From the archives: The perils of legalized marijuana

From the archives: The perils of legalized marijuana

We’ll be taking a deeper look in the weeks ahead at the current state of marijuana use in Oregon. Meantime, here is a piece we published last summer on the topic.

LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA: TREATMENT PROVIDERS EXPECT TROUBLE FOR YEARS TO COME

Oregon was the first state in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and one of the first to approve the use of cannabis for medical purposes. The voters have spoken again, and by approving Measure 91 in 2014, Oregon becomes the third state to approve use and sale of recreational marijuana for those over the age of 21, following in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington, our neighbor to the north.

How this will all work out, in the long run, remains to be seen, and most people agree that legalization of recreational marijuana presents both pros and cons. For example, on the plus side, an influx of millions of dollars is a windfall that according to the OLCC, will be distributed to schools, mental health and addiction services, state police, cities, counties, and the Oregon Health Authority. Much of the funding is earmarked for law enforcement and drug and alcohol addiction services.

Many proponents believe law enforcement agencies will be freed up to deal with more serious, violent crimes, and others argue that use will be safer because people who purchase marijuana won’t be in danger of buying products that have been adulterated, or “cut” with dangerous substances.

Addictive Properties of Marijuana:

Addiction treatment providers aren’t as excited about the new law, as experience has proven to most clinicians that while marijuana isn’t addictive in the same way as cocaine or heroin, it definitely presents the potential for abuse. Many fear that the impact on society will be shown in years to come with greater numbers of people seeking help for dependence issues.

According to Health Services at Brown University, marijuana may be highly addictive for an estimated 10 to 14 percent of users and is responsible for more than 15 percent of admissions to drug treatment centers in the United States. Studies indicate that people who stop using marijuana may experience withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, restlessness, irritability, and nausea. Tolerance is a factor, and heavy users require more of the drug to attain the same results. However, the detrimental effects of heavy marijuana use are subtle and more difficult to recognize.

Marijuana as a Gateway Drug:

This is an argument that continues to rage, and there are no clear answers. However, most treatment providers agree that use of marijuana can introduce users to more serious, illegal drugs, and that users are more likely to abuse prescription drugs. There is a legitimate concern that legalization of marijuana, in the long run, may increase the number of people who are addicted to harder, more dangerous drugs. There is little doubt that it opens the door to risky behavior. With marijuana being readily available it is likely that those younger than 21 will get their hands on it. Since the young brain is still developing, marijuana use threatens the natural process of development and treatment providers see many examples of “a motivational syndrome” where teens turn away from their studies, stay stuck in a place of emotional immaturity and lose their motivation towards higher education and career goals.

Threats to Health:

Obviously, smoking regular cigarettes is a bad idea, and inhaling marijuana smoke may be even worse, as inhaling deeply pumps even higher levels of carcinogens into the lungs. Smoking marijuana also raises the heart rate for up to three hours after use, and studies indicate that smoking marijuana restricts blood flow to the brain, an effect that can last a month after the last use.

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