PORTLAND – Marijuana policy — whether medical or recreational — is a complex issue. Creating an open dialogue relies on reputable scientific research as well as public health and safety principles.
Clarifying four aspects of this debate — access, perception of harm, decriminalization versus legalization and potential health risks — will support a balanced community conversation.
Everyone agrees that keeping marijuana away from youth is important. Some have noted that youth already report easy access, and suggest that legalizing marijuana would add the barrier of age verification.
According to Monitoring the Future, an ongoing national study of 50,000 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders a year, nearly 85 percent of 12th-graders report easy access to marijuana.
In Portland, according to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, the number of high school seniors reporting increased access rose from 69 percent to 72 percent from 2009 to 2011. During the same period, expanded access to medical marijuana was approved.
In addition, when Monitoring the Future considers ease of access for eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders combined, the percentage reporting easy access is closer to 65 percent. In Maine, fewer high school students report easy access to marijuana — 58 percent — than to alcohol — 67 percent.
Would legalizing marijuana make it harder for youth to get, any more than they have a problem getting alcohol?
PERCEPTION OF HARM
There is a clear correlation between medical marijuana initiatives and decreased perception of harm.
In 2009, Maine approved sweeping changes to medical marijuana policy. In 2009, 60 percent of Portland high school students believed that people who smoke marijuana regularly risk harming themselves, compared to only 52 percent in 2011.
Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey data also demonstrates that Maine high school students who think there is little risk from smoking marijuana regularly are 5.3 times as likely to use the drug.
Subsequently, between 2009 and 2011, the proportion of high school students in Portland who reported having used marijuana in the past 30 days increased from 24 percent to 28 percent; the proportion who reported ever having used marijuana in their lifetimes rose from 39 percent to 42 percent.
DECRIMINALIZATION VS. LEGALIZATION
The use of the terms “decriminalization” and “legalization” interchangeably within the the marijuana policy discussion creates further confusion.
Marijuana is already decriminalized in Maine. This means that possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana is a civil violation that can result in a ticket or fine. There are no criminal charges and no jail time. As a visual, 2.5 ounces is equal to a couple of sandwich baggies stuffed full.
The current legalization legislation in Maine would do nothing to change incarceration policies for marijuana possession of less than 2.5 ounces.
Possession of more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana would remain illegal, as it is now, and offenders would be subject to arrest and jail time.
According to a survey by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 0.7 percent of all state inmates were behind bars solely for marijuana possession.
The vast majority (99.8 percent) of federal prisoners sentenced for drug offenses were incarcerated for drug trafficking, not for possession alone.
While 660,000 were arrested nationwide in 2011 for marijuana-related offenses, and Maine spends $13 million a year for incarcerating people for nonviolent drug offenses, these figures are unlikely to be affected by Maine’s proposed marijuana legalization legislation.
POTENTIAL HEALTH RISKS
Some have asked if marijuana is safer than alcohol. Does it matter? Rather than comparing one potentially harmful substance to another and determining the relative danger, consider the health risks associated with marijuana independently.
Marijuana use is significantly linked with heart and lung complications, car crashes and mental illness, including schizophrenia and psychosis, depression and anxiety.
Marijuana is addictive, defined as “dependence that produces withdrawal and cravings.” One in 10 people who try it become addicted to it, or 1 in 6 if use starts in adolescence.
Marijuana use directly affects the brain, specifically the parts responsible for memory, learning, attention and reaction time. The developing brain, not fully complete until the mid-20s, is especially susceptible.
Well-informed community decisions about marijuana need to rely on relevant vocabulary and accurate data. We owe it to ourselves, our community and especially to our young people.
Jo Morrissey is project manager for 21 Reasons, a Portland-based coalition supporting the drug-free development of all youth.