- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Voters in at least five states, including California, will be asked whether they want to legalize marijuana for casual use on Election Day. Four states and Washington D.C. have already taken this step. “This is really a watershed year for marijuana legalization,” said F. Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Proponents like the Drug Policy Alliance claim that legalization should occur partially for “health” reasons. The Marijuana Policy Project has called pot “harmless.” Others say it is “safe” and even “healthy.” Nearly all proponents seem to deny or minimize its risks. Popular culture reinforces this view portraying use generally as a risk-free endeavor. And big business looking to cash in on legalization is all too happy to propagate this claim.

But here’s the problem: This view is out of step with the medical literature. In fact, a scientific consensus exists that marijuana has serious health implications — even for casual users. Voters considering legalization on Election Day shouldn’t overlook these risks.

Start with marijuana’s impact on users’ IQ and motivation. A major New Zealand study that tracked users over many years found that chronic use starting in adolescence is associated with an average 8-point drop in IQ in mid-adulthood. That is a big percentage drop not to be taken lightly. The study found that even those who quit in adulthood were not able to recover these IQ points. Several other large studies conclude that use can cause impairment of cognitive ability at any age, though to a lesser degree.

Research also shows a link between marijuana use and a motivational syndrome — characterized by reduced determination and drive. It is reaffirmed by several studies that have linked marijuana use to criminal behavior, unemployment, lower incomes, greater welfare dependence, and lower life satisfaction.

Marijuana’s negative effects go beyond slacking. Research shows that it disrupts the brain areas that regulate posture, coordination, balance and reaction time. These side effects are why several large studies find that that drivers high on marijuana are three to seven times more likely to be responsible for a car accident.

“Disrupts” is medical lingo for shrinks. I don’t want to be associated with the fear-mongering “This is your brain; this is your brain on drugs” commercials from last century, but their underlying message was essentially correct. According to research published in the medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Someone who uses marijuana regularly has, on average, less gray matter in his orbital frontal cortex.”

Another study finds that the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory — is abnormally shaped in daily marijuana users. Here’s the kicker: Studies show even casual marijuana use causes abnormalities in the density, volume and shape of the brain.

Potentially because of its impact on the brain, marijuana use doubles the risk of developing psychotic disorders like schizophrenia for those already prone to them. A 2013 review concluded: “It is now known beyond doubt that cannabis acts as a component cause of psychosis.”

Perhaps the biggest marijuana myth is that it’s not addictive. Not true, says the medical literature. The National Institutes of Health finds 30 percent of users form some sort of dependence on the drug, with about 10 percent of those users becoming addicted. These rates are far higher for those starting earlier in life. That’s not a lottery we’d play.

So what is responsible for this disconnect between popular opinion and medical reality? A big part of it may have to do with the fact that marijuana today is much stronger than it was in previous generations. The average THC level in today’s marijuana is approximately three times that of 1990, with some experts saying it’s up to six times more potent. This isn’t the marijuana of the Woodstock generation.

There’s no question that marijuana does have medicinal benefits. Its anti-inflammatory and pain-relief effects are well-documented. And animal studies have shown that it kills certain cancer cells, reduces the size of others, and increases the effects of radiation treatments. But this isn’t an argument for legalization of casual use. Opium also has medicinal benefits, and no one is saying that we should legalize heroin.

Voters considering legalizing marijuana on Election Day should look past vested interests’ view that marijuana is safe. They should make their vote with the clear eyes of the scientific community, not the bloodshot ones of pot proponents.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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