Indra Cidambi, M.D., Medical Director, Center for Network Therapy
As an Addiction Medicine Specialist and Psychiatrist on the front lines of dealing with the still growing drug epidemic, it is my responsibility to speak up against New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s plan to legalize recreational marijuana.
New Jersey’s Governor is one of many politicians in the country to ignore the downside of legalizing pot – from not only a medical standpoint but also the safety of our kids and the negative impact on society. The push to legalize recreational marijuana displays an indifference to the health and safety of their constituents. Besides the drug’s negative impact on brain development in children, research from Colorado suggests legalizing marijuana sharply increases marijuana use, and causes crime rates to increase along with deadly car accidents. In addition, legalizing pot will not bring down the use of illegal drugs. While politicians are lured by the taxes generated through marijuana sales, we need to explore decriminalizing drug possession charges (after successful completion of addiction treatment) because it has an even greater potential to unlock funds while simultaneously helping people in recovery integrate back into society.
The marijuana industry is adopting the same strategies and tactics as Big Tobacco in order to build the drug into a commercial success. Companies actively deny the drug is harmful to our health, target advertising to children, attack public health advocates, form powerful political lobbies and often obscure science to turn public opinion in their favor. The public should expect similar results – a generation of kids addicted to marijuana, with an elevated likelihood of experimenting with, and addiction to, illegal drugs. Besides peddling misinformation, the industry as a whole has also increased the drug’s potency: as per NCBI, the average THC concentration of confiscated marijuana increased from 4% in 1995 to 12% in 2014.
It’s About Our Kids, Stupid: Parents should know that marijuana is not only addictive, it also affects brain development. Marijuana use will substantially hurt our teenagers’ and young adults’ ability to achieve their potential at school and in life. Chronic usage of the drug can also cause long-lasting changes to the brain’s reward system, opening up the pathways that can lead to experimenting with other, more addictive drugs. Of even more concern is the fact that legalizing marijuana will send mixed messages about the acceptance of using mind-altering drugs for recreational purposes, a trend we do not want to encourage while our country struggles with an opioid epidemic.
Much has been made about the drop in tobacco use among our kids recently, but these figures do not include the use of e-cigarettes and vapes, which are marketed directly to adolescents. If included, nicotine use may have actually increased. This is a disturbing sign because 60% of marijuana sales in Colorado are non-plant products, which typically contain more than 50% THC concentration – they are extracts (liquids), which can be consumed using vapes or e-cigarettes as drug delivery systems.
Don’t Forget About The Adults: Consider this 2016 statistic from Quest Diagnostics on drug testing of the U.S. workforce. Marijuana positivity increased by nearly 75%, from 5.1% in 2013 to 8.9% in 2016 in the general U.S. workforce. For the first time since recreational marijuana use was legalized in Colorado and Washington, failed drug tests in those states outpaced the national average. When calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana, would politicians also propose that an employee who tests positive for marijuana be allowed to continue to work?
Risk Perceptions Connected to Use: By taking the initiative to legalize recreational use of marijuana, the broad message our politicians are sending out to society is that it is okay to use mind-altering substances to relax and recreate. The perception of reduced risk has led to increased use of marijuana, as per a study by NIDA (see chart below).
The statistics from Colorado is disheartening:
· Past month marijuana use in the 2012-2014 period as compared to the 2010-2012 period was: in the 12-17 age group 11.85% vs 10.60%; in the 18-25 age group 31.5% vs 27.4%; and. In the over 26 age group 13.55% vs 7.91% **
· Marijuana use among the 18-25 age group rose to 33% from 28%, 2012-2014, and among the 26 and over age group it rose to 12.4% from 7.6%.
· Over 60% of 12-17-year-olds obtained it from a friend who had bought it legally or their parents**
· Use of illicit drugs has not gone down – heroin-related overdose deaths rose 93% from 2013 to 228* in 2016 (comparable national statistics not yet available)
· Crime rate increased 3.4% in 2016, versus the national average of 0.3%; car thefts jumped 22%
· Marijuana-related traffic deaths when a driver tested positive for marijuana jumped 127%, 2013-2016 **
· Marijuana-related traffic deaths increase 66% in the 4-year average (2013-2016) as compared to the 4-year average (2009-2012) prior to legalization vs. a16% increase for all traffic deaths **
· After retail marijuana sales began in Colorado, the increase in collision claim frequency was 14% higher than nearby Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming.
So, what should politicians do instead? It is time to utilize the ‘token economy’ treatment model that universally offers individuals with possession charges (not sales or manufacture) a clean record upon successful completion of addiction treatment. This would cut criminal justice costs dramatically and also enable those in recovery to more easily re-integrate into the job market. The money saved through such decriminalization could be reallocated to fund prevention and treatment initiatives.
This is, again, about our kids – the opioid epidemic has affected young adults disproportionately, and I witness the struggle young adults in early recovery face to shake off the charges they incurred while they were using and become eligible to re-enter the job market. The time and expense involved with getting these charges cleared is by itself a trigger for relapse! Consider the following facts:
· In 2015, there were roughly 1.5 million arrests for drug law violations in the U.S. and four out of five were for possession (FBI).
· Decriminalization of drug possession related violations may offer the biggest bang for the buck because, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 50% of the costs (about $90 billion) associated with addiction were spent on the criminal justice system.
Given the serious consequences of legalizing marijuana, it is my responsibility as an Addiction Medicine Specialist to sound the alarm and hopes that politicians rethink their push to legalize recreational marijuana and focus on decriminalization instead.
*Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
** Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report
As Perception of Risk Falls, Use RisesShare