Voices of Alaska: Scientists who know say ‘no’

  • By Sen. Lisa Murkowski
  • Monday, October 27, 2014 8:49pm
  • Opinion

On November 4, Alaskans will consider Ballot Measure No. 2, an initiative to legalize the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes. And those who support that commercial trade are investing heavily in hoping you will vote yes. Make no mistake about it, marijuana – like tobacco and alcohol – is big business. Like alcohol and tobacco, the costs of marijuana to public health, public safety, our youth, and lost productivity are similarly high.

It’s not surprising that Outside investors would regard Alaska as fertile territory for unconditional legalization. In 1975, our Supreme Court found a right for Alaskans to consume small amounts of marijuana in their homes in the privacy provisions of the Alaska Constitution. And in 1998, Alaskans voted to legalize marijuana for medical purposes with 58 percent support.

But Measure No. 2 is not about “medical marijuana.” Nor is Measure No. 2 necessary to protect adult Alaskans who consume marijuana in their homes from police intrusion. Measure No. 2 is less about freedom, than it is about profit at the expense of public health. That’s why I plan to “Vote No on 2”.

I come to this decision after careful consideration of the medical evidence. My guide through the scientific literature was Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Earlier this year, Dr. Volkow published a peer-reviewed paper about the health effects of marijuana in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the nation’s most eminent medical publications. Volkow directs a component of our National Institutes of Health which is, of course, neutral on state level policy initiatives. Fortunately for all of us, NIH does not prohibit its scientists from entering the discussion by objectively sharing the science with policymakers and the public.

Here’s what Volkow has to say about the state of the evidence. “The popular notion seems to be that marijuana is a harmless pleasure, access to which should not be regulated or considered illegal.” However popular notions are not always correct.

One of the detrimental effects is addiction. “The evidence clearly indicates that long term marijuana usage can lead to addiction. About 16 percent of those who begin marijuana usage as teenagers will become addicted. And there seems to be a strong association between repeated use and addiction. About a quarter to a half of those who use marijuana everyday are addicted.

“Marijuana use by adolescents is particularly troublesome.” Those who begin using marijuana as teenagers, when the brain is still developing, are 2 to 4 times more likely to demonstrate dependence symptoms within 2 years of first use than those who first use marijuana as adults. And since marijuana use “impairs critical cognitive functions…for days after use many students could be functioning at a cognitive level that is below their natural capability for considerable period of times.” These effects could be even longer lasting. Adults who smoked marijuana during adolescence have fewer fibers in specific brain regions that are important to things like alertness, self-consciousness, learning and memory.

NIDA-funded research provides some support for longstanding fears that use of marijuana may be a gateway to use of other drugs with even greater known adverse health effects. Truthfully, the same may be said of alcohol and tobacco. Whether the mechanism is chemical, cultural or some combination of the two is less well known, but no evidence is cited to suggest that marijuana use keeps young people away from other drugs.

The prevalence of impaired driving in Alaska is well known and deeply troublesome. On this, Volkow observes that “both immediate and long term exposure to marijuana impair driving ability; marijuana is the illicit drug most frequently reported in connection with impaired driving and accidents, including fatal accidents.” Moreover, the mixing of marijuana and alcohol can further exacerbate the dangers to public safety.

Perhaps the most startling revelation of Volkow’s research is that all marijuana is not alike. The potency of marijuana is determined by its Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC content. Analysis of seized marijuana for sale on the street demonstrates that THC concentrations have been rising from about 3 percent in 1980 to about 12 percent today. Volkow suggests that this may be the reason for increasing emergency room visits associated with marijuana and a higher level of fatal crashes. Also, the initiative specifically defines marijuana to include concentrates, which can contain 80-90 percent THC. Marijuana edibles would also be legalized and commercialized under the initiative. In Colorado, child-attractive edibles like lollipops, flavored drinks, and gummy bears, with multiple doses of THC, are being sold.

Marijuana is a drug, and with all drugs there are risks and benefits. Research suggests that use of marijuana or some of its component chemicals can be beneficial for the alleviation of a variety of medical conditions. But patients with these conditions benefit from discussions with their health care providers about the risks and benefits. The state should examine the most appropriate access for this class of users. That said, the evidence that marijuana is harmful for non-medical use is growing. That should give Alaskans pause as we enter the voting booth. I believe strongly in working for the health, safety, educational achievement, productivity, and community welfare of Alaskans. That is why I am voting no on Ballot Measure 2.

Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

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