Enthusiasts in Washington state didn’t waste any time celebrating (or pushing the boundaries of) their new freedom to light up a joint. Even before the new law went into effect, and although public consumption is banned, revellers took to the streets.
In November, Washington voted (55 to 45 per cent) to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for those over 21. Of course, the notion that the 21-year-old age barrier will remain intact is ridiculous, as is the notion that the person holding the marijuana won’t pass it on to others.
Thus another great social experiment begins, and there is little hope it will end well.
For now, buying and selling marijuana is illegal. But the state has grand plans to establish a system of licensed growers, processors and retail stores. The shift from criminalization to taxation has politicians positively salivating at the prospect of a 25 per cent tax on marijuana sales.
Most media outlets seem to be following the festivities with humour. After all, everyone knows pot is harmless; it just makes people happy, more relaxed. What’s wrong with that?
I can think of four things for starters.
First, the number of users will increase dramatically.
As long as the drug is illegal, there is at least some perception it is harmful. In an Australian survey, the primary reason young people gave for not using cannabis or for stopping its use was its illegal status.
Second, a 2010 review showed that more than 50 per cent of all American first-time users were under 18, and once young people start using pot, they’re almost twice as likely to become addicted. According to research by the U.S.’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, nine per cent of casual marijuana users will become addicted. That increases to 17 per cent for teenagers, and the addiction rate soars as high as 50 per cent for daily users.
The third issue relates to users’ general and mental health. The fiscal cliff is going to look like a molehill once state leaders catch a glimpse of the health-care cliff they are about to create.
Numerous studies (and systematic reviews) have demonstrated marijuana plays a role in many long-term psychiatric conditions. According to a 2009 chronic toxicology review, that includes “depression, anxiety, psychosis, bipolar disorder and an amotivational state.”
(Amotivational state is defined as the “diminished or absent drive to engage in typically rewarding activities,” like work, school, family, etc.)
Other studies have shown marijuana exacerbates symptoms in schizo-phrenia and may even be responsible for its onset. The risk of experiencing these mental-health problems increases in those who begin smoking pot at a young age.
A 2010 Canadian study of 14,000 Ontarians by Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health showed that anxiety and mood disorders were most common among daily marijuana users and least common in those who didn’t use it at all. Even infrequent users (once per month or less) had a 43 per cent increase in developing mood disorders when compared to non-users.
There are also the typical health problems associated with cigarette smoking — chronic cough and respiratory problems, emphysema and cancer. Marijuana smoke contains up to 70 per cent more irritants and carcinogens than regular cigarette smoke, upping the ante for those gambling with drug use.
Finally, has anyone thought of the impact this will have on school, work or driving? Marijuana impairs cognitive functions. It acts on areas of the brain that affect pleasure (hence, the problem), memory, thinking, concentration, co-ordination and sensory/time perception.
Judgment is impaired and reaction time is decreased.
Yet these people are going to drive?
At work, marijuana use has been linked to increased absences, lateness, accidents and job turnover. Students who smoke marijuana tend to get lower grades and are more likely to drop out of school.
Yet all this evidence seems to hold little weight against a culture that is determined to have freedom to do whatever it wants (including drugs) despite its negative impact on society.
Enjoy the freedom now. Like cigarette smokers in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s only a matter of time before it takes its toll.
Susan Martinuk, a former medical researcher, writes a column for the Calgary Herald.
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