Pot use doubled as laws slackened – even before all out legalization

As more states consider legalizing recreational marijuana, a study published Wednesday confirms that a higher percentage of marijuana dependence and abuse corresponds with increased user statistics.

Ryan Kang/AP/File
Shane Cavanaugh, owner of Amazon Organics, a pot dispensary in Eugene, Ore., arranges the cannabis display in his store on Monday, Sept. 28.

The number of US adults using marijuana doubled between 2001 and 2013, as have the number of adults who are victim to marijuana dependence and abuse, according to a study published Wednesday in the JAMA Psychiatry, an American Medical Association publication. 

Ten percent of adults reported using marijuana between 2012 and 2013, which is a big jump from the reported 4 percent of adult users between 2001 and 2002. Only 1.5 percent of marijuana users had dependence-related issues in 2001, but during 2013 interviews, the researchers found that now three out of every 10 marijuana users (about 7 million Americans) abuse the drug.

But the researchers note that these use-and-abuse statistics are largely due to the overall increase in new users rather than indication that existing users are moving from recreational to dependent smokers. In fact, existing marijuana users showed a 15 percent decline in pot-related disorders.

The state of Colorado offers a specific example of this trend. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the percentage of Colorado citizens who use marijuana monthly rose from 10.4 percent to 12.7 percent between 2012 and 2013.

And that was before the nation's first recreational marijuana dispensaries opened in Colorado in January, 2014. Since then, Washington – and more recently Oregon – have begun allowing the sale of pot for recreational use.

“Since voters voted on this, we’ve seen increases on [use] according to the only representative data set out there on Colorado and Washington,” Kevin Sabet, cofounder of the San Diego-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an organization that opposes pot legalization, previously told The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Paulson. “My biggest concern is that we’re creating Big Tobacco 2.0, and we’re allowing them to market a drug that has a big risk for the developing brain to young people.”

As many as five new states could legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, and Deborah Hasin, lead author of the JAMA study from Columbia University, says these findings are important to consider.

“Counteracting the perceptions that (marijuana) is harmless with a balanced message about the potential harms is important,” Dr. Hasin told Reuters Health. “For researchers, I think it’s important to find what characteristics put people at risk.”

Because if the number of marijuana users increases, we can expect the number of pot-related disorders to increase as well, she said.

“People should consider this information when they’re making choices about using marijuana, and the public should consider the information as they consider legalization,” she adds.

Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a Colorado-based task force that targets drug trafficking, also recommends caution. Since legalization in his state of Colorado, he says there have been an increase in marijuana-related hospitalizations and an increase in fatalities listing marijuana on the toxicology report. 

“Preliminarily, it doesn’t look positive,” Mr. Gorman told the Monitor. “If I were another state, I’d say, let’s wait until we get a couple more years of data and then make a decision on the facts and figures, and not on rhetoric.”

A bare majority of Americans (58 percent) support marijuana legalization, according to a Gallup poll released on Wednesday.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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