Legalizing marijuana not all it’s cracked up to be

After Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill penned an op-ed article urging state lawmakers to resist the push for legal marijuana, he faced predictable outrage from a lobbying group that will say almost anything to sway public opinion to its side.

Predictable because the pro-marijuana faction mastered — years ago — a public relations strategy based on immediate repudiation of claims that marijuana is harmful to individual users or society in general.

The last time I wrote about marijuana — a 2013 column arguing that smoking pot is more harmful to health than smoking tobacco cigarettes — I received a barrage of criticism and was accused of misinterpreting the data.

My column noted that marijuana usage was associated with memory loss and delayed reaction time in the short term and lower educational attainment in the long term. Paul Armantano, then deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), labeled my essay propaganda and said, “marijuana legalization is no longer a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”

Now Hill is receiving an “avalanche of response from clearly pro-legalization folks.” All in response to his article, warning lawmakers of “money-hungry profiteers” lining up to capitalize on a commercial marijuana market and predicting a big push to legalize pot during the 2018 session of the Indiana General Assembly. All because he wrote that “marijuana poses long-term risks to health, safety, education and employment — especially among those who start young.”

State Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Portage who advocates decriminalization of marijuana use and legalization for medical purposes, quickly issued a news release to challenge Hill’s claims. She called his views inflammatory and Victorian and said his data was misleading.

Steve Dillon, an Indianapolis attorney and chairman of the board of NORML, wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Star editor accusing Hill of “trying to mislead my fellow Hoosiers with fear mongering and distorted data.”

Weed News, whose mission is to “reform harmful cannabis prohibition laws,” claimed on its website that Hill was suffering from “Stage IV reefer madness” and that the 29 states that have legalized marijuana in some form have experienced “no bad side effects.”

No bad side effects? Hill’s critics apparently haven’t read the January 2017 report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. It provides the most rigorous review to date of scientific research that’s been conducted on the health impacts of cannabis — the scientific name for marijuana. Here are just a few of its findings:

Cannabis use prior to driving increases the risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident.

Where cannabis use is legal, there is increased risk of unintentional cannabis overdose injuries among children.

Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, other psychoses and social anxiety disorders, and to a lesser extent depression.

Nor have Hill’s naysayers mentioned the 2016 brain-imaging study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showing regular marijuana users have less “gray matter” than non-users in the region of the brain responsible for impulse control, decision making and learning. This finding suggests that marijuana addicts may have a hard time quitting because they’ve altered the part of the brain that would help them to do so.

Nor have they chatted with Dr. Christian Thurstone, a pediatric addiction psychiatrist at Denver Health who’s seen a doubling in the number of adolescents seeking treatment for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses linked to pot addiction since 2010 when Colorado allowed commercial sale of medical marijuana. Colorado permitted recreational marijuana in 2012.

One in six teens who try marijuana develops an addiction, Thurstone said. He suspects addiction rates are rising because marijuana today is as much as 10 times more potent than it used to be in the 1970s.

The legal age to buy recreational marijuana in Colorado is 21, but medical marijuana is available to anyone 18 or older. It is from the latter group that most minors are illegally obtaining pot; and many of the approved medical uses are of questionable merit, Thurstone said. With commercialization, “the perception of harm plummeted significantly,” he adds.

A 15-minute phone conversation with Thurstone would frighten the bejeebers out of any parent of a teen who uses marijuana. He talks of the “strong association” between adolescent exposure to marijuana and subsequent development of psychosis and points to numerous studies showing regular pot usage linked to poor educational outcomes.

He dismisses those who say marijuana is not a gateway to other types of substance abuse; even occasional use of marijuana by teens and young adults is associated with future high-risk use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs like cocaine, opioids and methamphetamine.

“The brain develops until age 24. Anything we can do to push off marijuana use, any substance use, as late as possible, is positive,” he said.

I understand the libertarian arguments for legalizing marijuana: people should be able to live their own lives as they please without government micromanaging what they can eat, drink, smoke, etc. If people become impaired by drugs or alcohol, causing accidents or harming others, government can step in and hold them criminally liable. Besides, legalizing marijuana would put an end to the black market and related violence that comes with any highly desired illegal substance. Didn’t we learn anything from Prohibition?

That argument would be fine if marijuana were a benign substance that didn’t threaten the user’s health or the community’s safety. It’s not. As more and better studies emerge, it will become impossible for the pro-legalization faction to claim “no bad side effects.”

“There’s a considerable wave of attitude that marijuana is not harmful, that it’s OK, that it’s inevitable it will be legal,” Hill said. “It’s important to speak the truth about these issues.”

Thanks go to Attorney General Hill for having the courage to oppose legalization of marijuana here. The data is on his side — no matter how convincing, how adamant, how dismissive the claims of the pro-marijuana network.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.