Prevention & Education

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Legal marijuana may have unintended consequences

Dec 2, 2014

 

The Register-Guard -   The election is over, and Oregon’s voters have spoken. By a wide margin, Oregon followed voters in Colorado and Washington and legalized recreational marijuana for adults. The will of the majority was clear: marijuana can safely be legalized for recreational use.

That may well be naive. Four unintended consequences are now likely to happen.
 
 
And even if such a test were available, there are at present no scientific and legal standards (unlike those for alcohol) that correlate the amount of THC in the blood to levels of impairment. Today’s urine tests only tell us if someone has THC in his or her system — not how much — and can test positive days after using marijuana.
 
In other words, employers will have to choose: discipline recreational users who test positive but may be fit for duty or allow people who could be impaired to operate dangerous machinery. Companies simply can’t tell the difference in any objective way, and that throws workplace safety efforts into question.
 
Second, overall public health is going to be affected in negative ways. Marijuana smoke contains many compounds known to cause cancer — some that even tobacco does not. Additionally, the way marijuana is smoked — by drawing smoke into the lungs and holding it there — may well be more damaging than cigarettes.
 
Consider this: We’ve spent decades trying to get people to quit smoking. Now a majority of voters has decided to make available yet another habit-forming carcinogenic substance that’s commonly delivered through the lungs. How is that a good idea?
 
Third, young adults can now legally ingest yet another damaging substance — and this one is known to collect over time in the fatty tissues, including the brain. Given that brains are still in development into the mid-20s, cognitive ability will likely be negatively affected in ways that are not fully understood. Unintended damage could well occur.
 
Additionally, unlike other popular intoxicants, THC is a depressant known to cause “amotivational syndrome” in some users. This can’t possibly be good for young people just getting started with careers.
 
Last, treatment for substance use disorders (for alcohol and other drugs) now becomes more difficult. We already treat patients who point to the legality of marijuana as a reason they should be allowed to use the drug and still consider themselves “clean and sober.”
 
Legalization for recreational use encourages this kind of thinking even more, actually threatening to undo decades of medical research. Our experience on treatment’s front lines has shown that addicts or alcoholics who don’t abstain from all mood-altering substances have a much higher likelihood of returning to active substance use disorders.
 
Ironically, treatment centers such as Serenity Lane stand to benefit from the election results. It’s not uncommon at all for us to see marijuana addiction among our patients who come in for treatment for alcoholism, prescription drug and/or opiate addiction. Still, like most treatment centers, we will continue to stress an “abstinence-only” approach to recovery. We have no intention of changing this policy, regardless of marijuana’s legality.
 
As the manager of employer services for Serenity Lane, Jerry Gjesvold helps companies manage their drug-free workplace programs. For information, go to www.serenitylane.org; past columns are found at www.serenitylane.org/blog. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer.
 

“If you choose to consume, please do so responsibly.” 

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