Smoke and mirrors?

By Dr. Tim Millea

“All the other kids are doing it, so why can’t I?” The parental reply ended the discussion. “If they were all jumping off a bridge, would you do that?” Similar disagreements arise well into adulthood. The debate over the legalization of marijuana for recreational use is evidence of this. To paraphrase the question: “All the other states are doing it, so why can’t we?”

Dr. Millea

Ten states and the District of Columbia allow adults to use marijuana. Nearly every other state legislature has introduced bills that seek to decriminalize it. Marijuana, or cannabis, is the most commonly used “illicit” drug in the United States, but there is still contentious debate over the benefits of legalized recreational use versus its negative impacts.

In 2018, Brazilian researchers reported their analysis of 56 studies of the effects of cannabis use. Their findings in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse showed a clear association of marijuana use and “cognitive changes and structural and functional alterations in the brain.” Even the immediate effect of marijuana use on brain function can be negative. Studies from Massachusetts General Hospital and Northwestern University in 2014 showed structural alterations in brain MRIs of young adult cannabis users compared to non-users, particularly in the areas implicated in addiction behavior. The younger usage begins, the more likely the damage. Brain development begins in utero and continues until at least 21 years of age. In 2012, researchers with the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre studied adults who smoked marijuana regularly during adolescence and into adulthood. Their conclusion: “…long term cannabis use is hazardous to the white matter of the developing brain.”

Marijuana restrictions are generally lax in the Netherlands, which lends importance to a study by that country’s Maastricht University School of Mental Health in 2014. In regular cannabis users, the risk of developing psychosis nearly doubles. Studies of cannabis addiction are equally convincing. Approximately 9 percent of all users will become addicted. That risk increases to 17 percent if usage begins in adolescence and to 25 to 50 percent if used daily. The charge that marijuana is a “gateway drug” is also strongly supported. Proponents argue that marijuana has no greater risk for other addictions compared to alcohol, which is an illogical comparison. Alcohol content has remained stable in alcoholic beverages over several decades. In contrast, the concentration of D9-THC, the most psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, has more than doubled over the past 40 years.

Marijuana’s impact on society at large impacts all of us, including innocent young bystanders. The American Association of Poison Control Centers studied state trends in “unintentional pediatric marijuana exposures” from 2005 to 2011. The results are profound, especially as the median age of the child exposed was less than 2 years old. Decriminalized states reported a 30 percent increase in annual calls. There was no change in call volume in non-legal states.

In a New England Journal of Medicine article in 2014, researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health reported the adverse effects of marijuana use. The list of negative consequences is long and varied, including an increased likelihood of dropping out of school and a two-fold increase in the risk of a car accident when driving under cannabis’ influence.

The tactics of the pro-marijuana movement bear an eerie similarity to those of “Big Tobacco.” In the late 19th century, cigarette manufacturing became automated and the market for cigarettes expanded quickly. In a quest to maximize profits, manufacturers added increasing amounts of addictive chemicals. The success of their business was directly correlated with their customers’ physical need for their product. Does “Big Marijuana” have the same business plan? The potency of their product is being increased. Large farms for growing aim to feed a market that is trying to move from a criminal to a retail world, including unregulated online sales. It is not surprising that the maker of Marlboro cigarettes has invested $1.8 billion in a leading Canadian cannabis firm, whose goal is to enter the US market.

In 2017, USA Today reported a litany of problems in Colorado, which legalized recreational use in 2012. Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased. Numerous state regulators were indicted for corruption. Arrests for marijuana possession increased 58 percent for African-American youth and 29 percent for Hispanic youth. The increased taxes following legalization were touted for their benefit to Colorado schools. That prophecy quickly proved to be a “pipe dream.” To quote the superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the state, “The only thing that the legalization of marijuana has brought to our schools has been marijuana.”

We can be confident in all states debating this issue that the battle will continue. A very simple question is needed. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? As the president of the New York Medical Society stated, “We have many different intoxicants in our society, none of them are particularly helpful, and I think adding one more is not in society’s interest.”

Remember this advice from your parents? “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.” A finer philosophical point can be added to this maxim, from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. “Drugs are the pseudo-mysticism of a world that does not believe, yet cannot rid the soul’s yearning for paradise.” An honest assessment reveals that the marijuana plant and the Garden of Eden’s tree have this in common: Neither of them will lead to paradise.

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