Normalising pot is priming a public-health time bomb
Since the drive to legalise medical marijuana began in the US in the 1990s, marijuana use doubled and the perception of its harm halved. As Colorado and Washington formally legitimise and sanction its recreational use, these dangerous inverse trends can only continue, Kathy Gyngell warns.
On 1 January, to much media fanfare, Colorado became the first state in the US to legalise smoking dope. Since then, our TV screens and newspapers have brought us the less-than-salutary sight of long lines of customers queuing for their ‘soma’, in freezing temperatures to boot, begging the question of whether the denizens of Colorado have nothing better to do with their lives. Out of sight are the financial vultures wheeling to cash in on this hot new market. Price – Colorado ran out of pot in the first week – is not putting off its addicted customers.
The ‘medical’ marijuana business was already worth about $1.4billion dollars last year. Once pot can be pushed legitimately, once banks decide that investing is this boom is not a moral bridge too far, the sky will be the ceiling on the value of this business.
This is why the recent research finding about teen marihuana use and their perceptions of risk are so worrying.
The 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey (an annual survey of 8th, 10th and 12th-graders by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan) reports that far fewer teenagers in the US today view regular marijuana use as harmful as their counterparts did before the campaign to legalise medical marijuana began in the 1990s. Rising use has been accompanied by diminishing perceptions of harm. Evidence points to this being a direct outcome of legalising marijuana for purported medical use – the political sleight of hand used by 21 states to decriminalise it since 1996.
It is no coincidence that marijuana is the only drug in the US whose use is on the rise. This is in contrast to use of ll other illicit drugs which are all in persistent decline, particularly cocaine, the use of which has dropped by 75% in 25 years, as the recent United Nation’s World Drug Reports confirm.
Marijuana alone is on a persistent incline upward – and not just for adults. Its use by high-school seniors has doubled since 1991. Last year, teen use rose again, from 11.4% to 12.7% (8th graders) and from 28% to just under 30% (10th graders). A worrying 36% of high-school seniors used pot in the last year. One in every 15 of them (6.5%) used it daily.
What this latest survey exposes is the Pandora’s box of medical marijuana. Of the 12th graders sampled by the survey who had used marijuana in the 12 months prior to being questioned and who lived in states that passed such laws, one third of them (34%) said that one of their sources of marijuana was another person’s medical marijuana prescription. 6% reported getting it from their own prescription.
The States with medical marijuana laws have failed to prevent its diversion to young people. They have given adolescents another way of obtaining the drug, exposing them to more risk.
The knowledge of this, sadly, did not stop the selfish and dope-loving adult population in Colorado from voting for the drug’s full legalisation. Yet the impact on their teens was clear within two years of medical marijuana being legalised there in 2009. For in just those two years, regular (last month) high school drug use leapt from 19% to 30% and school expulsions rose by a third, marijuana being the first reason for them. Since full legalisation “pot problems” in Colorado’s state schools have reportedly got even worse.
“Kids are smoking before school and during lunch breaks. They come into school reeking of pot,” one school resource officer said. “Students don’t seem to realise that there is anything wrong with having the pot – they act like having marijuana was an ordinary thing and no big deal.”
Marijuana is freely available in Colorado. Any resident can legally get two ounces of marijuana a day (at an average of $150 an ounce) and “self-medicate” for almost any reason though even a heavy marijuana user only would get through a quarter of an ounce a day.
Observers say that state “regulation” of the medical marihuana industry was a tragic joke. One group, Smart Colorado, reports that 700 medical marijuana licenses have already been issued in Denver; that legalisation means each of these license holders is now eligible to apply for a recreational license as well. To put this number into context, it compares with the approximately 201 liquor establishments and 123 pharmacies in the city of Denver. No wonder law enforcement officials report that more marijuana is flowing into the black market and out of Colorado in greater quantities than ever before.
Tina Trent, a local blogger on crime and justice issues, hopes that “the reality of legalisation” will be a wake-up call to people in Colorado and other places as they see “people smoking pot in public and every third storefront in the tourist district turning into a head shop”. How, she asks, do you address bus drivers legally smoking pot before their shifts start, and all sorts of people smoking ‘medicinal’ pot all day long, and then getting behind the wheel?
Trent, who has written a major report on the drug legalisation movement in California, is urging the public to counter the propaganda from the “professional pro-drug groups funded by George Soros”. She adds that “Legislators need to seriously consider the facts about marijuana abuse by young people”.
Her plea has fallen on deaf ears. Despite significant increases in health detection rates of risky marijuana use in Colorado since 2009, despite sharp increases in school age marijuana use, despite evidence of significant diversion from adults to youth, despite the ever expanding body of scientific evidence charting the multiple and significant health and mental health harms… there has been no government response to this violation of federal drug laws.
It seems President Obama’s Department of Justice has decided to put up the white flag to drug use. Such liberality may appeal to the human rights lobby but it is priming a public-health time bomb.
How can he not be aware of the risks associated with early initiation and regular use of marijuana by young people? Given the now hard scientific evidence concerning marijuana’s impact on young people’s cognitive ability, executive functioning and long term IQ, as well as its risk of inducing psychosis and violence in anyone who takes enough, to say nothing of its enhanced cancer risks – surely this recent ‘normalisation’ of cannabis use would be of considerable concern to the Obama administration? It seems not.
But how long can the president, with teenage children of his own, remain so casual about rising teen pot use under his watch? That is my question for 2014.