The real marijuana story

The common assumption that it’s a harmless drug is challenged in a prominent medical journal.

Rick Wilking/Reuters/File
People wait in line to be among the first to legally buy recreational marijuana at the Botana Care store in Northglenn, Colo., Jan. 1, 2014. Cannabis is legally produced, sold, and taxed in Colorado under a special system many states have established for alcohol sales.

The narrative has been firmly established: Marijuana use is innocent, a pleasurable pastime with few if any harmful effects. Those who caution that making pot legal might create significant problems have been laughed off as alarmists or old fuddy-duddies.

A sobering new article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine may startle some people out of this hazy-dazy reverie.

A report titled “Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use” from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health, summarizes the latest research into marijuana use.

Marijuana, it says:

• Is particularly harmful to children and youths under 21 years of age. For example, youths who use marijuana are more likely to drop out of school.

• Can affect short-term memory “making it difficult to learn and to retain information.”

• Is associated with “significant declines in IQ” if used frequently when one is an adolescent or a young adult. 

• Impairs a person’s “motor coordination, interfering with driving skills and increasing the risk of injuries” while operating a vehicle.

• Is addictive. About 9 percent of users overall become addicted, but that number rises to 17 percent of those who start as adolescents and shoots up to as much as 50 percent among those who use pot daily.

• Is related to social ills. “Heavy marijuana use has been linked to lower income, greater need for socioeconomic assistance, unemployment, criminal behavior, and lower satisfaction with life,” the article notes.

What’s more, evidence exists that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to other, even more powerful, illegal drugs (as are alcohol and nicotine). “[M]arijuana addiction ... predicts an increased risk of the use of other illicit drugs,” the article concludes.

More research is needed to fully understand all the possible ramifications of widespread marijuana use, the article adds. Older studies, it points out, may underestimate the effects: Marijuana being sold today contains about four times as much THC, the ingredient that produces the “high,” than it did in the 1980s, the report says.

While medical use of marijuana was not the subject of the analysis, it did note that there also is “limited evidence” in the data to suggest a medical benefit, despite some physicians who “continue to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes.”

The early months of Colorado’s experiment to legalize marijuana show little to contradict these findings – and little to encourage other states to join in.

As one opponent in Colorado told The New York Times: “I think, by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a good one unless you’re in the marijuana business. We’ve seen lives damaged. We’ve seen deaths directly attributed to marijuana legalization. We’ve seen marijuana slipping through Colorado’s borders. We’ve seen marijuana getting into the hands of kids.”

Concerns over possible physical harm from marijuana use should be taken seriously. But perhaps the most heart-rending conclusion in the study associates marijuana with “lower satisfaction with life.” A life not dependent on a drug such as marijuana that clouds thinking is a life that is freer and fuller.

As with alcohol and tobacco, the two most popular legal drugs, the supposed pleasures of marijuana are ephemeral, the lasting effects most often dissatisfying and destructive.

Alcohol and tobacco have been trying to take hold of their users for centuries, long before the kind of studies now beginning to be made on marijuana were possible.

The fact that both alcohol and tobacco are still legal – and still harming society – does nothing to enhance the case for adding a third ruinous partner in marijuana.

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