Letter to the Editor

Marijuana: Too risky a choice

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In November, the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana became legal in Colorado and Washington, although federal law still bans both the sale and possession of marijuana.

Over a dozen other states have decriminalized possession of said small amounts and Massachusetts recently became the 18th state to allow its use for medicinal purposes. Is there any wonder why our youth's "perception" of harm for this drug is low and perceived risk has been shown to have a strong correlation to drug use?

Proponents of the legalization of the drug feel that its hazards are overblown and that the prohibition of the drug has failed. Opponents say that the three-pronged approach of prevention, treatment and law enforcement has worked and fewer people use it than back in the 1960s and 70s.

Marijuana use, especially regular use, can impair problem solving, concentration, motivation, memory and can cause birth defects. Some say that alcohol and tobacco, while legal, are far more dangerous and costly to society. No one disagrees that high-risk use of alcohol and tobacco can be deadly and still abused even while legal, but the tax revenue from them is far outweighed by the costly damage they cause.

Why would the legalization of marijuana be any different? The adverse impact on our social and economic well-being cannot be over looked. Pragmatic regulatory framework (like for tobacco) may even reduce underage adolescent use, the proponents say. Marijuana should not be sold on the open market. Research tells us that access and availability lead to greater use. There is no assurance, under legalization, that the underground market would disappear because that market could very easily adapt to and undercut a legal, taxed product like marijuana.

The most disturbing new studies about early teenage use of marijuana showed that young adults who started smoking pot before they were 16 performed significantly worse on cognitive tests of brain functions. They also performed particularly poorly on tests assessing executive function, which is responsible for planning and abstract thinking, as well as understanding rules and inhibiting inappropriate responses. This all puts teenagers at a higher risk for addiction. Yes, marijuana can be addictive.

There is a lot to be learned from our experience with trying to keep alcohol and tobacco out of kids' hands. Establishing a minimum age is not enough. Nationwide, some 60 percent of new smokers and some 80 percent of new drinkers each year are underage. Some blame the parents while others the school or the alcohol industry. Holding young people solely responsible is like holding fish responsible for dying in a polluted stream.

Some people believe that legalizing recreational use would create revenues that would make it possible to use proven approaches to youth substance-abuse prevention strategies. Creating funded programs that can help young people negotiate their way around detours due to alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. These may also help to establish funding for help with the cost of treatment for those who need it. Still, legalization takes health consumers into murky territory.

Today's marijuana is much more potent and this increased potency is having unforeseen consequences -- like more admissions to emergency rooms and treatment programs for marijuana dependency. The legalization of this drug does not make it "safe."

In the meantime, conversations between parents and children about marijuana are key. Yes, kids do listen to there parents, although at times they may not seem to.

A child might say, "but everyone is getting high and it's no big deal." There is a lot of misinformation about pot in the media and on the Internet. Some erroneously insist that marijuana is harmless, safer than aspirin. That is not true. For the facts, go to the Drug Policy Alliance website and look for the booklet for parents written by Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum titled "Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs."

Teen pot users put themselves at risk including spiraling down hill at school and getting trapped on an emotional roller coaster much hairier than what's already pretty hairy for teens. Our kids need to know how important it is that they learn problem-solving and coping skills during their teen years that they will need for the rest of their lives that do not involve substances like alcohol or marijuana. Teens' brains are still developing, which is why they may be more vulnerable to the effects of these drugs. A number of studies have linked chronic marijuana use to increased rates of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, according to DrugAbuse.gov. Even with all its supposed potential benefits, marijuana should not be viewed as a "harmless substance."

Marijuana use is a bad choice. We are about to go down the wrong road, in the opposite direction of sound mental health policy. Legalizing marijuana sends the wrong message. There are many excellent reasons to avoid marijuana. Marijuana use damages brain development in young people. Heavy users can become socially isolated and perform worse in school and at work. Marijuana smoke harms the lungs. Be aware that about one-sixth of users will become chronically dependent on marijuana, and as a result will lose or harm something that is of value to them.