Referenda to legalize “recreational” marijuana are on the November ballot in five states: liberal trend-setters California and Massachusetts, anything-goes Nevada, and time-on-their-hands retirement states Maine and Arizona. If they pass those initiatives, they would join spring-break-destination Colorado, along with Washington, Oregon, and libertarian-stronghold Alaska as the only states to have recreational marijuana. And five other states will decide whether to join the twenty-five states that already have some form of so-called “medical” marijuana. If California legalizes, as seems likely, it will set the stage for a national offensive, in alliance with neighboring Oregon and Washington, from the West Coast.
Polls showing a majority of Americans in favor of the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana are routinely cited, but the first such poll results in favor of legalization were recorded only in 2013. And, although voters in Oregon and Alaska voters approved recreational marijuana in 2014, legalization was soundly defeated in Ohio by 64 percent in 2015.
Has the culture of marijuana liberalization in the last five years increased the use of marijuana? According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, 7.4 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 years – that is: 1,850,00 million adolescents – were current users of marijuana in 2014. Although those results are roughly the same as over the past decade, it is widely agreed that marijuana has long been so readily available to adolescents that the recent developments in the legalization of marijuana have not affected their access and their choices.
However, the use of marijuana among young adults has recently shot up. According to 2015 Monitoring the Future, a national survey on drug use conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, levels of marijuana use by adults aged 19 to 28 years (that is, those who have jobs or are supposedly preparing for jobs) within the previous year were “at the highest they have been in more than 25 years.” And daily use of marijuana by 19-to-28 years old has skyrocketed: “The 2014 and 2015 rates are the highest levels of daily use ever observed in this young adult population since tracking of their use began 29 years ago.” Overall, Americans have escalated their use of marijuana in recent years. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services of HHS, “In 2013, there were 19.8 million current users—about 7.5 percent of people aged 12 or older—up from 14.5 million (5.8 percent) in 2007.”
And, these increases in use are even more significant when considered in light of the fact, that, yes, marijuana is a “gateway” to other drugs. The same 2015 National Survey revealed that “More than half of new illicit drug users begin with marijuana.” The 2013 version of the same Survey had found that “Of the estimated 2.8 million persons aged 12 or older in 2013 who used illicit drugs for the first time within the past 12 months,” 70.3 percent “reported that their first drug was marijuana.” And According to the 2013 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, a project of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the MetLife Foundation: “In addition to alcohol, those teens who use marijuana are generally more likely to use other substances, especially cigarettes, synthetic marijuana and prescription drugs.” Similarly, in a recent article in the New York Times, Robert L. Dupont, former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has pointed that “People who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin.”
With the gains in the states and in anticipation of the referenda in November, the public advocacy of and promotion of legalized marijuana has dramatically increased. The pot lobby met with White House staffers in April of this year. A “reasoned pathway to future legalization” of marijuana became a plank in the platform of the Democrat party at its July party convention. Profits from the sale of legal marijuana, already very high, are attracting “the next wave of investors,” according to ArcView Market Research, the marijuana investment consulting firm.
However, the federal agencies whose job it is to objectively evaluate marijuana have maintained their integrity and recently emphasized their findings about marijuana, including “medical” marijuana. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency that researches, evaluates, and approves all drugs, has this year restated its conclusions about marijuana and “medical” marijuana. “The FDA has not approved any product containing or derived from botanical marijuana for any indication. This means that the FDA has not found any such product to be safe or effective for the treatment of any disease or condition.”
In addition, in March, Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, affirmed her agency’s position. “Because marijuana impairs short-term memory and judgment and distorts perception, it can impair performance in school or at work and make it dangerous to drive an automobile … regular use by teens may have a negative and long-lasting effect on their cognitive development … Also, contrary to popular belief, marijuana can be addictive, and its use during adolescence may make other forms of drug abuse or addiction more likely.” Likewise, an article in Psychology Today, after reviewing two new studies in 2014, concluded that marijuana is a “dangerous addictive drug.”
In actuality, the harmful effects, including the long-lasting and possibly permanent ones, of marijuana are probably worse than science has already concluded. Those effects have never been adequately studied for the practical reason that because marijuana has been illegal it has not been possible to do large-scale controlled studies of marijuana use. Nevertheless, we are apparently proceeding with legalization anyway. But the hangover from this “recreation” might someday be regretted.
Thomas Ascik recently retired as a federal prosecutor.