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Let’s not add to N.H.’s drug epidemic by decriminalizing marijuana

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For the Monitor
Thursday, April 14, 2016

New Futures takes issue with the recently published Concord Monitor editorial in support of decriminalizing possession of marijuana.

By any definition, New Hampshire is in the throes of an opioid and heroin epidemic. Even New Hampshire’s Legislature took the unprecedented step of creating a special opioid task force last November in response to the public health emergency.

In light of the current epidemic, what kind of message are we sending if our Legislature passes House Bill 1631, which would reduce the penalties for another addictive substance? HB 1631 provides that any person who possesses one half ounce or less of marijuana, or five grams of hashish, will be guilty of a violation and subject to a fine. In the case of a person under 18 who possesses one half ounce or less, the bill provides that parents will be notified and the person will receive “drug education.”

No such drug education exists in New Hampshire, nor does the bill provide any funding to support the creation of drug education programs.

The Centers for Disease Control published a morbidity and mortality report titled Vital Signs: Demographic and Substance Use Trends Among Heroin Users. The report analyzed data from 2002 to 2013, and found that “the problem of heroin abuse or dependence is not occurring in isolation. Past-year alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and opioid pain reliever abuse or dependence were each significant risk factors for heroin abuse or dependence.” The study also reported 96 percent of past-year heroin users reported use of at least one other drug during the past year.

Those working in the field of New Hampshire substance misuse are, sadly, not surprised by the recent epidemic, since youth drug use is a key determinant of well-being, and the Granite State already has some of the highest rates in the country. The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Hampshire’s Check the Stats campaign demonstrated that 29.7 percent of youth over age 12 said there was “no risk” associated with using marijuana once or twice a week. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that 90 percent of Americans who met the criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking or using other drugs before age 18.

There is no disputing that marijuana use early in life can harm brain development. Regular marijuana users who started smoking before 16 had marked differences on MRI scans, according to a recent study published in the journal of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. The drug can have developmental damage on thinking, memory, and learning functions.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing cannabis use disorder lost an average of eight IQ points between ages 13 and 38. The lost mental abilities did not fully return in those who quit marijuana as adults. Poorer mental health outcomes for marijuana users should be taken seriously in New Hampshire, considering the high prevalence of youth marijuana use.

Even if you believe that New Hampshire’s marijuana laws should be changed to reduce sanctions for the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults, HB 1631 is not the answer. The bill benefits dealers in larger amounts of marijuana and growers by significantly reducing penalties for their illegal conduct. The bill itself is vaguely written, and authorizes “possession” but does not specify that the possession is for “personal use.”

With other states decriminalizing marijuana, New Hampshire has the opportunity to analyze emerging data trends. In the midst of a drug crisis is not the time to rush a bill through the state legislature.

(Kate Frey is Deputy Director of New Futures.)