Marijuana is too risky for legalization

Initiative 502 causes more harm than good. It promotes “legalization” of marijuana (cannabis). “Legalization” fosters a perception that cannabis is harmless and less risky. This will be associated with more people trying and using cannabis, both adults and teens. Marijuana is neither safe nor harmless. There are more than 400 compounds in the cannabis plant and 60 or more cannabinoids (the active substances in the marijuana plant). Only a few of these substances have been studied.

Smoking marijuana produces harmful substances similar to those produced when tobacco is smoked. Smoking causes lung problems similar to tobacco. Cannabis causes a decrease in short-term memory, attention, learning, and concentration. This causes problems in school, at work and with driving. For some users, the psychological effects are even more troubling. Anxiety and paranoia can be crippling. Studies with schizophrenics have shown that cannabis use made their schizophrenia worse.

Teenage brains are the most affected. The earlier that cannabis is used, the more effects are seen. Sophisticated imaging studies known as PET scans show that cannabis delays the maturation process of the brain. A New Zealand study of 1,000 teens over a 25-year period showed that teens who regularly used marijuana had lowered IQ scores, 8 IQ points on average, that persisted into their 30s. An 8-IQ point reduction is very significant. The delay in maturation of the brain and lowered intelligence plus the declines in attention, concentration, memory, and learning show up as school, work, and driving problems. Currently one-third of high school students are using cannabis. Why would society foster “legalization”? This sends the wrong message. Youth perceive this as less risk of cannabis problems. Less risk translates into more use. This will affect more teens.

Proponents of this initiative say that some of the taxes raised by sales of this drug will pay for the increased education and treatment needed. I am against creating more teens and adults who need treatment. Also, this initiative does not guarantee that funding for treatment will be available after two years. After a period of two years, the Legislature will be able to redirect any and all taxes collected to other priorities if they so choose. Treatment for teens who use cannabis should be universal since the use of cannabis is very damaging to their development and success in society.

I-502 also has severe legal consequences for youth (under age 21) who are tested and found to have cannabis in their system when driving. A positive test means an automatic conviction without any possible defense or mitigation. This harms people under age 21 while not providing any treatment options to help them stop marijuana use.

Marijuana is addictive to 9 percent to 10 percent of users. Proponents of “legalization” argue that this is no big deal. Tell that to the people who are dependent. I am able to get people off of cocaine and heroin, but they are not able to stop using cannabis. The more people who use cannabis, the more people who will need treatment. For the last 30 years, people have been hybridizing the cannabis plant to make the cannabinoids stronger. Most of this has been focused on what was thought as the most “high” producing cannabinoid, d-9 THC (delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or often just called THC). The amount of THC in the cannabis plant was 0.5 to 2 percent 20 to 30 years ago. Now it is common to find cannabis with 4 percent to 6 percent THC and some strains can have 10 percent to 20 percent. People who used cannabis many years ago remember a substance with fewer effects. They may be inclined to think “what’s the big deal.” The cannabis sold today is rocket fuel compared to the cannabis found years ago. The effects, especially the negative effects, are much more profound. I-502 does not state what THC or other cannabinoid percentages may be acceptable.

I-502 only tests for THC. The other cannabinoids and their variants go undetected. Any drug tests for marijuana and cannabis abuse must detect all of the cannabinoid substances.

I-502 sets up the framework for an extensive growing, processing, and retail distribution system for marijuana throughout the state. This has not been tried on a small scale. The proposed initiative does not have enough monitoring and enforcement for this huge system. This is alarming as the state of Washington has had problems monitoring and enforcing the current “medical marijuana” laws. How are we to believe that the state can monitor this larger and more extensive system? The proponents believe that taxation of the system would bring in many millions of dollars. Initially this would be used for the first two years to help with public health problems, the general fund, drug prevention and treatment, education, and research. The funding is only guaranteed for two years. After this, the Legislature can put more or all of the taxation into the general fund if they desire and eliminate funding for public health, education, and treatment.

This initiative states that making a legal means to grow, process, and sell cannabis will put the illegal market out of business. Unfortunately this is not true. The illegal market is very sophisticated and well established. It will be able to undercut the legal market prices and will be able to infiltrate some of the legal operations. The illicit market will vary its price to compete with retail outlets that are being taxed. I believe the illicit market will have no trouble setting prices that are below the retail outlets.

Advertisements to vote yes for this initiative say it is time for a conversation. This proposal is not about a conversation. It is about full legalization and the establishment of cannabis growing, processing, and retail sales in your neighborhoods. And finally, I-502 is about a direct confrontation with the U.S, (federal) government which has been clear that marijuana is illegal. That also does not sound like a conversation.

Reject legalization. Decriminalization has worked in other states. Decriminalization addresses legal concerns without the harmful and risky position of legalization. Decriminalization does not set up an immense marijuana growing, processing, and retail sales system fostered by the state of Washington as does I-502. Decriminalization does not foster increased use by teens and adults. I-502 will increase the number of adults and teens using marijuana. Decriminalization does not set us on a collision course with the Federal government as I-502 does.

Reject I-502 because it trades more use of marijuana by adults and teens leading to more physical, psychological and social problems in exchange for a huge growing, processing and distribution system of marijuana fostered by Washington state with the promise of tax money to solve our budget woes. This is shameful.

Bill Dickinson is an addiction medicine physician in Everett.

Watch for the argument in favor of I-502 next week

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