As I meet and network with people throughout the greater Kansas City area, I hear more and more from citizens about the rising issue of marijuana. Most of the trepidation with this drug has to do with the amount of mis-information young people are receiving about the substance. We are all exposed to messages about marijuana multiple times a day whether we realize it or not. We’re told marijuana isn’t a big deal through music, television, movies, friends, family members, and even the news. With states passing laws allowing medical marijuana, decriminalization, and outright legalization of the drug it’s no surprise that our perception about the substance has changed. A deeper look at the substance must be conducted in order to decide if it’s really something we as a society want to adopt as yet another “social drug”.
Marijuana smoke contains a greater amount of carcinogens than tobacco smoke. In addition, marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers, further increasing the lungs’ exposure to carcinogenic smoke. Marijuana use is not only associated with adverse physical effects, but also mental, emotional and behavioral changes (American Lung Association, 2011). Harmful health effects of marijuana use include respiratory illnesses, a weakened immune system, poor motor performance, cognitive impairment and an increased risk of heart attack and cancer (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2010). Nationally, marijuana is the leading cause of substance abuse after alcohol in the United States. In 2008, marijuana use accounted for 4.2 million of the seven million people aged 12 or older classified with dependence on or abuse of an illicit drug.
A common argument among marijuana advocates is that marijuana can be taxed as a source of new revenue for government. Both alcohol and tobacco are taxed and regulated, but tax benefits are vastly overshadowed by the associated costs. States and the federal government collect an estimated $14.5 billion annually in alcohol tax revenue; however, annual alcohol-related costs total over $185 billion (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). In 2011, states will collect $25.3 billion from tobacco taxes and legal settlements, while cigarette smoking costs more than $193 billion each year and secondhand smoke costs more than $10 billion (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Use of the legal substances alcohol and tobacco far outpaces the use of marijuana, a strong indication that laws reduce the availability and acceptability of substances (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2010).
Most people whose only crime is marijuana possession do not go to prison. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 0.7 percent of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only (with many of them pleading down from more serious crimes). Legalizing marijuana would increase use of the drug and, consequently, the harm it causes, thus adding to the burden on the criminal justice system. Arrests for alcohol‐related crimes, such as violations of liquor laws, public drunkenness, and driving under the influence, totaled nearly 2.7 million in 2008. Marijuana‐possession arrests under current laws in 2008 totaled around 750,000 (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2010). In 2009, approximately 28 percent of fatally injured drivers testing positive for drugs tested positive for marijuana – the most prevalent drug found in this population (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2009). In California alone, nearly 1,000 deaths and injuries each year are blamed directly on drugged drivers, and law enforcement puts much blame on the rapid growth of medical marijuana use in the last decade.
These are just a few examples outlining the problems with marijuana. Our society has several legal substances which our population has difficulty using in a responsible manner. It has been concluded that marijuana use and legalization have a negative impact on youth and society as a whole. Legalization of yet another drug gives our young people the perception that its use is acceptable and has little consequences. More should be done to deter young people from experimenting with mind altering substances. Their ever-developing brains can suffer much harm from substance use and abuse, preventing them from reaching their full potential.
Jason Henke is a member of the Missouri National Guard Counter Drug Task Force.