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Are There Unintended Consequences Of Marijuana Legalization? These Experts Weigh In

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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A panel discussion at the National Press Club Wednesday brought together experts in the field to discuss public health hazards as marijuana legalization unfolds across the country.

More than 50 percent of states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana, whether for medicinal or recreational use, and many governors and lawmakers in other states are still waiting to see how the experiment plays out in Washington and Colorado, two states that decided to allow full recreational use.

Experimentation is possible, says Scott Novak, senior developmental epidemiologist at RTI International, mostly because the federal government has backed away from enforcing drug policy against the states. There are clear benefits that accompany a softer policy stance, especially in terms of redirecting police to more serious offenses, in addition to the reduced burden on the criminal justice system.

Since decriminalizing marijuana in October of last year, Philadelphia saved $1 million in roughly just a month in 2015, when compared to the same time frame in 2013. (RELATED: This City Quickly Saved $1 Million Dollars After Decriminalizing Marijuana)

But according to the experts, there are still issues that need attention.

“An unrecognized issue marijuana is that toddlers get into things,” Rick Dart, director of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, said at the event. “Colorado allows what are called edibles, and the problem is that edibles can look identical to gummy bears. Thankfully, no toddlers have died. They get hospitalized for a day or so before they can go home.”

Aside from toddlers is the second important study group: adolescents. For Dart, adolescents are most likely to experiment, but they’re also in the middle of an important stage in brain development. While there’s considerable controversy surrounding the idea that marijuana has major positive or negative effects, according to Dart, the chance of a psychotic episode increased when using the drug, and the earlier adolescents use, the more likely it is they’ll experience a psychotic episode from which they may never recover.

“There are also beneficial effects, too, that remain largely unproven,” Dart added. “That all is coming, but it’s very difficult unless we change the scheduling of the drug, so that it’s not almost impossible to use in a study.”

However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a creation of the federal government, admitted in April 2015 that, at least in animal studies, marijuana can “kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others.” (RELATED: Did The Federal Government Just Admit That Marijuana Can Shrink Serious Brain Tumors?)

The institute also has a monopoly on the production of marijuana for research, and even the Drug Enforcement Administration thinks that NIDA is a little too stingy, saying that the federal government should produce 400,000 grams of marijuana for 2015. That amount is three times higher than what was originally proposed. (RELATED: DEA Says Federal Government Needs To Grow Way More Weed)

Differentiating between medical and recreational use has proven difficult—especially among users. According to Novak, unlike tobacco and alcohol, which are clearly recreational drugs, marijuana does seem to have health benefits. The fact that it has a dual use “makes it a very challenging product to regulate and understand from a scientific perspective.”

This dual use, says, Kevin Davis, senior research economist at RTI International, means that many users don’t appear to understand the laws surrounding marijuana intake and driving. A little over 40 percent of marijuana users have reported driving while high, prompting Colorado to bolster campaign efforts informing the public about DUI laws. Research shows that since legalization came into effect in Colorado, about a quarter of marijuana users increased their use of the drug.

Some have urged caution, but voters in public opinion polls consistently support toning down strict laws against marijuana and even legalizing the drug.

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