Co-authored with: Eden Evins, MD (Harvard), Sharon Levy, MD (Harvard), Julie Johnson, PhD (Harvard), Randi Schuster, PhD (Harvard), Jodi Gilman, PhD (Harvard) John Kelly, PhD (Harvard), Sion Harris, PhD (Boston Children’s Hospital)
A recent op-ed in the “Boston Globe” by Kevin Hill gave opinions of those for and against legalization and of Dr. Hill, but left out many of the key facts that will be necessary for voters to make educated decisions about marijuana legalization.
One fact about this upcoming vote cannot be disputed: come this Tuesday, we will decide whether to legalize not just marijuana, but THC-infused candies, sodas, and other edibles. Voting “yes” on Question 4, a ballot initiative written by the marijuana industry, would also open the door to marijuana advertising (read: marijuana ad campaigns plastering the infield at your favorite sports’ arenas), increased drugged driving, negligible increases in state revenue, and would limit the right of local municipalities to regulate and ban pot shops in their communities.
We oppose marijuana legalization (particularly as stipulated by Question 4), and fear we are on the verge of repeating the same mistakes we made with Big Tobacco decades ago. We urge all residents to pause before heading to the polls—it is time to take a hard look at the science of marijuana and seriously consider the impact that creating a full commercial market for marijuana will have on our community and the lives of our children.
Personal freedom is often invoked in the debate over the legalization of drugs. We would all, without hesitation, agree that people shouldn’t go to jail or have their lives impacted from a marijuana arrest. The state of Massachusetts also agrees that a pot smoker is not a criminal: personal possession of marijuana has been decriminalized since 2009. However, Question 4 goes far beyond decriminalization. It allows a full commercial market with sale and advertising of marijuana, high-potency marijuana oils, candies, ice-creams, sodas, and other kid-friendly items. This isn’t just about personal freedom – it’s about our responsibility to protect and promote the health of the public and our kids.
While promises of millions of dollars may sound like a lot of money, it is a mere drop in the bucket compared to Massachusetts’ $70 billion budget. No new schools have been constructed in Colorado because of pot. And what about the costs? Colorado spent much of those tax revenues for its first year for enforcement and oversight of the new marijuana marketplace. This figure does not include indirect costs, such as emergency room visits, lost productivity, and and car accidents. Any new revenue would almost certainly be vastly insufficient to cover the societal costs of legalization― which is why both tobacco and alcohol cost us about ten times the tax revenue they generate.
Youth access and commercialization
Adolescence is a period of remarkable brain development that can be harmed by marijuana use. Marijuana use during adolescence is associated with both changes in brain structure and function. Long-term studies show that youth who use marijuana regularly have lower educational attainment, lower adult employment rates, lower life satisfaction, lower average earnings, and more health problems.
The available evidence indicates that marijuana use by minors has increased after legalization in states with more liberal marijuana policies. Youth marijuana use in Colorado is now number one in the nation and 74% higher than other states, according to the only representative sample of data available for that state. This is an impressive and likely uncoincidental increase from its number 14 ranking prior to legalization.
Question 4 would legalize marijuana use only for adults over age 21. But it will also allow for advertising and marketing both of which will drive up youth demand. The retail sale of marijuana serves to normalize use, further reducing barriers for youth. Marketing restrictions are of questionable utility when tested against the potential for substantial profits. While it is illegal for tobacco companies to market cigarettes to anyone under age 18, the familiar story of Joe Camel is a good example of how pernicious advertising can be.
There is no dispute in the scientific and recovery communities that marijuana is addictive, as 9% of all marijuana users and 16% of marijuana users who begin using in adolescence become addicted to marijuana. These are likely underestimates of the addictive potential of currently available high potency marijuana. The potency of marijuana has increased drastically in the past few decades. Federal data also indicate that an increasing share of individuals ages 12 and older entering substance use treatment are there primarily because of marijuana. Marijuana now is the leading drug accounting for people entering substance use treatment, higher than heroin, pain medication, methamphetamine, and cocaine combined.
Just because other addictive substances might be legal does not mean it is in the public’s interest to encourage and expand marijuana use through a commercial market with targeted advertising.
Driving under the influence
Testing people’s level of impairment from marijuana use is not as precise as testing for alcohol impairment, which means it can be difficult to successfully prosecute even the severest cases of drugged driving― vehicular homicide. In Washington state, according to the AAA Foundation, traffic fatalities related to marijuana-impaired drivers more than doubled the year that retail pot sales began. With the average jury verdict in a wrongful death lawsuit exceeding $1 million, the costs of DUIs are staggering—not to mention the incalculable emotional toll on those who lose loved ones.
Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests
Racial disparities in drug arrests are undeniable. But marijuana legalization does not solve racial injustice, and in the case of minors, it aggravates disparities. Two years after legalization in Colorado, arrests for marijuana-related offenses of underage Latinos had risen 29 percent, and arrests of underage Blacks was up 58 percent—while arrests of white kids fell eight percent. This stems from the increased use of marijuana by kids - for whom marijuana use remains an arrestable offense -following legalization. Racial injustice in law enforcement is not solved through marijuana legalization.
While we may need new approaches to marijuana and policy, legalization would send Massachusetts down the wrong path.
We urge voters to cast a no vote and stand on the side of public health.