LEWISTON — As has been covered by the Portland Press Herald in the past few days, the Marijuana Policy Project has launched a new ad campaign with the Portland Metro bus system touting marijuana as a “safer choice.”

It is an ad campaign that has been said to be targeting adults as part of a discussion on marijuana policy in Portland. However, the large ads on buses and bus shelters are in full view of the many young people who use the bus system or walk by bus shelters.

The messages proclaiming marijuana as a “safer choice” are disturbing because of the mixed messages they send to our youth. We know in prevention science that when youth perceive a substance as being “safer,” they will be more likely to use it.

Adults can and will have different opinions on whether or not marijuana should become a legal substance. However, the facts around marijuana, especially the documented impacts on public health and the health of the young, cannot be denied. The ad campaign creates a narrative that is based upon a red herring and obscures and ignores these facts.

The question of one substance being “safer” than another is irrelevant. We need to examine marijuana on its own merits. When we do, we see the true story – that marijuana use changes teens’ brains, bodies and behaviors. It puts at risk the safety, health and successful futures of our youth.

In a Oct. 2 article (“Portland buses to carry advertisements that back legalizing marijuana”), David Boyer, the Maine policy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, speaks about the “relative safety” of marijuana.

What Mr. Boyer fails to acknowledge is that marijuana has in fact become a much more potent and harmful substance since the ’60s and ’70s. The average THC level in marijuana, the chemical that produces the high and can lead to addiction, has more than doubled since 1998.

Research has established that marijuana is addictive and three times more likely to lead to dependence among adolescents than adults. Already, more than one-third of Maine high school students have used marijuana at least once and 22 percent have used within the past month. Can we really say that an increasingly potent and addictive substance is a “safer choice”?

One of the ads says that marijuana “doesn’t make me rowdy or reckless.” The facts paint a different picture. Data from January 2009 through August 2010 show that in the impaired-driving cases where a drug recognition expert was called in, cannabinoids, the drug class that includes marijuana, ranked as the No. 1 drug found.

Research shows that heavy marijuana use is linked to increased risk of motor vehicle crashes. Can anyone deny that operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana is a reckless choice?

Another ad describes marijuana as “less toxic.” Again, the facts tell a different story. Studies reveal that the amount of tar inhaled by marijuana smokers and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed are three to five times greater than from tobacco smoke. Research from The British Lung Foundation indicates that marijuana contains more cancer causing chemicals than tobacco.

Marijuana smokers inhale deeply and hold the smoke in their lungs longer. Especially for those who use regularly, this puts individuals at increased risk of developing lung cancer. More tar, higher levels of carbon monoxide, more cancer-causing chemicals. Can anyone really suggest that marijuana itself is not toxic?

Marijuana puts at significant risk the futures of our youth during their crucial development years. Marijuana use in teens has been linked to lower academic performance and reduced job prospects. Weekly marijuana use doubles a teen’s risk of depression or anxiety. Heavy users experience attention and memory problems that last beyond the time when they are high.

These problems can worsen with years of regular use. These are issues that do not support marijuana being framed as a safe choice in any light.

Contrary to the mixed messages being sent by this ad campaign, marijuana is not a harmless drug. Judging marijuana on its own merits, one is hard pressed to read the risks documented in this piece and come to the conclusion that it is a safe drug.

The framing of marijuana as a “safer choice” is recklessly exposing our youth to a false narrative about a drug that risks the health of their minds, bodies, and futures. Our youth deserve to be told the whole story, the real story, of marijuana.

— Special to the Press Herald