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Commentary: Medical marijuana a threat to state's children

This article was written by John Suthers, Colorado’s attorney general

Eleven years ago the citizens of Colorado passed an amendment to the Colorado Constitution called Amendment 20. The amendment simply created an affirmative defense against the enforcement of state marijuana laws for people with debilitating medical conditions who have physician approval to use the drug. But in recent years, a series of policy decision at the state and federal levels have opened the door to the creation of a medical marijuana industry in Colorado.

We have gone, over the course of a half decade, from a state that had roughly 1,700 medical marijuana patients and a system of individuals or caregivers growing small amounts of the drug to a state with tens of thousands of patients and hundreds of marijuana dispensaries and industrial-scale grow operations.

Why should you care? Are dispensaries just gaudy, neon-green eyesores that we should just learn to live with? And is the occasionally whiff of marijuana smoke nothing more than a passing annoyance?

Many Coloradans, including myself, think otherwise. Indeed, I am convinced that the adverse consequences of legalization of marijuana, or de-facto legalization through widespread distribution of medical marijuana, will far outweigh the benefits in terms of social costs, and that belief stems largely from my concerns about the impact of marijuana use on adolescents.

We know from decades of experience that adolescent use of marijuana is a function of two things: accessibility and acceptability. Marijuana has always been highly accessible to adolescents, but medical marijuana dispensaries on every street corner have taken that to a new level. The majority of teenagers in marijuana addiction treatment indicate that marijuana patients are their primary source of the drug.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment indicates the number of persons between 12 and 25 who used marijuana in the past year in Colorado is now 38.5 percent — 10 percent above the national average. The widespread use of medical marijuana has also significantly impacted the acceptability of the drug to adolescents. By acceptability I mean the perception of risk. When the perception of the risk of the drug decreases, teenage use increases.

As marijuana has become abundantly more available and acceptable, we have seen youth use rate reverse a decades-long downward trend and start to creep back up among eighth, 10th and 12th graders. Even as tobacco and alcohol use among teens has declined, marijuana use has continued to rise among eighth, 10th and 12th graders, according to statistics the National Institute on Drug Abuse released in December.

Coloradans need only to look to Alaska for why widespread use and acceptance of marijuana use are bad for the state. When Alaska decriminalized marijuana use for adults in the 1970s, teenage use of the drug increased tremendously – to twice the national average. Today Alaska has the highest per capita use of illicit drugs in the United States.

This is an alarming trend, nationally and as seen through the Alaska experience, for a number of reasons, including the effects marijuana can have on a developing brain and what it will mean for drug addiction rates among today’s youth.

I am not an expert on the neurological development of teenagers, but doctors have joined me at public events throughout the state and have explained the ill effects marijuana can have on developing brains.

The teenage years are when our brains develop pleasure sensors that have lifelong significance. Typically a teenager derives a small hit of dopamine when parents provide affirmation for doing a good job babysitting, taking out the trash or doing other chores to help the family. These hits of dopamine train us, in a way, to do what is helpful or expected of us and to appreciate relationships.

Marijuana, like other drugs, throws this reward system off. Our bodies and natural sources of dopamine cannot compete with the intense high they induce. As a result, a young person is more likely to eschew normal, positive behaviors and instead seek to get high.

Researchers, including Dr. Bertha Madras of the Harvard Medical School, also have shown that the consequences of marijuana use among youth are dramatic in terms of language, memory, motor coordination and other learning skills. Their work also indicates marijuana is much more addictive than many people think, particularly for adolescents

For those who may have used marijuana in the past and say it is a harmless, youthful dalliance, they need to understand that today’s marijuana is substantially more potent than what they may have encountered in the past. In 1979 when marijuana use was at an all-time high, the average THC potency was 2 to 2.5 percent. In 2009 the average THC potency was 10 percent.

And for those who say marijuana is not a gateway drug, they are simply wrong. In my decades in law enforcement and my time as the director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, I have seen how youth use of marijuana is a strong predictor of future addictions. And research has borne out my experiences. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, one in four Americans who begin using drugs before age 18 become addicts compared with one in 25 who begin using after age 21.

Simply put, today’s medical marijuana industry and the possibility that Colorado could approve marijuana legalization at the polls in November does not bode well for our children and their prosepects down the road.

Years later when policymakers look at Colorado’s rising dropout rates and stagnant graduation rates, how many will consider their decision to create a state-sanctioned marijuana industry? Unfortunately, many will not, but the seeds of these trends have already been sewn in our state.

Coloradans need only look to their local schools districts, where drug-related expulsions and suspensions have skyrocketed since 2007. As the marijuana industry becomes even more widespread despite the best intentions of lawmakers and local leaders, expect these trends to continue.

Marijuana and other drugs have a deleterious effect on youth. Even if marijuana has some palliative benefits for the medically debilitated, policymakers should do everything they can to keep it out of the store front and away from children and schools.

John Suthers is Colorado’s 37th attorney general.

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