President Obama’s cavalier comments about smoking marijuana in the most recent New Yorker are as astonishing as they are appalling. That the president would deliver such ill-considered remarks at a time when the country should be engaged in a serious debate on the legalization of pot makes one doubt anew Mr. Obama’s judgment. Let’s review.
First, this is a time when many states are considering decriminalizing the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Two states – Colorado and Washington -- have taken that step; others are poised to do so. As I wrote in a recent column on this site, the rationale for legalizing weed is mainly fiscal; states need revenues and slapping taxes on a newly-available product is simply too tempting.
At the same time, many think that the cost of the “war on drugs” is too high, and that the results do not justify the expense. The speed with which our legislators are moving to change our drug laws has caught the public unaware. There has been little effective push-back, in part because many view the move as a) popular and b) harmless and c) therefore, inevitable.
Polling has shown the public – even older voters who are traditionally more conservative - supportive of legalizing pot. Many of our traditional culture warriors, like those who might oppose violence in video games, for instance, or who defend traditional marriage, have drifted Libertarian. The voices in the country advocating for small government now want to keep the feds out of their bedroom, out of their pocketbook and out of their lives. So, the timing is auspicious for the pro-pot group.
But – the public (like Mr. Obama apparently) is not armed with the facts. First and foremost, pot has changed since the president’s “choom gang” days. A study at the University of Mississippi shows the average potency (THC content) of marijuana confiscated by the government in 1992 was about 3 percent. By 2009, the average potency was about 11 percent, nearly 4 times higher. That means the drug has more of an impact, and is more likely to lead to dependency.
Though those favoring legalization claim that no one becomes addicted to marijuana, studies indicate otherwise. A survey conducted by the Health and Human Services Department states that nearly 20 million Americans over the age of 12 in 2011 professed to have used pot in the prior month. The report concluded that over 4 million people “met the diagnostic criteria for the abuse of or dependence on this drug” -- more than are hooked on pain relievers, cocaine, or all other drugs combined.
In the “what the heck” camp there is also a view that no one is harmed by smoking pot. This is not true. Long-term studies show that repeated use of pot in adolescents impacts cognitive development – that kids become stupider over time, and that the damage is irreversible. Pot has also been tied to an increased risk of schizophrenia and psychotic episodes.
Certainly, most of the concerns about pot usage focus on young people, whose developing brains can be damaged by frequent use. Though the law passed in Colorado to decriminalize marijuana prohibits sale to or consumption by those under the age of 21, it seems likely that state sanctioning of weed, and more widespread use in households, will encourage more kids to use pot. HHS data indicates, “Earlier initiation of marijuana use is associated with a higher likelihood of needing treatment in the future… Among those who first tried marijuana at age 14 or younger, nearly 13 percent were classified with illicit drug dependence or abuse, higher than the 2.0 percent of adults who had first used marijuana at age 18 or older.”
Hence, the message we send to our kids is extremely important. HHS surveys have shown a close linkage between usage and “perceived risk” of consuming pot, alcohol or other substances. It is therefore not too surprising that pot usage by teens, which had flattened over the past fifteen years, started to rise as our laws on marijuana became more liberal. In 2005, 55 percent of young people perceived “great risk” in smoking pot once or twice a week; by 2011 that figure had dipped to 47.5 percent and usage was on the increase.
Thus, when Mr. Obama equates marijuana usage with smoking cigarettes, and says pot is less dangerous that alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer”, he is sending a terrible message.
New medical studies on the possible impact of marijuana usage are surfacing; one from the University of Auckland in New Zealand indicates a possible increased risk of stroke by users. Another study suggests a heightened risk of heart problems. Much of this research is new and has not been widely disseminated. Before we plunge ahead with encouraging wider spread use of marijuana, the public should get up to speed on the topic. At the least, they should resist satisfying our politicians’ incessant quest for new tax revenues by cutting off debate.