uch like Big Tobacco, the billion-dollar commercial marijuana industry cares more about making a profit than protecting public health.
Cannabis promoters have been making use of their hefty advertising budgets to convince voters in five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada — that legalizing recreational marijuana will not only be economically beneficial to the state but will also help save lives. The latter is a frightening and misleading claim. Here’s why.
Proponents argue that legalizing recreational marijuana reduces opioid abuse and overdose death. A recent article in STAT pointed to a 2015 white paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggesting that access to medical marijuana was associated with a 16 percent decrease in opioid overdose deaths and a 28 percent reduction in opioid abuse treatment admissions.
What the findings of that study don’t showcase are the increases in traffic fatalities, hospitalizations, and marijuana-related poisonings following the legalization of recreational marijuana. In Washington state, for example, the number of traffic deaths due to marijuana-impaired drivers doubled in the year after recreational marijuana was legalized. In Colorado, the number of fatal accidents involving marijuana rose by 62 percent since its recreational use was legalized in 2012.
Law enforcement officers can rely on Breathalyzer tests to identify drunk drivers. But there’s no equivalent for drugged drivers, making it difficult to deter or punish them.
In Colorado, marijuana-related hospitalizations have increased an average of 30 percent a year since legalization. Marijuana-related poisonings also rose sharply in both Colorado and Washington.
Just as secondhand tobacco smoke can harm individuals who don’t smoke, marijuana can also harm nonusers. If the new laws pass, they would authorize the promotion and sale of highly potent marijuana edibles, including candy, cookies, and soda. These account for nearly half of all marijuana sold in Colorado. Edible forms of marijuana pose a particular risk for kids and pets.
Advertisements for Pot Tarts, Hashees cups, and cannabis gummy bears will become as common as the soft drink promotions targeted at the youth market. No limits have been placed on the potency of edible products in Colorado, nor will such limits be written into the proposed laws in most of the states looking to legalize marijuana. Edible products have been known to have levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, reaching as high as 95 percent, compared to 20 percent to 30 percent generally found in marijuana plants.
Writing in JAMA Pediatrics, doctors at Children’s Hospital in Denver reported that after recreational marijuana was legalized, its emergency department began treating one to two kids a month for accidental marijuana ingestion, mostly from edibles. Before legalization, the hospital hadn’t treated any kids for this.
Proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana use argue that it will save lives by giving people an alternative to opioids for pain relief. What they don’t consider is the detrimental impact of recreational marijuana on youths. When Colorado legalized marijuana, it became the number one state in the country for teen marijuana use, with teen rates jumping over 12 percent. In both Washington state and Colorado, the illegal black market for drugs has exploded, with organized crime groups growing large amounts of marijuana illegally in Colorado homes and shipping it across the US, increasing youth access to the drug.
While using marijuana by itself is unlikely to be life-threatening at any age, it can cause serious problems. Numerous studies have linked marijuana use to mental health problems including increased rates of anxiety, mood, and psychotic thought disorders. Marijuana use is also associated with relationship problems, poor academic performance, employment issues, and lower life satisfaction. With the increased potency of marijuana, these problems are even more significant for today’s users.
Marijuana use during adolescence is especially damaging in terms of impaired cognitive function, including memory issues, learning deficits, and lower IQs, all of which can persist into adulthood. Despite that, the majority of high school seniors don’t believe that regular marijuana smoking is harmful. In fact, only 36 percent believe regular use puts the user at great risk, compared to 52 percent five years ago. Nearly 1 in 15 high school seniors use marijuana on a daily basis, while 21 percent of all 12th-graders report using marijuana in the past month. Also, more young people seek treatment for marijuana abuse or dependence than for use of alcohol and all other drugs.
When states legalize recreational marijuana, fatalities increase and the lives of children and teenagers are put at stake.
Kurt Isaacson is president and CEO of Spectrum Health Systems, a private, not-for-profit substance abuse and mental health treatment provider.