May 26, 2014

Rascovar: Serious questions about cannabis, politics & public health

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Marinuana joint by Torben Bjorn Hansen on Flickr Creative Commons

Marinuana joint by Torben Bjorn Hansen on Flickr Creative Commons

By Barry Rascovar

For MarylandReporter.com

According to the mother of the man who recently crashed his stolen dump truck through the doors of WMAR-TV and stormed through the TV station claiming he was God — her son was a heavy marijuana user and that’s what caused his latest psychotic episode.

The near-calamity should bring new focus to the marijuana legalization debate in Maryland’s June 24 gubernatorial primary.

One candidate, Democrat Heather Mizeur, champions marijuana legalization. She claims its use “is less harmful to the body than alcohol or tobacco.”

Heather Mizeur by Mdriendofhillary

Heather Mizeur (Photo by Mdriendofhillary)

A Maryland with legalized, regulated, and taxed marijuana will mean safer communities, universal early childhood education, and fewer citizens unnecessarily exposed to our criminal justice system,” her campaign website states.

Note the one area Mizeur does not mention — the impact legalization might have on public health.

The WMAR incident is only the most glaring example of what might happen in the public health arena under cannabis legalization.

Marijuana concerns

As luck would have it, the most recent issue of Columbia Magazine from Columbia University arrived in the mail last week with a lengthy article on pot legalization and what the university’s researchers have to say.

Writer Paul Hond raises these questions: “What are the harms to individuals from using cannabis? Will legalization lead to more use? Will the roads be less safe? And what about the kids?”

All those concerns require careful examination before entertaining Mizeur’s desire to make pot legal in Maryland. Hond first spoke with Margaret Haney, who has run Columbia’s Marijuana Research Laboratory for 15 years.

When chronic marijuana smokers were asked to quit as part of the lab’s studies, here’s what occurred:

“Sleep disruption is one of the most robust withdrawal symptoms,” Haney says. “The smokers had trouble falling asleep. They woke up in the night. They woke up early. Their mood, too, reflected classic drug-withdrawal symptoms: irritability, anxiety, restlessness. Food intake dropped precipitously. The first two days, they consumed up to a thousand calories less than they did under baseline conditions.”

Haney continues, “The consequences of dependence are not as severe as with alcohol, cocaine, and other things. . . . However, once you’re a daily smoker, your ability to stop becomes as poor as cocaine users’.” Haney notes that “only 15 to 17 percent are able to maintain abstinence.”

Impact on teens

Following hours of hot debate, negotiation and shouting, the House of Delegates Saturday approved removing criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana in a 78-55 vote.Haney is most concerned about the consequences of teens who smoke marijuana regularly. “There’s going to be a cost for teenagers doing that. . . . I do worry about the developing brain and the effect of heavy marijuana use on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors” that affect mood, memory and stress.

Herbert Kleber, director of Columbia’s Division on Substance Abuse and former deputy drug czar under President George H. W. Bush (Bush the Good), is alarmed about another aspect: Today’s tokes are loaded with much more of the potent psychoactive compound THC.

In this complex, high-pressured world, Kleber understands “a lot of people are looking for escape.” But this isn’t the marijuana of your father’s days.

Back when the Beatles’ John Lennon called marijuana’s effects “a harmless giggle,” the amount of THC in a joint was about 2 percent, Kleber says.

Enhanced potency

“Now, the THC level of the average DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] seizure is about 12 percent. At the dispensaries in California and Colorado, it’s 15 to 30 percent. . . It’s a very different drug. A very, very powerful drug.”

In previous interviews he has ticked off the public health hazards — “increased likelihood of cancer, impaired immune system, and increased chance of other drug problems, such as addiction to opiates. . . . Recently, substantial evidence has been published linking marijuana use to earlier onset of schizophrenia and other psychoses.”

Kleber also is concerned about the impact pot has on the young.

“Marijuana does affect the brain. The younger you are when you start using it, the greater the risk that it will cause brain damage that will be with you the rest of your life.”

True, smoking weed isn’t as dangerous as a drug addiction, concedes John Mariani, director of Columbia’s Substance Treatment and Research Service. “Marijuana problems tend to be less dramatic — you’re not as ambitious, you perform less well. You probably stay home, watch TV, and eat ice cream. The disorder is about the absence of things — what doesn’t happen.”

Is that the brave, new world that awaits Maryland in a Mizeur governorship?

Pot and driving

Another accusation is that marijuana legalization will dramatically increase highway accidents. Guohua Li, director of Columbia’s Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention, is studying that question. His findings indicate the alarmists are correct.

“First of all. . . the use of marijuana doubles the risk of being involved in a crash. The risk is not as great as with alcohol, which increases crash risk thirteenfold. But when a driver uses alcohol and marijuana, the risk of a fatal crash increases about twenty-four fold. So marijuana in combination with alcohol doubles the risk.”

Li’s 12-year study (1999-2010) of traffic fatalities, found that marijuana involvement with car crashes tripled during that time.

Li also took on Mizeur’s main legalization thrust — that marijuana does less bodily harm than alcohol. “If you argue that because alcohol is worse than marijuana . . . then marijuana should be legalized, that’s a race to the bottom, rather than a race to the top.”

Backlash to legalization?

Even one of legalization’s supporters at Columbia, Carl Hart, a neuropsychopharmacologist, author and director of the Residential Studies and Methamphetamine Research Laboratories, worries these public safety and public health issues will lead to what Hond calls “a spirited backlash to legalization in the near future.”

In the past year, we’ve witnessed in Maryland a stampede among some politicians in Annapolis to give a younger generation of voters what they want — legal pot — even before they examine the possible consequences.

What we’re missing is a frank discussion of the wide-ranging ramifications legalization could have on society. The scientific results from Columbia University are not encouraging.

Barry Rascovar writes on Maryland politics at politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at brascovar@hotmail.com.