My Turn: This is no time to legalize marijuana

For the Monitor
Published: 5/15/2019 12:15:21 AM

For almost three years now, I have been proud to help lead a statewide conversation about adolescent mental health. I have traveled tens of thousands of miles, speaking to students all across New Hampshire and northern New England about the need to change the culture and conversation around mental illness.

I believe we are making progress. We have come a long way in recognizing that mental illness is common, often treatable and no cause for shame. But we still have a distance to travel for real change to happen.

But I am concerned that at a time when we are doing more to recognize and treat mental illness, we as a state are considering legalizing and commercializing marijuana, a substance that is known to increase the likelihood of psychotic incidents and that has detrimental effects on the developing brain. The informed answer cannot be that neighboring states are doing it. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Already New Hampshire has among the nation’s highest rates of youth substance use. Further, data shows that our children already overwhelmingly perceive marijuana as being safe, despite research that shows otherwise. If we do not have honest conversations about the potential physical and mental health risks of youth marijuana use, we are failing our children and our communities.

Marijuana use during adolescence can have lasting health effects, including changes to the reward system in the brain, trouble with thinking and remembering, and an increased chance of developing a substance-use disorder or mental health disorder later in life.

Just recently, multiple peer-reviewed studies concluded that marijuana increases the risk of psychosis and schizophrenia. A higher risk of schizophrenia-like psychosis is directly related to first using marijuana at younger ages. For people predisposed to schizophrenia, regular marijuana use leads to an earlier age of diagnosis, an increase in hospital visits due to the illness and a smaller chance of recovery. Further, adults who have been diagnosed with cannabis-use disorder also have high rates of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, PTSD and ADHD.

Those are just some recent studies. There is much more we have not yet studied and learned about the risks marijuana use – especially highly potent edible products – pose to our mental and physical health.

In this discussion, it is particularly important to focus on the incredibly high rate of individuals suffering from both a substance use disorder and mental illness. National data shows that as many as one-third of people experiencing a mental illness struggle with a co-occurring substance-use disorder. Legalizing marijuana would threaten to increase this number.

Looking forward, we must continue to foster important conversations around mental health and reducing stigma, as well as support those around us who are struggling with mental illness. Part of this is to share positive, truthful messages about health with our youth, and to go even further, to support young people in general.

New Hampshire is doing incredible work to address adolescent mental health by continuing to promote an open dialogue and implementing evidence-based supports and services across the state.

Given these efforts, New Hampshire should not legalize and commercialize marijuana at this time. With further research and study there may be a time, but it’s not now. Our young people are depending upon us to have honest conversations around mental health and substance use, not to push legislation without a proper focus on youth and public health.

Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana so that young people won’t have a criminal record and legalizing marijuana for medical use to relieve suffering make sense. But the wholesale legalization of marijuana based upon incomplete medical knowledge and research is a rush to judgment we should not make.

(John T. Broderick Jr., a former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, lives in North Andover, Mass.)

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