NITSCHKE: Risks ignored regarding marijuana legalization


Unpopular opinion: Legalizing marijuana is not a good idea. Wisconsin’s strong support for legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in the midterm elections suggests that if politicians bow to public pressure, full legalization may not be far off. But recreational marijuana legalization opens the door to a host of long-term risks and consequences that referendum voters don’t seem to consider.

In Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana, 21 is the minimum age to buy cannabis products. Some argue that legalization’s age restrictions prevent teens and young adults, the people most at risk to form dependency or suffer damage in brain development, from getting access. But has being under 21 ever stopped a teen or young college student from drinking alcohol if he or she really wants to? Why would marijuana be any different? Legalizing it gives more access to more people of age, who can hand off anything they buy to other people, underage or not.

Since brain development stops around age 25, setting the bar at 21 means the state is letting people legally lower their own IQs for four years. While of course the government cannot make people’s choices for them, it has a responsibility to warn people of negative consequences. Will the government put those black and white warning labels on marijuana products that they do on cigarettes? They should, since it can be worse than cigarette smoke for the lungs, according to the American Lung Association. Those warnings should include the effects on brain development. Problems with specific learning and memory tasks are some of marijuana’s effects on brain development, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The person smoking the marijuana is not the only one affected. Secondhand marijuana smoke can affect nonsmokers’ lungs and cardiovascular systems and expose them to THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, and other chemicals. If legalized, marijuana smoking should be prohibited in restaurants and public buildings like cigarette smoking currently is. Even with those limitations, and even if you choose not to smoke it, legalized marijuana will affect those passing by people smoking it on the street or those who visit smokers’ homes. Children of parents who would be legally smoking marijuana would be at particular risk of developing heart and lung problems, and just like tobacco, would be at increased risk for becoming smokers themselves.

Some people turn to marijuana to self-treat their anxiety and depression. While this works for a short time in low dosages, it’s no different from turning to alcohol. Mental illnesses and drug addiction form a vicious cycle called comorbidity. As the mental illness gets worse, the substance abuse gets worse and vice versa. Legalizing marijuana would permit people more access to the drug, especially if for “medical” purposes, instead of seeking actual help like therapy or anti-anxiety drugs. Also, according to a paper published in the medical journal Recent Patents on CNS Drug Discovery, prolonged use of marijuana reduces the anti-anxiety drugs’ effects, making recovery from mental illness more difficult even through proper methods.

For the people who refuse to believe all the studies proving that marijuana usage is bad for the lungs, brain development, drug dependence and mental illnesses and continue to claim that it is safe, marijuana is always dangerous for someone behind the wheel. Driving under the influence of marijuana can be more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol since there is not yet a mass-market, foolproof breathalyzer for marijuana.  Additionally, THC limits for impaired driving have not been set scientifically, meaning law enforcement is less able to consistently prevent or charge people with drugged driving. In Colorado, as of 2013, 10 percent of fatal crashes involved marijuana. By 2016, it was 20 percent, according to The Denver Post. Legalizing marijuana without increasing warnings of how dangerous it is to smoke marijuana and drive will lead to senseless grief.

The bottom line is this: To permit is to promote. Legalizing marijuana means telling people it is safe. It is not. If Wisconsin legalizes marijuana then a few years later starts slapping warning labels on the products it has authorized the sale of once the negative effects are clearly visible, it will be just like last century’s public awareness campaigns against cigarettes that we’re still fighting today. The difference is Americans didn’t know tobacco was unsafe for a long time. We know marijuana is unsafe, we know its varied and wide-reaching consequences, so why would we legalize it in the first place?