As the debate around legalization of recreational marijuana in New York state swirls, and the punches and counterpunches of the pros versus cons become more frenetic, we need to take a step back, slow down and use reason rather than rhetoric.
There are wide disconnects among what we know, what we think we know and what is actually happening elsewhere. The mythology about the harmlessness of marijuana stems, in large part, from our collective — sometimes nostalgic — memories of the ’60s, which are juxtaposed against the old “reefer madness” mentality, or the belief that pot causes insanity. Neither position represents what we need to focus on to make the informed choices that will impact our state in many ways for decades to come.
As a colleague put it, if you haven’t used marijuana or been exposed to its consumption in the past two or three years, you’re likely seeing the legalization debate through the wrong lens. The THC component of marijuana (which produces the high) has skyrocketed from between 5 and 10 percent in the 1960s to an average of 40 to 50 percent or higher now, according to The Los Angeles Times. This isn’t Woodstock weed. It’s far more potent.
And the implications are far-reaching. A report by the Colorado Department of Public Health shows that marijuana-related hospitalizations increased from 1,313 per 100,000 in 2011 to 3,025 by 2015 — an increase of 43 percent. Colorado legalized marijuana in 2013. The number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled between 2013 and 2017 in the state, according to The Denver Post.
Young people vape more than they smoke marijuana. Vaping leads to higher concentrations of THC levels in users, giving them a more powerful high that can be accompanied by hallucinations, according to NBC News. And THC-based gummies, candies and sodas are clearly marketed to attract youth.
About the “safer product” myth: In Oregon, only 3 percent of retailers and growers have had their products tested, and a state audit notes, “We cannot ensure that the products are safe,” according to Oregon NBC affiliate KGW8. In California, more than 20 percent of the marijuana products tested failed “purity and potency” testing requirements, according to an NBC affiliate there.
The $300 million in annual sales tax revenue that Gov. Andrew Cuomo anticipates the marijuana industry would generate would represent only .17 percent of the $176 billion budget proposed for New York state this year. Meanwhile, in Colorado, for every $1 of sales tax revenue generated by marijuana, $4.57 is spent to mitigate the problems that come with its use, according to a study by Colorado Christian University.
And it’s common knowledge that the black market for marijuana has not been eradicated in states where it’s legal — and, in fact, it continues to thrive in those places.
Let’s consider social justice. In 2014, the year after Colorado legalized marijuana, the number of arrests for the drug decreased by 51 percent for whites, 33 percent for Hispanics and 25 percent for African-Americans. The marijuana arrest rate for blacks (348 per 100,000) was almost triple that of whites (123 per 100,000) that year, according to a report by the Colorado DPH.
The tobacco giant Altria (the owner of Marlboro) invested $12.8 billion in the Juul vaping company last year, giving it a 35 percent stake in the company, according to CNBC. And Altria invested $1.8 billion in Canadian cannabis company Cronos last year. This is big business poised to cause, and then profit from, a public health crisis.
The American Journal of Psychiatry states, “Cannabis use, even among adults with moderate to severe pain, was associated with a substantially increased risk of nonmedical prescription opioid use.” Clearly, pot is not the solution to the opioid epidemic.
The American Medical Association opposes marijuana legalization. So does the New York Catholic Conference, the New York State STOP-DWI Association and the New York State PTA. STOP-DWI recently sent a letter to Cuomo and the State Legislature, asking that they “allow appropriate time to consider the implications in regard to highway safety, as we are surely facing a whole new school of impairment.”
With legalization comes more availability of products attractive to children, including marijuana-based cookies and brownies. Availability means access, and, we know, with greater accessibility comes greater use.
Slow down, New York. What’s the rush to legalize marijuana?
Judi Vining is executive director of Long Beach AWARE, a nonprofit public policy organization “that helps create and maintain a healthy environment for families and teens.”