For the first time in history more than 50 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. Those of us in the addiction field are faced with new attitudes about a substance that is not as innocent and harmless as many of its proponents would like us to believe.
Contributing to the confusion about the effects of marijuana use is a history of scare tactics, incomplete research and a lack of facts. Indeed, much has been written about the harmful effects of marijuana that has not stood the test of time and scientific scrutiny. It is, however, dangerous and irresponsible to think that marijuana is a welcoming and wonderful gift free of potential consequences.
The “Less Harmful” Debate
One of the most common arguments is that it is “less harmful than alcohol; therefore, it isn’t harmful.” This argument does not make sense. Saying something is less harmful than the most destructive, addictive substance on the planet does not somehow validate consuming a “lesser” drug. Being bitten by a less poisonous snake is not a comfort to the person who was bitten.
If anyone is to argue the merits of marijuana use, those arguments must be supported by significant, valid research. Gone are the days when addiction counselors could use scare tactics to try and shake people into better decisions about substance use. Now, people have access to a constant flow of information, and with more sophisticated consumers comes the need to carefully understand the various points of contention within the marijuana debate. Make no mistake: It is a contentious debate with considerable passion. And the debate is necessary in order to help people make decisions about starting, stopping or considering marijuana use.
It appears that many people have stopped listening to addictions professionals and have made up their minds that marijuana is “just no big deal.” Evidence of this is often found in the comments of online articles suggesting that marijuana use may harm the brain, cause more traffic fatalities or contribute to academic failings. If you were to talk with an average teenager, they would most likely tell you that marijuana use is no big deal, is better than drinking and is now legal in a number of states, which makes it even more okay.
Is it not worth considering that perhaps we are moving too quickly in adopting an attitude that marijuana is “no big deal?” For those of us who have teenagers or young adults at home, shouldn’t we be concerned about the emerging evidence that early marijuana use may have profound implications for brain development? Are we ready to dismiss the possibility that marijuana use can play a role in driving fatalities, academic success and mental health outcomes?

Marijuana Research

My chief concern is helping young people make good decisions about drug use. As an addiction counselor and a parent, I pay close attention to new research that reveals the possibility that there are problems with early use of marijuana. Some recent examples have caught my attention:
  • 2012 – A New Zealand IQ study found that after following 1,000 people from age 13 to 38, those classified as marijuana dependent lost six to eight IQ points.
  • 2014 – A University of Maryland study found that cannabinoids were the most prevalent other drug detected in fatal driving accidents.
  • 2013 – Northwestern University research found that the earlier marijuana is used, the worse the effect is on the brain, leading to memory and cognitive problems.
  • 2014 – The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicated that “research shows that heavy users generally report lower life satisfaction, poorer mental health and physical health, less academic success and is associated with a higher likelihood of dropping out of school.”
  • 2013 – In the Netherlands researchers found that young people with a genetic vulnerability to mental illness have an increased risk of depression when smoking marijuana.
  • 2014 – In Colorado, arrests for driving under the influence of marijuana have increased 50 percent since the start of legal marijuana use for those over age 21.
Of course this research is not perfect. All research is subject to limitations and problems due to additional variables. We know that marijuana stays in the system longer than other substances; so it is difficult to determine if using it causes more accidents. But, it is pretty clear that using a psychoactive substance while driving is probably not the best idea, even if it is safer than driving drunk (see previous point about less harmful does not equal non-harmful).
That is true for arguments on both sides of the debate. People who use marijuana to cope with anxiety often argue that it is the only way they cope, yet there is insufficient research to support marijuana use as a primary anxiety treatment. In fact, there is some research that suggests marijuana use can create more anxiety in people with certain genetic predispositions.

The Real Debate

I am writing this blog post knowing full well that many will react with anger and will think that, once again, here is an addiction counselor who just does not understand the “truth” about marijuana. I say we should all work together to really understand the truth. We should open our minds to the possibilities that there is more to understand before we place a universal “stamp of approval” on marijuana use.
I believe we owe careful thought, intelligent debate and considerable research to the young people who are right now considering using marijuana. If you are 40 and smoking marijuana, you might argue that you work, are successful and have no consequences to your use. But this debate is not about you and your belief that you have a right to do what you please.
This debate is about the health and welfare of our adolescents and young adults who at this very moment are becoming more likely to dismiss any possibility that marijuana may not be the answer to their problems.
John O'Neill, EdD, LCSW, LCDC, CAS, is the clinical program director of the Bellaire location of Outpatient Services.