Marijuana legalization is a risk not worth taking

Editor’s Note: Dr. Stuart Gitlow is the president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and chairman of the scientific advisory board of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Stuart Gitlow: More U.S. states are opening the door to legalizing marijuana

Gitlow: Research indicates 1 in 6 teens who start using marijuana will become addicted

He says with pot, people can also experience long-term psychiatric disease

Gitlow: As a society, why would we want to take on such health risks and costs?

CNN  — 

Back in the 1980s, while attending medical school in New York City, I watched patients remove their oxygen masks so they could smoke cigarettes while in their hospital beds. I watched the chairman of the board of the hospital smoke during board meetings. And I recall people smoking in airline terminals, in their offices, on trains and in restaurants.

Although tobacco smoking rates have dropped significantly in the decades since – thanks in part to legislation and shifting public sentiment – there are still many people who seek the “benefit” of being allowed to smoke, the “benefit” of the feeling they get from smoking, no matter the personal risk or the societal cost of their eventual illness and early death. And almost always, they started smoking well before they hit the age at which they could legally buy cigarettes.

Many people know one or more people whose lives were cut short by smoking cigarettes. It’s a tragedy that could be prevented.

Federal marijuana bill would legalize some cannabis strains

And yet, our country stands ready to once again head down the path of accepting another addictive drug, marijuana, as legal. It is almost as if we have to burn our fingers again to be convinced that the stove is still hot.

As with tobacco, a significant number of people who try marijuana will become addicted. Research says that 1 in 6 teens who start using marijuana will become addicted.

But with marijuana, people can also experience long-term psychiatric disease, and those who use it heavily prior to age 25 are more likely than nonusers to experience a drop in IQ. Let me repeat that for emphasis: If you use marijuana heavily prior to age 25, your brain won’t work anymore – not as it did originally. Will you die young, as with tobacco? We’ll have to wait a generation to find out, just as we did with tobacco. Our children will be the guinea pigs.

Why would we as a society choose to do this? If I told you I’m selling a lottery ticket where you have a chance of winning and must accept 1) a benefit that will last a few hours, 2) a permanently malfunctioning brain, 3) lifelong addiction or 4) – the PowerBall – psychosis, would you play? The New York Times editorial board think that risk is worth taking, as it promotes legalization of marijuana sales and use. Why would it and other marijuana proponents put the public in harm’s way?

As a society, we will not make money – we will likely lose money, just as we do with tobacco and alcohol. Taxpayers will need to pay more in order to make up for the productivity and illness-related losses that marijuana taxes won’t come close to covering.

And since only a small percentage of state prisoners are there for marijuana offenses, how much would we be saving in criminal justice costs? Especially since there are more alcohol-related arrests (e.g. drunkenness, driving under the influence, violation of liquor laws) than all illegal drug arrests combined.

Some would have us believe the benefit of a brief high is worth all the known risks, including the eventual addiction of about 17% of young people who decide to try marijuana. And let’s face it, how many people start using marijuana after age 25? Some would have us believe the benefit of a high is worth it despite the driving accidents that have already been shown to be related to marijuana use.

Is a momentary high so important that people are willing to take on such risks? The stakes, in this case, are our children. Let’s not turn them into guinea pigs.

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