Three western states will decide Nov. 6 whether or not to become the first in the nation to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Here’s what the scholars have to say about the drug’s safety and effect on society.
Marijuana plants grow at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington will vote on Election Day on ballot initiatives that would legalize the production, possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use, flying in the face of federal laws that prohibit all of those activities.
People in those states — whether for or against legalization — are citing those measures to urge their followers to vote or at least prompt them to join the conversation on the issue.
Here are four myths, and the scientific debates surrounding them, that have helped shape public impressions of cannabis use as either dangerous and potentially lethal, or innocently euphoric and acceptable for medical purposes:
The U.S. in the late 1970s began increasing its prison population by about 6 percent annually, with a major contributor to that growth being a jump by a factor of 10 in the incarceration of drug offenders.
Drug policy and the incarceration of low-level drug offenders are credited as leading causes of mass incarceration in the U.S. and an estimated 40 percent of drug arrests are for simple possession of marijuana, rather than in connection to violent crime.
A look at 95 Census tracts in California (where a medical marijuana law went into effect in 1996) showed high violent and property crime rates correlated with commercially zoned areas, the percentage of one-person households, and the unemployment rate, not the “density of medical marijuana dispensaries.”
Some experts believe that legalized marijuana use would lead to more people driving under the influence, greater access to the drug by minors and a rise of its use in public spaces causing second-hand smoke dangers and odor nuisances.
Some also argue legalization would not reduce revenue to traffickers, but rather, incite price wars.
A gateway to stronger drugs
A 13-year study following groups of teenagers (14-17) into young adulthood (24-29) found that teens who never smoked pot were the least likely to progress to consuming cigarettes, alcohol, amphetamines, ecstasy or cocaine. Quitting marijuana use lowered the “uptake” of other illicit drugs.
A Yale University School of Medicine study published in August shows an association between alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana and an increased likelihood of prescription drug abuse in men 18 to 25.
But not all researchers agree that correlation equals cause, and some make the case that alcohol and cigarettes usually precede marijuana use, making alcohol and nicotine the first and most common drugs of choice.
Chronic consumption of alcohol has been linked with brain damage, impaired attention spans and memory. Chronic use of amphetamines has been found to slow reaction times and regular cocaine use has been shown to affect memory.
When it comes to cannabis, chronic use can impair memory, attention span and the ability to process information but, should consumption stop, users have been shown to regain memory function.
The fact that marijuana possession is illegal poses ethical challenges for scientists. But some experiments with mice show marijuana’s “major pyschoactive ingredient” impairs memory and the ability to hold information for reasoning, comprehension and learning.
A study published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal in January found that residents in states with medical marijuana laws had higher odds of marijuana use, as well as marijuana abuse and/or dependence among the general population.
Marijuana abuse and/or dependence, however, was not more prevalent among marijuana users in states that have passed medical marijuana laws. That suggests, according to the study, that the higher numbers might be attributable to a higher number of users, not a higher percentage of abuse among users.
Researchers concluded that more examination is needed on whether the existence of medical marijuana laws has a causal relationship with increased odds of use or if there are other factors at play.
It also has been found that tetrahyarocannibinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, can remain in fat, lung and brain tissue for three weeks or more. Approximately 10 percent to 14 percent of smokers become heavily dependent and an estimated 120,000 people seek treatment for marijuana addiction each year in the United States.