Education on marijuana

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
The legalisation of marijuana in parts of the United States has already taken place. Elizabeth Heubeck argues it should come with a public health campaign. 

The eye-catching packaging features cookies in gourmet flavours like sea-salt and snickerdoodle. Delectable-looking caramels. Mouth-watering chocolates. These treats are enough to tempt anyone — especially impressionable adolescents.

But these "edibles" are more than just tasty treats. They contain cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in marijuana responsible for most of the drug’s psychological effects.

Slick marketing of edibles and other marijuana-based products, along with legalisation of marijuana’s recreational use (now in at least 10 states and Washington, D.C.), is shifting societal attitudes towards the drug. As more permissive perspectives towards recreational marijuana take hold, the drug’s detrimental effects on its youngest users appear to be overlooked.

In Maryland, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is said to be investigating the pros and cons of legalisation for adults. One of the likely discussion points? Potential tax benefits for legalising marijuana.

Some lawmakers say taxes from the sale of legal marijuana would help pay for costly education reforms. In fact, this has been cited as one of the primary reasons Maryland lawmakers are considering legalising recreational marijuana.

It’s a twisted argument.

By legalising recreational marijuana, Maryland is likely to face a host of costly education and other problems. Scientific evidence tells us that being "high" on marijuana results in immediate impaired attention, memory and learning. For teenagers who toke up or munch on edibles before or after class, residual but very real effects can last much longer.

Mounting data shows the deleterious and potentially long-term effects of marijuana on the developing adolescent brain. One landmark study, which tracked more than 1000 adolescents in New Zealand between early adolescence and middle age, found that individuals who habitually smoked marijuana before turning 18 lost up to eight IQ points by the time they turned 38.

Marijuana use during adolescence also has been linked to mental health issues later.

But marijuana use isn’t just bad for teenage brains. It increases the risk of immediate, dangerous consequences to anyone who uses it. Statistics in states that have legalised recreational marijuana bear this out. Marijuana-related traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for the drug have nearly tripled in Colorado since the state legalised marijuana for recreational use. Marijuana-related emergency room visits and hospital admissions in Colorado also have escalated since the drug became legal.

The high levels of THC found in today’s marijuana-based products could have something to do with the rise in emergency room visits. The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington found that today’s marijuana "crystals", sold in a legal marketplace in Seattle, contained a maximum of 79% THC. In contrast, the average THC content of marijuana tested in 1980 was just 1.2%.

Critics might argue that in states where recreational marijuana is legal, buyers must be 21 years of age and, therefore, teens won’t have access to the drug. But many young people in our country fail to wait until they’re 21 to drink alcohol. And scores of parents to underage children turn a blind eye to the illegal consumption of alcohol.

All things considered, we seem to be moving towards a state where adolescents face few incentives to avoid using marijuana.

So, what’s missing? A sound public health campaign on the risks associated with recreational marijuana use, especially in young people. It just might prevent a pending public health crisis. — TCA

 - Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Washington Post.

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