States Experimenting with Marijuana

In 2012, 63% of Michigan voters approved medical marijuana in Michigan.  At least two proposals will be on the November 2016 to go a step further and legalize pot in the state.

Though many may think legalization is inevitable, maybe it’s time we pulled back a bit and looked at how medical marijuana is working in the state and what the experience has been in Colorado, one of the states that has legalized marijuana.

Proponents of the 2012 initiative in Michigan portrayed the measure as a compassionate one, for people who needed pot to deal with serious medical issues like cancer, glaucoma and AIDS.  These conditions and others like hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) are specifically listed by statute.

More troublesome are the unlisted but now authorized “general diseases and medical conditions” such as “severe and chronic pain.”  While the voters were told the Act would apply to chronic and debilitating conditions, it has now been interpreted as providing legal protected to marijuana users with a “serious medical condition.”

This loophole has been widely utilized and has resulted in a situation where only 4% of the medical marijuana patients are being treated for cancer, 1.7% for hepatitis C, 1.4% for glaucoma, 1.1% for Crohn’s disease and 0.04% for Lou Gehrig’s disease.

So what is the reason the vast number of “patients” are receiving medical marijuana?  Pain.  93.7% of the patients are diagnosed with severe and chronic pain.

In the recent Republican debate, Senator Rand Paul talked about the use of medical marijuana to treat seizures.  A few high profile examples exist, such as the case of a young child shown on a recent episode of 60 Minutes, but only 2% of the medical marijuana patients in Michigan have a card due to seizures.

Some may say this is irrelevant as to whether marijuana should be legalized.  Our experience having a marijuana law written by marijuana activists is instructive, however, since these same groups are behind the push for legalization.  We can expect similar loopholes and unintended consequences with this proposal.

Colorado is learning that the hard way, having approved the recreational use of pot there in a 2012 referendum.  In that campaign, the marijuana lobby outspent the public safety and educational initiatives opposing it, 44 to 1.  Similar dollars are expected to be spent here.

Reports by pro-marijuana groups like the Drug Policy Alliance laud the proposal claiming that crime is down and tax revenues are up.  Of course marijuana crimes are down because it is now legal and much of the tax revenues generated by pot sales have gone to pay for the state’s regulatory system.  In Denver, Colorado’s largest city, overall crime increased 6.7% in 2014.

Even if tax revenues were markedly up, the question becomes does the money justify the decrease in public health and safety?

While pro-pot advocates claim that marijuana is not addictive, studies prove otherwise.  Studies show that not only can marijuana cause dependency, adolescents are at higher risk.  A recent study showed that while 1 in 10 adults who try marijuana will become dependent, 1 in 6 adolescents will.

According to the Institute of Medicine’s Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, adolescents, especially troubled ones, and people with psychiatric disorders are more likely than the general population to become dependent on marijuana.  Therefore the people most at risk of addiction are youth with psychiatric disorders.

Some will claim that these adolescents will not use marijuana as the proposals will limit its use to age 21, same as Colorado’s.  Legalizing pot will lead, however, to easier supply and increased use by adults will also lead to declining perceptions of harm by children which will increase demand.

This has been the experience in Colorado where 11.16% of children aged 12 to 17 are users of marijuana.  This is 56% above the national average and 3rd in the entire country.

The adolescent brain is especially susceptible to marijuana use, not only with respect to addiction, but in other areas.  A 2012 study tracked long-term users from ages 13 through 38 and found a six point drop in IQ resulting from regular marijuana usage.

A study in New Zealand found that 60% of heavy adolescent users of marijuana ended up on welfare and fewer than 5% were college graduates by the age of 25.

Marijuana is composed of a number of compounds including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).  THC is the substance that gives users a high.  CBD appears to have much more medicinal value, however, plants with a higher CBD ratio are not as desirable to pot smokers because they do not give the high.

The studies discussed above were conducted when THC levels in marijuana were much lower than those in use today.  Advances in horticulture combined with the profit motive tied to higher THC levels have led to an increase in THC levels from 1.5% in 1980, 5.4% in 2000, 11% in 2010 to 28% on average in Colorado in 2014.

Edibles, created by extracting oil from the marijuana plants, can lead to THC levels of 80% to 90%.  This extraction process, utilizing butane gas, is dangerous, similar to that of methamphetamine production, and led to 32 Colorado house explosions in 2014 alone.

Earlier this month in Warren, Michigan, a house explosion caused by THC extraction leveled a house and caused $200,000 in damage and killed the owners’ pets.

The popularity of edibles has also led to a change in the law since they were originally packaged and advertised in a way that made them attractive to kids and provided no guidance as to what was a recommended “dose.”

This led to several overdoses such as that famously described by the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd.  She ate many times the recommended amount since the package was not labeled and described hallucinations and paranoia.

Two high profile cases in Colorado show that paranoia caused by excessive THC consumption is a real issue.  In April 2014, a 19-year old college student visiting Denver jumped to his death from a 4th floor balcony of a Holiday Inn.  The coroner listed marijuana intoxication as a significant condition contributing to his death.

A friend who was with him said that the man had eaten a marijuana-infused cookie.  He had no history of substance abuse or mental illness.

That same month, a Denver man ate marijuana infused candy then began hallucinating and talking about the end of the world to his wife and three young children.  The scared wife called 911 and while she was on the phone with a dispatcher, he shot her in the head and killed her.

The man, Richard Kirk, is raising an insanity defense to a charge of first degree murder, claiming he was intoxicated by the marijuana to the point he could not form the intent to murder.  A doctor reports that Kirk’s THC intoxication led to “delirium and psychotic-like symptoms.”

Simply put, this is not the marijuana Jeb Bush and Bill Clinton smoked forty or fifty years ago.  It is more dangerous and the push for profits leads manufacturers to race to get the highest THC levels, making it even more of a danger.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently talked about marijuana being a “gateway drug” and was derided in the press.  There is no scientific question that there is a relationship between the use of marijuana and other more serious drugs.  The question is whether pot “causes” one to be more susceptible to use other drugs.

As Susan Weiss, the associate director for scientific affairs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stated, “The scientific community is still arguing about (the link).  It really is a complicated thing to tease out.”

Part of the problem with testing this scientifically is the inability to use humans for the studies, since marijuana is illegal under federal law and in the vast majority of the states.  Many tests on laboratory rats find a causative effect.

Three studies, however, performed with rats found THC exposure induced cross-tolerance that could increase later use of cocaine, morphine and amphetamine, that THC caused rats to self-administer heroin significantly more later in life and that rats given THC exhibited more anxiety-like behaviors and “heroin seeking” behavior later in life.

As a result, the researchers opined that use of THC in adolescence is responsible for increased vulnerability to drug use and addiction in adulthood.

Some argue that the test results cannot be extrapolated to humans and that while it is undisputed that most every person using hard drugs started with marijuana, there could be societal or even genetic explanations.

There are some studies of human behavior, however, that are instructive.  A large international study including 17 countries found “with few exceptions, substances earlier in the ‘gateway’ sequence (such as marijuana) predicted drug use later in the sequence.”

A 2003 Journal of the American Medical Association study found that twins who used marijuana prior to the age of 17 had two to five times higher risk of drug use or dependence than their twins who had not used marijuana.

At the end of the day, it appears that an article in the journal Addiction best summarizes the situation, saying that current science in the field has determined that while use of marijuana increases the likelihood that the user will go to other drugs, but this is likely based upon multiple factors including the neurophysiological effects of marijuana, social and peer influences, and the legal status of pot.

For me, it is enough to know that if marijuana is legalized more kids will use it, and that increased use by kids is harmful to their development and they are much more likely to become dependent upon it and other drugs as a result.

This doesn’t even get to the lack of productivity by adults regularly using or the increase in the number of impaired drivers on the road.  Almost half (48.4%) of adults arrested in Denver in 2013 tested positive for marijuana.  Hospitalizations related to marijuana increased 82% in Colorado from 2008 to 2013.

The bottom line is that although other states may be moving forward, led by a well-funded pro-marijuana lobby, Michigan should not fall in line.

Perhaps when there has been time to process the impact of legalization in other states, studies will show whether this experiment has or has not been a successful one.  The early returns don’t look good.

About Allen Telgenhof

Allen Telgenhof is the Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney; beginning his 14th year of coaching high school baseball, now as varsity coach at Boyne Falls Public Schools. Graduated from Clio High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Father of four great children, ages 27, 25, 20 and 19.
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