, about 25,000 marijuana arrests are made in Pennsylvania at a cost of $350 million. Of course, that is only the partial cost of prohibition. Our current policy leaves several hundred million dollars on the table in taxes that we do not collect because marijuana is illegal rather than regulated and taxed. Aside from the moral issues involved, we can no longer afford the financial costs of prohibition.

Further, prohibition has done exactly what it did in the case of alcohol in the 1930s. It has created a dangerous, unregulated black market with violent and bloody turf wars that kill many people in our country and elsewhere. It has also decimated whole, mostly poorer communities as it acts as an entry-point into the vortex of the criminal justice system.

As it did with alcohol, legalization and regulation would make marijuana safer. Pennsylvanians no longer would have to buy it on the streets from criminals who may have laced their product with other dangerous substances. People buying legally can know exactly what they are getting and rely on its safety.

Some who oppose legalization claim that cannabis today is so much stronger than it was 30 or 40 years ago. First, this is a bogus claim. Cannabis was universally illegal then, and thus, virtually none of it was tested. So, we don’t know the relative strength of 1970s cannabis compared to today. But regardless, the potential for increased strength is an argument for legalization. People forced to buy cannabis on the street have no way of knowing what they are buying. If you purchase it in a legal dispensary, it comes with a label telling you exactly how much THC is in the product so you can consume it responsibly.

Those who oppose legalization also claim that cannabis is somehow bad for you. I will address that momentarily, but the threshold problem with their argument is that even if they are right, it’s not a good argument for prohibition. Lots of things are, in at least some contexts, bad for you. Tobacco kills 480,000 people in the US each year, and alcohol directly kills about 140,000. The number of people directly killed by marijuana is zero. If you were only to make one of these substances illegal, there’s no logic by which you would choose marijuana.

It’s also important to be skeptical of the studies cited by prohibitionists about the harm of cannabis. Most of these studies either deal with children, and again, it’s called “Adult Use” because it would be illegal for children to use it, or they deal with “chronic use,” meaning people who get high multiple times every day. And yes, that’s not a good idea. But it’s also not a good idea to get drunk multiple times every day, yet we don’t punish responsible drinkers, and we shouldn’t punish responsible marijuana users.

Some argue that cannabis is a “gateway” to harder drugs, but the evidence does not bear that out.  Well, over 90 percent of those who use marijuana never go on to use harder drugs, and the percentage of people who do use hard drugs and had previously used marijuana is no higher than the percentage who had previously tried only beer.

Unlike alcohol, you cannot overdose on marijuana. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is not physically addictive. You can develop a psychological dependence on cannabis, but if you quit, you won’t experience potentially fatal delirium tremors like you could with booze.

Studies have shown that people on marijuana are much less likely to behave violently or recklessly than drunk people. Despite all of this, adults can drink and smoke tobacco freely. But if you smoke marijuana, you are a criminal.

This horrific policy must end. People around the nation are realizing that. It is a moral imperative that Pennsylvania wakes up and legalizes marijuana.