The Legalization of Pot

June 15, 2016
1 Comment

Marijuana legalization is a hot topic, especially for young adults. No age group uses marijuana more than college-age young adults. For example, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the prevalence of past month marijuana use in this age group is 20%, compared to 7% for those over 26 years of age. The same survey shows that young men are twice as likely to use marijuana as young women.

For this reason, young adults, and especially young adult men, are a main target for advertising from the marijuana industry. Evidence of this advertising includes pictures of scantily clad young women, a strong emphasis on social media and the use of music that appeals to this age group. For the marijuana industry, such advertising is simply good business. For young adults, however, massive marijuana industry marketing to this age group begs the question of who is smoking whom. The marijuana industry has created various myths about their product in the same way that tobacco companies created myths about their product.

Ultimately, young adults must choose for themselves if they will use marijuana or not. The goal of this article is to help people have balanced information that doesn’t come from the marijuana marketing machine. So, what’s the big deal? Fortunately, for most young adults who use marijuana, there isn’t a big deal. However, for some it is. Below is a balanced version of various myths related to marijuana.

1. The claims about the medical benefits of medical marijuana are largely overblown. Expert scientists convened by the Institute of Medicine in 1999 called for compassionate use of marijuana in certain end-of-life situations. They also called for more research into potential medicines derived from marijuana. However, there is not a single reputable medical group that calls for widespread use of whole leaf marijuana as medicine for any condition. Despite marijuana industry claims, medical marijuana sold in the United States has not been tested for purity and dose by reputable regulatory agencies. Hopefully, within about two years, there will likely be legitimate medicines derived from marijuana and these medicines will be pharmaceutical grade, FDA-approved, tested in clinical trials and dispensed through real pharmacies.

2. Contrary to common myth, marijuana can be addictive. In fact, about 1 in 9 people who tries marijuana develops an addiction to the drug.1 Research shows that people who present for treatment of marijuana addiction have a similar amount of distress and impairment as people who present for treatment of cocaine addiction.2

3. Students who use marijuana in their first year of college, on average, skip more class, have lower grade point averages and take more time to graduate compared to those who don’t use marijuana in their first year.3 There’s no solid evidence that marijuana makes students more creative, focused or productive.

4. Research shows that the brain continues to develop until about age 24. For this reason, there is much concern about the impact of marijuana exposure on brain development. In fact, a recent study from New Zealand shows that heavy marijuana use starting in adolescence and continuing into young adulthood predicts up to an 8-point decline in IQ from adolescence to adulthood.4

5. Multiple studies show that adolescent marijuana exposure predicts a 2- to 4-fold increased risk of developing schizophrenia in adulthood.5 While, technically, college-age young adults are transitioning out of adolescence, the fact that brain development continues until about age 24 makes marijuana use during this time a possible risk. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that includes psychosis (such as hearing and seeing things that are not there). There is currently no cure for the schizophrenia.

6. The second leading cause of death for young adults is car crashes. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, there is a myth that driving under the influence of marijuana is no big deal. In fact, drivers under the influence of marijuana are 5 times more likely to be in a fatal crash compared to those not under the influence.6 According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, people should not drive for at least three hours after smoking marijuana. It is not known how long people should wait to drive after eating marijuana.

7. Marijuana is the second most common substance that brings people to an emergency department.7 Marijuana is about 10 times more potent than it used to be. In fact, certain butane hash oils can be 90% THC by weight. Certain marijuana candies can contain five or more servings of THC in a single bite. This increased potency can lead to extreme anxiety, psychosis (a break with reality) and agitation. There have been well publicized cases of people who have killed themselves or others after consuming high potency marijuana and becoming psychotic.

In summary, marijuana may not be all that it is cracked up to be by the marijuana industry, which is waging an expensive marketing campaign to appeal to young people. For them, it’s smart business. However, for young people it’s their lives, and, for this reason, they deserve balanced information about the drug.

About the Author
  • Christian Thurstone, M.D., is an addiction psychiatrist in the Denver area. His research and clinical work focus on improving addiction treatment for adolescents and young adults.

  1. Source: The Lancet. 2009;.374:1383-1391 

  2. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 1998;6:419-426 

  3. Source: Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 2015;29:564-575 

  4. Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. 2012;109:E2657-E2664 

  5. Source: The Lancet. 2007;370:319-28 

  6. Source: Forensic Science International. 2003;133:79-85 

  7. Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment 

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  1. Hi Christian,
    As a Dordt graduate and a Denver native, I feel obligated to address your points. Though I no longer use marijuana, I believe most of the stigma is in the illicit nature of the substance. Before your points you reference the scantily clad women and use of music to appeal to marijuana users. I understand that you may be referencing something like the back of Westword Magazine, but the truth is that there are a great deal of more reputable companies that have a professional, medical brand, even in the advent of recreational legalization. Companies like “Patient’s Choice” for example, exhibit a brand that could easily be presented in a medical journal. Additionally, other industries are always appealing to sex and music for a product that has nothing to do with sex and music. Perhaps you have seen a Carl’s Jr/Hardees commercial. Should we ban burgers as well?

    To your points.
    One. The claims of medical marijuana benefits are not so much largely overblown as they are largely unknown. Since marijuana is illegal, medical researchers have not unlocked the potential of THC and THC based products. While anti-marijuana advocates want to deny stories like Heather Jackson’s (See IAT’s latest article), there are also “stoners” that rave about how marijuana saves them from stress. Both ends are guilty of taking the ambiguity of the medicinal value and making ungrounded assumptions.

    Two. Yes, marijuana can be addictive. What else is addictive? Electronics, social media, video games, Netflix, fast food, etc are all just as addictive as marijuana. Alcohol can be addictive as well. Does this mean I shouldn’t be allowed to have a beer with a friend? One important distinction between marijuana and alcohol is how the addictive natures are classified. The type of “addiction” marijuana creates is actually not an addiction, but physical dependence. As you know, Psychology journals usually differentiate between dependence and addiction.

    Three. This is a good point, but might it be that students who participate in anything illegal are prone to be a part of this statistic? I have never heard the argument that marijuana makes someone productive, but I do know exceptional graduate students in my program at the University of Denver who use THC to sleep.

    Four. It is for this reason that Colorado chose to make marijuana illegal to anyone under the age of 21. Even though adolescents will still get their hands on it, the rule makes it more difficult. As with alcohol, there are risks involved with brain development, but the benefits outweigh the risks (apologies if you do not believe alcohol should be legal).

    Five. Of all the people I know that use THC, I do not know anyone old or young with schizophrenia. I recognize that this subjective statement is hardly an argument so I will have to study this further.

    Six. Again, this is a problem. Do you know what leads to more car crashes than marijuana use? Cell phone use. Are we to ban cell phones because our use of them depends on a responsibility that is difficult to monitor? I think not. As police crack down on driving while high, the story will likely turn out like that of an alcohol: A problem, but not a big enough problem to make the substance illegal. Also, alcohol is much more influential in driving patterns than THC is, so I doubt this to be a serious argument against its legalization comparatively speaking.

    Seven. Having lived in Denver, have you ever seen someone (usually a tourist) walk out of the emergency room in the walk of shame? At the expense of someone’s checkbook, the situation is often hilarious to Denver natives. Usually a tourist takes an edible and without feeling immediate effect, takes more. Without experience, marijuana leads to psychosis and episodes of anxiety and panic. I have personally had this happen and I even told my friends I needed a hospital. They laughed at me. When I was able to calm down, I realized that I was fine and never needed an emergency room. The episode was scary but the only thing a hospital visit would have done is take a large sum of money out of my bank account. This is because an adult can not overdose on marijuana, they can only get too high. As for those that have actually killed someone in their psychotic episodes, there is clearly an underlying condition that is about as rare as the mental health conditions that lead some to mass murder. Those episodes are well documented because they are incredibly rare.

    In summary, your points have validity, but they are better framed in the context of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:23, ” I am allowed to do all things, but not all things are beneficial to me.” In a pluralistic society, there will inevitably be things that pertain to the public good that are difficult to accept. With over $36 million dollars of tax revenue going to Colorado schools, I would argue that the benefits are increasingly difficult to overlook.