As part of the U.S. election last week, two states - Washington and Colorado - on state-wide ballots voted in favour of the legalization of marijuana that would make recreational use of the drug legal (although it is only a matter of time before the U.S. federal government steps in).
I have to shake my head at such shortsighted thinking on the part of these two states.
This September a majority of mayors here in B.C. voted to "decriminalize marijuana and research the regulation and taxation of marijuana." It might be helpful to look at the difference between decriminalization and legalization.
Decriminalization means that possession of a small amount of marijuana would be removed from the scope of criminal courts, but selling it would still be prosecuted. Legalization would involve implementing a system that allows the use and sale of drugs to adults under a system of regulation, probably similar to the way alcohol is sold.
In order for governments to receive tax revenue, it would need to be legalized and in Canada this decision falls to the federal government. I would agree that possession of a small amount of marijuana should not be a criminal offence, however these days most police forces do not enforce the law and prosecute for possession unless there is an intention to sell it. I am quite OK with decriminalization but not legalization and I'd like to explain why.
I am someone who has worked in the field of alcohol and drug abuse for 38 years. I am a recovered addict myself and have been clean and sober for 40 years. Five of seven of my immediate family members became addicts (four found recovery while my sister died in her addiction), and now one of my sons is an active addict. I've had two family members die from an overdose and five relatives die in three separate car crashes caused by impaired drivers. I have, as you might expect, strong feelings on the subject of making marijuana legal.
I have many concerns but the biggest is for our youth. Do we really believe that if we make marijuana legal, our young people won't use it in even greater numbers than they are already? We just have to look at cigarettes and alcohol. It is not difficult for kids to obtain either of these, most often getting it from their own home. The easier it is to get, the more kids will use it believing it is not harmful, and the more they will end up in difficulty with substance abuse, and for some addiction.
There is a general feeling in society today that marijuana is a relatively benign drug, that it's no different than a glass of wine helping people relax. But THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is highly addictive and much more powerful than in the past.
In the 1970s and '80s, potency levels ranged from two to four per cent while today it can be 30 per cent or higher. It's a dangerous drug that impairs coordination and balance, slows reflexes and reaction time, and makes it difficult for the user to complete complex tasks.
Research has shown that in chronic users, marijuana's adverse impact on learning and memory can last for days or weeks after the acute effects of the drug wear off. As a result, someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a suboptimal intellectual level much of the time.
Recent scientific studies have found the adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to today's high-potency marijuana products affecting their cognitive abilities and in chronic users can result in psychotic disorders. We worry about kids and cigarettes, yet marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 per cent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke.
A recent Colorado (where "medical" marijuana has been legal for some time) study found that 74 per cent of teenagers receiving addiction treatment used medical marijuana that was recommended for someone else. Of course it is going to get into the hands of our young people if it is legal.
Did you know medical marijuana dispensaries now sell the drug disguised in candies, chocolate bars, ice cream, soft drinks and much more?
It's a big business. How are we going to make sure those candy bars don't end up in the hands of children?
I was so pleased to see that our Delta Mayor Lois Jackson took a stand in opposition to the majority of her municipal counterparts. Jackson is absolutely correct in saying moving towards legalization is "wrong-headed and would add more problems than it would solve."
If we were to make it legal, who is going to determine at what age people can buy it, at what potency level, and will government control all sales or can people grow their own?
Those in favour of legalization claim governments at all levels will be able to realize increased revenue through taxation and job creation. Have they stopped to consider what it will cost government in terms of increased public health costs, diminished productivity, and the cost of regulating and overseeing the growing, manufacturing and selling of it?
Certainly the revenue governments receive from cigarettes and alcohol does not even begin to offset the enormous financial burden both of these legal substances place on society.
People who support legalization also claim the current system helps organized crime reap big profits. Delta police Chief Jim Cessford has it right when he says, "It is a real stretch to believe decriminalizing marijuana would have any impact on gang shootings or other gang violence."
Organized crime is already involved in the business of growing and selling medical marijuana. And who is to say criminals aren't going to continue to sell it underground. After all, they can sell it much cheaper as they won't be charging all kinds of taxes.
People in Colorado and Washington see legalization as a quick way to raise desperately needed tax revenue to help solve a financial crisis. I predict it will only cause a crisis of another kind.
By making this dangerous, addictive and potentially lethal drug more easily available for our youth we put their lives and others at risk. We need to stop and think about the long-term consequences of our actions. I, for one, could never support the legalization of marijuana.
Jim Stimson is an addictions specialist and president of the Little House Society in Tsawwassen.