Pubdate: Tue, 22 Apr 2014
Source: Salt Lake Tribune (UT)
Copyright: 2014 Bloomberg News


Marijuana has now been legalized or decriminalized in 17 states and 
the District of Columbia, with Maryland joining the list just last 
week. Not to harsh anyone's mellow, but it may be an appropriate time 
(and day) to bring back another useful verb to associate with 
marijuana use: stigmatize.

The drive toward legitimization will be hard to stop. Most Americans 
favor it, and ballot measures to loosen rules on marijuana use could 
come to a vote this year in at least five states. Twenty-one states 
already allow marijuana for medical use.

What's unhealthy about this trend is that it coincides with a 
declining awareness of marijuana's dangers - especially among young 
people. Less than 40 percent of high school seniors think marijuana 
use poses a great risk, down from 55 percent in 2003. Cigarettes are 
dangerous, more and more adolescents have come to realize, but they 
don't believe marijuana is. (In fact, they're both unhealthy.)

That they could be so wrong about a drug that more than a third have 
used makes it clear: In their drive to roll back laws against 
marijuana, and for the revenue that undoing prohibition would raise, 
states are inadvertently stoking a serious public health problem.

Marijuana poses the greatest threat to the still-developing brains of 
teenagers. Steady use can bring lasting impairments in memory, 
intellectual functioning and emotion control. Marijuana use has been 
linked to depression, anxiety, even psychosis. Smoking pot once a 
week or more appears to actually change the size and shape of certain 
brain regions in young people.

Dependence is a special problem, not limited to adolescents but more 
prevalent among them: One in 6 teenagers become addicted to 
marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (the 
comparable figure for adults is 1 in 11). With dependence comes every 
sort of social trouble: isolation, failure at school and work, often 
profound unhappiness.

There are other effects, equally disturbing. Smoking pot is bad for 
the lungs. It slows reaction time (fatal car accidents involving 
drivers testing positive for marijuana tripled in the U.S. from 1999 
to 2010). Pot use during pregnancy can harm the fetal brain, and 
there remain unanswered questions about how marijuana affects adult 
and geriatric brains.

When marijuana use was illegal, fears about these effects were 
circumscribed. Legalization both eliminates the possibility of 
penalty, encouraging many more people to try marijuana, and lowers 
the price, making it easier for everyday users to keep their habit going.

Both Colorado and Washington, the two states that have legalized 
marijuana for adults, have rules to keep minors away from it. Sales 
to them are punishable by steep fines and jail terms. Grownups aren't 
allowed to use marijuana in public view. And there are various limits 
on advertising. Nevertheless, more teenagers in these states are 
expected to use marijuana than did before it was legalized.

Such restrictions are essential, but they do nothing to educate kids 
or their parents about the risks marijuana poses to still-growing 
brains, or to inform adult users about the dangers of overuse. The 
states should direct tax revenue from marijuana sales toward public 
education campaigns, as Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to do in 
Colorado. Hickenlooper would also spend some of the money on research 
into marijuana's effects on pregnant women.

Colorado collected $2 million in January alone. As with all sin 
taxes, states will have to balance the competing goals of raising 
revenue and affecting behavior. It is not hypocritical to use money 
from taxing a product to discourage its use; states do it now with 
cigarettes and alcohol, for example.

People argue marijuana is no worse than alcohol, which has been legal 
for decades, and that it has medical uses in treating pain and 
nausea. But those facts do nothing to lessen marijuana's risks; they 
only boost the misimpression that the drug is nothing for anyone to 
worry about.

Marijuana, like alcohol, must be used and sold responsibly. As states 
make it easier for the public to get marijuana, they are obligated to 
protect the public from its harms.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom