My Turn: Legalizing marijuana poses a serious risk to public health
As the New Hampshire Legislature prepares, yet again, to consider legislation to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, I am reminded of the quote from H. L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Although the marijuana legalization issue can be easily stated for an opinion poll, in reality the issue is complex, with significant implications for the public health and safety of New Hampshire residents and our economy. It is time to move beyond rhetoric, simplistic responses, and legislation by poll to a serious policy discussion, supported by current research and data.
New Futures opposes legalization and offers the following information from current research in an effort to jump-start this important discussion.
Addiction: Although marijuana is not as addictive as tobacco or heroin, the addiction rate is one in every 11 adults who has tried it and one in six adolescents who have ever used the substance. Rates of admission to state-funded treatment programs for marijuana addiction continue to rise as potency and use increases.
Increased potency, greater risk: Marijuana potency is measured by its THC content (the chemical component largely responsible for creating the high and increasing the risk of panic attacks). Since 1983, when THC concentrations averaged below 4 percent, marijuana potency has increased significantly as growers began to breed plants for increased potency and profit. Potency now exceeds an average of 10 percent, with many samples in the 10-25 percent range. Translated into alcohol terms, such an increase in intoxication potential would represent the difference between drinking a beer and taking multiple shots of vodka.
Youth access: New Hampshire’s youth and young adults have some of the highest rates of marijuana use in the country. In 2011, 28.4 percent of high school students reported using marijuana one or more times in the last 30 days. Because legalization will increase access and convey the message that use is without risk, youth use will increase. The negative impact of chronic marijuana use during adolescence and early adulthood – a time of ongoing brain development – is well documented and includes cognitive impairment of six to eight IQ points, which continues into adulthood. Chronic marijuana use also increases the risk of experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia.
Commercial marijuana enterprise: Legalization would likely give rise to an active commercial network of growers, manufacturers, distributors and retail establishments, all operating with a profit motive and the incentive to increase consumption by advertising to create new users and maintain heavy users. Think Big Tobacco and corporate enterprise – it should come as no surprise that Altria, the new name of tobacco giant Philip Morris, recently purchased the domain names of AltriaCannabis.com and AltriaMarijuana.com or that investment firms are actively exploring marijuana business opportunities.
Price goes down, use goes up: Legalization will result in lower prices and increased use by both recreational and heavy users. When a product is legal more people will use it – think tobacco and alcohol.
Social costs of legalization will exceed revenue: Without information about such factors as taxation levels and regulatory structure, revenue analysis is difficult. However from our experience with alcohol and tobacco we know that the public health and safety, and economic costs of legalizing marijuana will far exceed any additional tax revenue. In 2012, when the New Hampshire general fund received $140 million from the sale of alcohol, the cost of excessive alcohol consumption in New Hampshire was $1.15 billion. Also in 2012, New Hampshire ranked 49th out of 50 states in state funding for alcohol and other drug treatment.
Why now? Why wouldn’t New Hampshire wait to make the momentous decision to legalize marijuana until after it had completed implementation of the therapeutic cannabis law that passed in 2013 and is able to observe the implementation of the programs in Colorado and Washington?
(Tricia Lucas is advocacy director of New Futures, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce alcohol and other drug problems in New Hampshire through education, advocacy and collaboration.)