Last week, the Maryland Senate approved Senate Bill 364, which would "decriminalize" possession of marijuana. The Senate bill, which passed 36 to 8, would remove criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana and impose small civil fines, with a provision for the judge to order drug education only after the third offense. The bill has gone to the House of Delegates, where a hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
One could argue that people whose only crime is smoking or possessing a small amount of marijuana should not be punished with an arrest record, which could destroy their chances of getting a job and other benefits later in life. Those at Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) — a national organization led by Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, and former congressman Patrick Kennedy — are of this mindset. They argue that although rational drug policy should no longer rely on the criminal justice system to address lesser offenses, we should be doing all we can to discourage marijuana use.
SB 364 is unnecessary, because, in fact, most Maryland counties are already not criminally charging for possession of small amounts, but rather putting offenders into a program that includes drug education and community service. Also, while there were 19,828 violations in Maryland in fiscal year 2013 for possession of less than 10 grams, there were only four convictions in state circuit courts.
As a physician, I have serious concerns about the potential impact SB 364 will have on Maryland's youth. Legalization in the United States and elsewhere has resulted in documented increases in drug abuse, especially among children and teenagers. Marijuana use literally changes a teenager's brain structure; diminishes memory, attention and IQ; leads to learning and behavioral problems and poor school performance; and contributes to symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis and schizophrenia.
Youth are at risk. In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state could not interfere with an adult's possession of marijuana for personal consumption in the home. Although the ruling was limited to persons 19 and over, the use of marijuana by young people saw a drastic increase. According to a 1988 University of Alaska study, the state's 12- to 17-year-olds used marijuana at more than twice the national average for their age group. Other European countries that have legalized marijuana, including the Netherlands, show a more-than-two-fold higher rate of use by youth when compared to countries where it is illegal.
All of these statistics should be considered in light of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington and efforts to do so elsewhere. The practical effect of any steps toward legalization is the encouragement of drug use, with unintended negative consequences on the health and well-being of our youth.
The argument that marijuana poses no greater threat to public safety than alcohol falls flat. A recent report from researchers at Columbia University found that fatal car crashes involving marijuana use have tripled during the previous decade. "If this trend continues, in five or six years, non-alcohol drugs will overtake alcohol to become the most common substance involved in deaths related to impaired driving," said co-author Dr. Guoha Li.
Finally, one of the more interesting opinion pieces I've read on the legalization of pot was written by Dr. Howard Samuels, one of the nation's leading drug and alcohol experts and founder of The Hills Treatment Center in Los Angeles. In response to efforts in Congress to legalize marijuana, he asks a simple question: "Why?"
He writes, "Why are Americans in such a hurry to get high? Why are people fighting passionately to create legislation that could put this burgeoning generation at such high risk? Do we really want to create a culture that is full to bursting with adults who have no coping or self-soothing skills, who live their lives with unexplained panic disorders and high anxiety (no pun intended)? … Why would we want to introduce yet another drug that gets people high and back its usage with the power of Congress?"
It's a compelling question. And as a member of the Congress of which he writes, you can bet that for the sake of our youth, I will "just say no."
Dr. Andy Harris, a Republican, represents Maryland's 1st Congressional District. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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