Marijuana plants.Credit David Mcnew/Reuters
No sooner had the Times published its opening editorials advocating legalization of marijuana than the White House fired back with an unconvincing response on its website. It argued that marijuana should remain illegal because of public health problems “associated” (always a slippery word) with increased marijuana use.
Careful readers will immediately see the White House statement for what it is: A pro forma response to a perceived public relations crisis, not a full-fledged review of all the scientific evidence, pro and con. The White House is actually required by law to oppose all efforts to legalize a banned drug.
Besides, it is hypocritical for the White House, whose chefs brew beer for the president, to oppose legalizing marijuana, which poses far less risk to consumers and society than does alcohol. Two recipes for the White House brew are posted on its website under the headline “Ale to the Chief.”
The White House lumped its public health argument under four main headings. Before addressing them individually, we should note that there was an enormous upsurge in marijuana use in the 1970s. So far as we know, no one has claimed that it produced calamitous health or societal harm in subsequent decades. The main metric that soared was arrests for possession of marijuana.
Here are our responses to the four main public health contentions made by the White House.
The first — that marijuana use affects the developing brain — is a concern for all parents of teenagers. That’s why we recommended regulations to keep marijuana out of the hands of young people. The White House cites a study by Australian researchers, published in 2012 in the journal Brain, which found that heavy cannabis use starting while young impairs connections between nerve fibers in the adult brain. It also cites a study which purports to show that heavy use by teenagers can lead to a big decline in intelligence in adult years. That study has been criticized as flawed by a Norwegian researcher who believes that socio-economic factors explain most of the apparent loss of IQ and that the true effect of marijuana could be zero. And remember: no responsible advocate of legalization is urging that marijuana be made available to teenagers.
The second contention — that marijuana use by school age children leads to lower grades — is based on studies where marijuana use is “associated with” lower grades but there is scant evidence that it caused the low grades. In fact the survey cited by the White House cautions that “These associations do not prove causation. Further research is needed to determine whether low grades lead to alcohol and other drug use, alcohol and other drug use leads to low grades, or some other factors lead to both of these problems.”
Parents who deem marijuana responsible for apathy and lack of motivation in their teenagers should be aware that other factors may be in play. The Institute of Medicine, in its 1999 report, noted that when heavy marijuana users drop out of school, work or social activities the drug is often blamed, but it found no convincing data demonstrating a causal relationship between marijuana smoking and those behavioral characteristics.
The third contention — that marijuana is addictive — greatly exaggerates the kind of dependence that marijuana users experience, as we pointed out in Thursday’s editorial on health effects. Some experts believe marijuana is no more addictive, or perhaps even less addictive, than caffeine. The fourth contention — that marijuana is frequently involved in auto accidents — may overstate the importance of that finding. Some studies suggest that drivers under the influence of marijuana actually overestimate their impairment and drive more carefully, while drivers under the influence of alcohol become more reckless. Some studies implicate marijuana as an important cause of motor vehicle accidents and fatalities but others do not. The combination of cannabis and alcohol is clearly more dangerous than either substance on its own.
The White House objections to our editorial campaign seem mostly beside the point. We are not advocating that marijuana be made available to young people, who already seem to get it with relative ease. Rather, we are recommending regulatory steps to keep it away from them and perhaps drive down teenage usage rates. We are not urging that people be allowed to drive under the influence of marijuana: Driving while impaired with any drug, including marijuana, is illegal and will remain so. Nor are we urging adults to take up marijuana smoking. We are simply asking the federal government to get out of the way so that states can decide what marijuana policies would work best for their own people.
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