Not So Fast with Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

In my experience in interacting with students in the classroom, marijuana websites have snared too many younger teens -- one is too many -- with their half-truths and misleading statements.

But institutes of science, both private and governmental, urge caution or oppose legalizing cannabis.

Starting off, the American Society of Addiction Medicine supports removing harsh penalties, but they do not recommend legalization:

ASAM does not support the legalization of marijuana and recommends that jurisdictions that have not acted to legalize marijuana be most cautious and not adopt a policy of legalization until more can be learned from the “natural experiments” now underway in jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana.

Next, the Journal of the American Medical Association states the dangers of connecting marijuana’s medical use, which is deficient, with legalization:

A significant but largely overlooked problem with the medical marijuana movement is the message the public infers from its legalization and increasing prevalence. There is an increasing perception, paralleling trends in legalization, that marijuana is not associated with significant or lasting harm; data from 3 decades indicate that among adolescents, risk perception is inversely proportional to prevalence of cannabis use. As legalization has spread for medical or recreational purposes, it is possible that the perception of risk by adolescents will continue to decrease, with a subsequent increase in use. This is especially problematic given that many of the negative effects of marijuana are most pronounced in adolescents.

(Here is their reply to critics.)

Accordingly, the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates resolved in committee that states should not legalize cannabis because of its abuse and its inefficacy in preventing or treating disease:

Resolution 213, Cannabis -- Expanded AMA Advocacy, was adopted. As a result, the AMA will initiate an aggressive campaign to educate the media and legislators regarding the scientifically established health effects of chronic cannabis use and the potential public health, social, and economic consequences of expanded use; urge legislatures to delay initiating full legalization of any cannabis product until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Administration has completed further research; and increase efforts to educate the press, legislators, and the public regarding “public health” versus “criminal justice” approaches to cannabis. In addition, the AMA will encourage model legislation that would require placing the following warning on all cannabis products not approved by the FDA: “Marijuana has a high potential for abuse. It has no scientifically proven, currently accepted medical use for preventing or treating any disease process in the United States.”

That statement says legislators should not legalize cannabis.

But what about ballot initiatives?

The American Psychiatric Association issues this statement that includes an answer to that question: “Medical treatment should be evidence-based and determined by professional standards of care; it should not be authorized by ballot initiatives.”

Normally I would consider that statement as elitist. But here it’s sound advice because our Founders wisely mistrusted human nature; that’s one reason they set up a Republic, not a direct democracy. Ancient Athens had a direct democracy, and Socrates didn’t like it either. Why not? People can vote self-destructively.

Voting for recreational marijuana is just such a misinformed and half-informed vote.

In the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers first warn of the dangers for doctors prescribing marijuana:

No FDA-approved medication is smoked. In addition to the concerns about potential carcinogenicity (especially in heavy marijuana users, but apparently not in occasional users), there is great difficulty in delivering the exact dose, if a “dose” even exists. Unlike FDA-approved medications, medical marijuana is not a specific product with controlled dosages. Medical marijuana bypasses the century-old, scientifically based drug approval procedure and the carefully regulated distribution of medications through licensed pharmacies.

Then they weigh in on “approving” a risky drug by ballot initiatives or by legislators:

Approving medications by ballot initiatives and state legislative actions sets a dangerous precedent for public health. FDA approval has usually helped keep dangerous and ineffective -- but often popular -- drugs off the market. Substituting a political drug approval for that protection is hazardous to the nation's health and safety.

Although the president unwisely stated that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol (never mind that drinking a glass of wine at dinner does not equal smoking a joint), the official White House position reads as follows:

The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of mariju

na and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.

In the article “Assessing the public health impacts of legalizing recreational cannabis use in the USA,” with a concomitant news release by the National Institute of Health, researchers conclude that increased availability of marijuana by legalization will increase the number of users. Their abstract states:

A major challenge in assessing the public health impact of legalizing cannabis use in Colorado and Washington State is the absence of any experience with legal cannabis markets. The Netherlands created a de facto legalized cannabis market for recreational use, but policy analysts disagree about how it has affected rates of cannabis use. Some US states have created de facto legal supply of cannabis for medical use. So far this policy does not appear to have increased cannabis use or cannabis-related harm. Given experience with more liberal alcohol policies, the legalization of recreational cannabis use is likely to increase use among current users. It is also likely that legalization will increase the number of new users among young adults but it remains uncertain how many may be recruited, within what time frame, among which groups within the population, and how many of these new users will become regular users.

The full article goes on to outline other risks of legalization.

Finally, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals is made up of soldiers fighting on the frontlines. After explaining numerous, well-researched reasons to support their position statement, they offer their resolution:

Now, therefore, be it resolved that the National Association of Drug Court Professionals:

Opposes the legalization of smoked or raw marijuana; and

Opposes efforts to approve any medicine, including marijuana, outside of the FDA process; and

Supports continued research into a medically safe, non-smoked delivery of marijuana components for medicinal purposes; and

Supports reasonable prohibitions in Drug Courts against the use of smoked or raw marijuana by participants and the imposition of suitable consequences, consistent with evidence-based practices, for positive drug tests or other evidence of illicit marijuana consumption; and

Recommends Drug Courts require convincing and demonstrable evidence of medical necessity presented by a competent physician with expertise in addiction psychiatry or addiction medicine before permitting the use of smoked or raw marijuana by participants for ostensibly medicinal purposes; and

Supports a balanced policy approach to marijuana-related offenses, which does not emphasize either legalization of marijuana or incarceration for marijuana use, but rather offers an evidence-based combination of treatment and behavioral interventions to achieve long-term recovery from marijuana abuse and addiction.

My students often point to the money these institutes and law enforcement get from the government to keep their jobs.

In reply, however, these bureaucrats and court professionals could find work elsewhere, either in government or the private sector. They’re not making a “profit.”

And what about the profits that weed advocates get by drawing in more customers? That’s what they’re about -- making more money by snaring more unsuspecting teen and other buyers with half-truths and omitted truths.

So can we break the apparent tie in the “money motive”?

Common sense combined with science is just about all we got.

Since science and common sense don’t support any health benefit from recreational cannabis, no federal agency, particularly the FDA, should approve its recreational use.

That would be irresponsible.

And states should not vote to legalize it recreationally. That has been irresponsible.

States that have already legalized it should reconsider and reverse their decision.

James Arlandson, Ph.D. (1994), has taught college and university for years. His website is Live as Free People.