August 18, 2014
In a series of recent articles, The New York Times’ editors presented a case for repealing the federal ban on marijuana, including the disproportionate impact of current marijuana laws on minorities. While there is no question that we should rectify any injustices associated with such policies, we also need to consider and prepare for the escalation in social and health costs that could result from creating a third legal drug in this country. We should be thoughtfully examining all policy and regulatory options available to minimize harms to society and promote Americans’ safety, well-being, and competitiveness.
We do not yet know how marijuana will affect vulnerable populations like older people or those with physical or mental health problems. We do know that marijuana increases the risk of car accidents (about 2-fold on its own, even more in combination with alcohol). And the science of marijuana’s long-term effects is increasingly clear. Besides being addictive, marijuana is cognitively impairing even beyond the phase of acute intoxication and regular use during adolescence may cause a significant, possibly permanent IQ loss. Brain scans in users who started when they were young show impaired neural development, probably because cannabis interferes with normal brain maturation.
There is no reason to think laws limiting marijuana to adults will be any more successful than comparable laws for cigarettes or alcohol. Legalization will likely increase the already substantial proportion of teens that use marijuana regularly and thus put themselves at a competitive disadvantage in school and life. As a nation already faltering in educational achievement, we should not hamstring our competitiveness in this area further.
As states consider modifying their marijuana laws, it is crucial they use science to guide their decision making, learn from past mistakes, and act to prevent the establishment of a “big marijuana” industry that will benefit from creating and sustaining a new generation of young people addicted to their product. Furthermore, we have a responsibility to ensure our nation’s healthcare workforce is prepared to respond to both the increased interest in the potential therapeutic uses of marijuana as well as its negative health consequences that policy changes will likely spur.
Approaching drug use as a public health issue should be a critical goal, and these approaches should be informed by science.
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