Utah medical marijuana opponents need to look at the facts

In a Feb. 4 story published by the Standard Examiner, Weber and Morgan County health officials and law enforcement personnel voiced their opposition to the two medical cannabis bills currently being considered by state legislators.

  • RELATED: “Weber officials oppose two bills that could legalize medical marijuana”

Their key points of opposition are centered around the fear that either bill could lead to increased adolescent usage, as well as creating a state-level atmosphere that fosters support for the full legalization of cannabis in Utah.

These are not uncommon reservations, and ensuring that these topics are fully and accurately discussed is important. 

Sheriff Terry Thompson mentions that in states that have legal cannabis programs, data suggests use among teens is increasing. Yet according to data recently released by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, cannabis use among high school students actually decreased from 22 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2013. The data was collected prior to the state moving to a recreational cannabis program, but nonetheless it still demonstrates that approval of a statewide recreational system after a long, well-publicized public debate did not send the message that it was permissible for teens to use cannabis.

Additionally, the Colorado Department of Public Health, in its 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado report, stated that 37 percent of Colorado high school students reported using cannabis at least once — compared to 41 percent nationally. Also, per the data presented in this Healthy Kids Colorado report, 20 percent of Colorado teens claimed they used cannabis in the previous 30 days, compared to 23 percent of teens across the country.

A study published June 16, 2015 in Lancet Psychiatry, showed no significant difference in adolescent cannabis use in the states with medical cannabis programs when compared to states without those programs. This was an exhaustive study, using over 20 years of data from over one million teenagers in 48 states. The researchers found no evidence that the presence of medical cannabis legislation led to increased usage within this population. The lead researcher on the study, Dr. Deborah Hasin, a Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, reviewed the data on teenagers between the ages of 13-18 and during the years 1991-2014.

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“Our findings provide the strongest evidence to date that marijuana use by teenagers does not increase after a state legalizes medical marijuana,” she said in a Lancet news release. “Rather, up to now, in the states that passed medical marijuana laws, adolescent marijuana use was already higher than in other states. Because early adolescent use of marijuana can lead to many long term harmful outcomes, identifying the factors that actually play a role in adolescent use should be a high priority.”

And as an additional note on this topic, it is critical to remember that being able to obtain cannabis and actually engaging in its use are two very different things. A study published in 2015 in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, looked at young people’s attitudes toward cannabis from 2002 to 2013. And the results were surprising.

“Between 2002 and 2013, the proportion of adolescents aged 12–14 reporting ‘strong disapproval’ of marijuana use increased significantly from 74.4–78.9 percent,” the study found. “Concurrently, a significant decrease in past 12-month marijuana use … was observed among younger adolescents.”

In that 12-14 age range, the percentage of those who had used cannabis in the past year decreased from 6% in 2002 to 4.5% in 2013. For older teens, 15 to 17 years old, disapproval of cannabis didn’t drastically change, but the percentage of teens that had used cannabis in the previous year declined from 26 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2013.

Another concern raised in the Feb. 4 S-E story is the potential for increased automobile accidents due to the availability of cannabis, with data cited saying fatal Colorado car crashes had increased 92 percent from 2010 to 2014. And, although we are unsure where this statistic was gathered, a 2002 review of seven separate studies involving almost 8,000 drivers reported, “Crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers with cannabinoids in their blood were significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes.”

Also of note, testing drivers involved in motor vehicle accidents for cannabis is a tricky and, at this point, fairly inaccurate process. These tests can only determine if an individual has recently used cannabis, not if they are under the influence at that exact moment. These tests are developed to measure for cannabis metabolites, which can stay in a person’s system for days or even weeks. And perhaps due to these current inexactitudes, in 2014, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a driver cannot be convicted of a DUI “based merely on the presence of a non-impairing (cannabis) metabolite that may reflect the prior usage of marijuana.”

Jen Hogge, with Weber Human Services, is concerned that expansion of any sort of cannabis program normalizes the drug, which in turn could create a climate of generalized acceptance of its use. She also states that the medical community has not done any research on the benefits of cannabis. I strongly disagree with both comments. Research published around the world has shown that cannabis does have beneficial impacts on multiple disease states. Ignoring this current body of solid, peer-reviewed research will not serve any of us as we attempt to foster an accurate and robust discussion around the use of cannabis in a medical setting.

For example, Hogge states that regular cannabis use has been linked to decreases in IQ. Although this pronouncement might grab headlines, the study that originally purported to find a link between heavy marijuana use and IQ decline among teenagers has since been exposed as using fatally flawed methodology. The study’s authors drew causal inference from results that were premature to publish. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology suggests that “adolescent cannabis use is not associated with IQ or educational performance once adjustment is made for potential confounds, in particular adolescent cigarette use.”

I am not suggesting that further research on the impacts and effects of cannabis isn’t warranted, as more primary investigation will only assist us in making all-the-more-informed decisions about how we approach the implementation of any medical cannabis program here in Utah. I want to ensure that an accurate and fact-driven dialogue is taking place, because when we base discussions on facts, we make better decisions.

View this full article at the Standard Examiner ...