The case against drug legalization

As a leader of a nationally prominent anti-drug coalition in San Diego County, I was thoroughly disappointed with the California Medical Association’s recent report endorsing marijuana legalization as a way to speed research into medical marijuana. Unfortunately, the CMA conflated those two very different issues by recklessly supporting the risky proposition of legalization.

First, it is important to discuss the disastrous impact marijuana legalization would have on our state. Marijuana is illegal because it is dangerous – not dangerous because it’s illegal. Recent studies link the drug with cognitive impairment (think memory loss and other brain dysfunction), motor skills impairment (think drugged driving accidents), and mental illness (like psychosis and schizophrenia). Indeed, marijuana negatively impacts the development of the adolescent brain, which is still maturing until about age 25.

We also know, according to a recent RAND report, that the price of marijuana would fall dramatically if it were legalized. Our experience with alcohol and tobacco tells us that lower price means greater use and addiction rates. And while about 1 in 10 adults who ever start marijuana will become dependent on it, according to the National Institutes of Health, that number jumps to between 1 in 4 and 1 in 2 when the drug is initiated in adolescence. Calling for legalization for adults only and thinking it will prevent drug use among kids is naive and dangerous – just ask any kid who has easy access to alcohol and tobacco today, despite age limits.

Finally, marijuana tax revenues would pale in comparison to the social costs of the increased use of the drug. Again, our two legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, can be used as a reference point – they bring in about one-tenth of the social costs they produce.

That one opposes legalization does not mean that one has to be all for the status quo. Indeed, we need to invest more into prevention programs to stop marijuana use before it starts, intervene on early use, and treat marijuana addiction.

Nor does opposition to legalization signal acrimony toward increased medical research into the individual components of marijuana. This is where CMA makes its mistake. The organization reasoned that legalization is the only way to achieve this kind of research. And it is wrong.

Research into the active ingredients of marijuana – and there are hundreds of them – is an important area of science that should be explored. Indeed, today we have two such drugs derived from marijuana and the FDA is currently exploring others, like Sativex. Sativex is a tongue spray that is comprised of the active ingredient in marijuana – THC – and another ingredient called CBD. The THC in marijuana is what gets someone “high,” and the CBD counteracts that so that the drug is not dangerous or dependence-inducing. Late-stage trials of the drug show promise for spasticity related to multiple sclerosis and pain related to cancer. It has been approved in other countries for these purposes, too.

The bottom line is that one of CMA’s core arguments is a myth – that the government’s prohibition of marijuana prevents proper investigation into the drug’s therapeutic properties. The National Institute on Drug Abuse grows marijuana, in several different strains and varieties, for this exact purpose. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which issues licenses to deal with marijuana for research purposes, over 200 researchers have access to the drug.

So it is unfortunate that the California Medical Association – representing only a small number of their doctors who pushed a legalization position from the start – is now mixing politics with science. Advocating for legalization as the only route to research not only displays an ignorance of the drug-approval process, but it also represents a platform that will have untold consequences from a profession that should, first and foremost, “do no harm.”

Source:  6th Nov 2011

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