Pubdate: Fri, 18 Aug 1995 Source: Wall Street Journal (US) Copyright: 1995 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Contact: 200 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10281 Fax: (212) 416-2658 Website: http://www.wsj.com/ Author: Donna Shalala, Dr. SAY 'NO' TO LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA Earlier this summer the Department of Health and Human Services held the first-ever national research conference on marijuana, at which scientists presented groundbreaking information about the danger of marijuana use. What was said has implications for every business, every citizen, and every parent, particularly as new calls are being heard to legalize marijuana. Peter Fried, who is associated with Carleton University in Ottawa, discussed his preliminary findings that marijuana use during pregnancy has harmful effects on children's intellectual abilities a decade or more after they are born. Through the use of an animal model of addiction, Billy Martin of Virginia Commonwealth University showed that compulsive marijuana use may lead to an addiction similar to those produced by other illicit drugs. These findings are particularly troubling because we have witnessed a three-year increase in marijuana use among American teenagers, at a time when more potent forms of marijuana are readily available: Thirteen percent of eighth graders reported having tried marijuana at least once in 1994-up from 9.2% in 1993, 7.2% in 1992, and 6.2% in 1991. Still, as we commit ourselves to countering this increase, we need to remember that there is also some important continuing good news. Adolescent marijuana use remains well below the levels of the late 1970's and early 1980's. This means that most young people do not use marijuana, and we need to remind them again and again of this crucial fact. A Huge Mistake Given the facts, it is surprising that some people in Washington and elsewhere continue to bring up the issue of legalizing marijuana and other illicit drugs. That would be a huge mistake. First, marijuana is a problem in our country not because it is harmful-not because it is illicit. Research continues to show that it damages short-term memory, distorts perception, impairs judgment and complex motor skills, alters the heart rate, can lead to severe anxiety, and can cause paranoia and lethargy. Its use by young people is clearly associated with increased truancy, poor school performance and crime. And new research by Roger Roffman and Robert Stephens at the University of Washington shows that marijuana can put a serious chokehold on long-term users who try to quit. Second, marijuana use has great costs and consequences to all of us in society-not just to users. Young marijuana users are more likely than nonusers to use other illicit drugs, to have automobile crashes, and to be arrested. They are less likely to achieve their academic potential, which detracts from national productivity in the long run. They are at greater risk of needing expensive emergency room treatment, which costs us money in the short run. Indeed, in 1993, twice as many teenagers ended up in emergency rooms for marijuana use as for heroin and cocaine combined. And, more broadly, drug use, including marijuana use, causes considerable damage in our workplaces. Few Americans realize that three-fourths of regular drug users are employed. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, employed drug users are 33% less effective than their nonabusing colleagues. They are likely to incur 300% higher medical costs and benefits. Third, legalization of marijuana almost certainly would cause more young people to use-and become addicted to-marijuana, as well as other drugs. In part, that's because legalizing drugs takes away a significant deterrent against drug use. Moreover, for as long as we have monitored drug use, we have seen that whenever there is a decrease in the percentage of young people who perceive marijuana use as harmful, the percentage of users increases. Inevitably, legalization would suggest to young people that marijuana is not harmful thereby knocking down a powerful barrier to use. And even worse, because laws are rightly perceived by citizens in our democracy as the expression of national values, legalization would imply that marijuana use is an accepted-and acceptable-social practice. For many teenagers, that would intensify the already severe peer pressure they face to use drugs. Our daughters and sons would no longer have on their side the moral authority of our laws to bolster their antidrug attitudes and desire not to use drugs. Indeed, reversing directions and legalizing marijuana could cause young people to dismiss warnings they have heard from government and the larger society about other illicit drugs like crack, cocaine and heroin-an erosion of trust that must never be allowed to happen. What's behind the call for legalization of marijuana? Sometimes, it's a myth-like the false notion that marijuana is a "soft" drug. Sometimes it's the erroneous conclusion that legalization is the way to make drugs less prevalent in our country. I believe there is a way to achieve a drug-free society-but there is no single, simple solution. The Clinton administration has embarked on a comprehensive drug strategy-a massive effort to reduce both the supply and the demand. In this effort, the role of the Department of Health and Human Services is critical: we are working with many partners to prevent drug use, provide effective treatment, conduct research of drug issues, and disseminate information to experts and the general public. Specifically in relation to marijuana, we have taken a number of strong, targeted steps. We continue to fund major research on the effects of marijuana use on behavior. For example, within the next year, we expect publication of the results of a major government-funded study showing the extent to which acute marijuana smoking and the potency of smoked marijuana are related to motivation to perform work tasks. Based on our growing body of knowledge about marijuana, we have developed an aggressive communications strategy. For example, we know that it is critical to reach young people early, before they have begun to use drugs, with clear information about marijuana and with positive alternatives for their time. Young children typically have very strong antidrug attitudes; it's essential to reinforce them. We also know that in order to stop marijuana use we must send young people clear and consistent messages. As a result, we are working across many media, with many partners, to tell young people: Don't start using marijuana, and if you have, stop right away. Marijuana use is illegal, dangerous, and unhealthy. It is not cool. It is not respectful of one's body. And it is certainly not rampant among young people. This is a message we cannot emphasize enough. Our research tells is something else as well. We know that young people need to hear antidrug messages where they live, where they study, where they work, where they play, and where they hang out. In other words, while the federal government must provide leadership, it cannot solve the drug problem alone-and it shouldn't try. We're recruiting parents and other family members to set drug-free examples for young people and talk with them about drugs. We're helping schools, community groups, religious organizations, the private sector, and state and local governments to join forces to give young people something to say "yes" to. We're meeting with the media and entertainment industries to promote programming that deglamorizes drug use and other risky behaviors. And we're challenging young people to work with us, knowing that teenagers have a unique gift for getting into each other's heads and influencing behavior. A National Challenge Make no mistake. We face a national challenge, and our young people are watching closely to see how we respond. We must not blink. It is unfortunate, however, that the Republican majority in Congress is attempting to cut back dramatically our commitment to stopping drug use. On Aug. 4, the House slashed $401 million in substance abuse and mental health prevention and treatment grants at HHS. It also cut $300 million from the Safe and Drug Free Schools program, depriving more than 23 million students of services in 1996 alone. A Senate Appropriations subcommittee proposed to eliminate the Office of the White House Drug Policy Coordinator. This turnabout is remarkably shortsighted. At a time when marijuana use has climbed, the foundation of success is education, prevention, treatment, research, law enforcement, interdiction, and massive community involvement-not legalization or gutting our national commitment against drug use. As we tighten our federal belts and rethink the scope and rule of the federal government, we must never forget that the drug issue is about our national future. It is about real human beings, young people who have within them both a galaxy of gifts and a fragility that leaves them vulnerable to foolish choices and risky behavior We must be there for them. We must do what is right for them and the nation.