It was easy to dismiss marijuana use in the closing decades of the last century as a harmless pastime that, while illegal, was less destructive than alcohol and not as addictive as cocaine or other harder drugs.
But medical studies now getting attention in advance of the November referendum on medical marijuana in Florida are painting a far different picture of the effects of marijuana on brain development and its potential addictiveness.
Though the amendment on the November ballot would limit the legalization to medical uses, voters should still consider the studies when deciding whether to support the measure. In the two states where marijuana is now legal for recreational use — Colorado and Washington — voters had approved medical marijuana years earlier.
As the Tribune’s Jerome R. Stockfisch reports, the nation’s drug czar has published a paper reinforcing the medical studies that warn of serious consequences from smoking the highly potent forms of marijuana grown today.
According to the paper by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the detrimental effects can be particularly damaging to adolescents, who are at a greater risk of impaired brain development. The paper says marijuana poses an addiction risk, leads to harder drugs, is linked to anxiety and depression, increases the risk of dropping out of school and impairs driving.
The paper points out that the potency of marijuana has increased fourfold since the 1980s and can hardly be compared to the less harmful drug millions of pot smokers used decades ago.
The paper says an increase in emergency room visits and automobile wrecks related to marijuana use may be linked to the higher potency.
Of course, Florida’s proposed amendment limits the legal sale of marijuana to people suffering from “debilitating medical conditions” such as cancer and AIDS. If approved, it will restrict sales to those approved by a doctor. But citizens should note that the drug czar’s paper concludes by saying a general loosening of marijuana policies can be expected to bring an increase in use.
And opponents point to Colorado and Washington, where the passage of medical marijuana in 2000 and 1998, respectively, were followed by the passage of recreational marijuana laws in 2012.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a leading Florida Democrat, angered the pro-amendment forces by coming out against the proposal. The amendment is being backed by a major Democratic supporter, lawyer John Morgan. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, a former employee of Morgan’s, says he will vote for the amendment.
But Wasserman Schultz says she fears the amendment is written too broadly and will be open to abuse by people obtaining a doctor’s note for conditions that don’t merit marijuana use. She questions whether the state has the regulatory capacity to prevent the abuses.
Those are valid concerns that both sides of the amendment will address in the coming months. We think the greater concern is that marijuana has evolved far beyond the substance that influenced a cultural revolution and is instead a powerful drug that is particularly hazardous to teenagers.
Voters should be aware of the studies before casting their ballots.