Medical marijuana should not be viewed as harmless

By Penny Stine

As medical marijuana shops sprang up in strip malls and the debate raged across the front page of the Sentinel, I stuck my head in the sand and hoped it would go away. It hurt too much. But as the debate continues, I realize I have a perspective that isn’t being voiced in the current debate, so I’m pulling my head out of the sand.

On this issue, I’m not an objective journalist. I’m a mom who found her son’s body. He died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound in April 2009. He was 21, and the only drug in his body at the time of death was marijuana.

Proponents of medical marijuana would like the public to believe that marijuana is a benign wonder drug. It can cure cancer pain, alleviate stress, promote peace and harmony in the Middle East and would no doubt balance the budget if we’d just let the pot shops proliferate and pay taxes.

Since my son’s suicide, I’ve looked more closely at marijuana and the effects it can have on a person, especially when that person begins smoking it as a teenager, as my son did.

According to the National Institute of Drug Awareness, “Someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a suboptimal intellectual level all of the time.”

In other words, marijuana can make you stupid. But we all knew that, having been educated by Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.” Somehow, in all the television and movie depictions of stoners, marijuana use is always funny. It never derails a life and is never seriously harmful.

The truth is, it’s not funny to see someone you love, who has a sharp intellect and a bright future, make increasingly poor choices and not understand why. I didn’t know how often my son got high until after he died and I read his Blackberry messages and chatted with a few of his old friends.

I don’t know why he felt the need to get high, especially when he was in his teens; he had a family who loved him, friends who accepted him and so much promise that I knew he could do anything he wanted to in life.

He refused to see the potential danger. It was only marijuana: benign, harmless and fun.

NIDA also says that some studies have shown that chronic use of marijuana can lead to increased anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies and schizophrenic symptoms. Early exposure in teen years seems to play a part as well, although it’s not clear whether depression causes a kid to self-medicate with marijuana, which leads to more depression and increased marijuana use, or whether a normal kid begins smoking marijuana, which leads to depression, which leads to self-medication with marijuana.

Although proponents may argue, marijuana is a gateway drug. True, some people can smoke a small amount of marijuana every now and then without ever moving on to experiment with other drugs or developing a habit. That’s no consolation to parents whose children start out on pot, then self-destruct over a lifetime on increasingly harmful drugs.

Nor to parents like me, who wonder every day what we should have done differently. If we’d sent him to boarding school the first time we had evidence that he’d been smoking pot, would he be alive? At the time, it seemed like a severe over-reaction. After all, it was only marijuana.

I fear that the amendment passed by Colorado voters in 2000 was like the BP spill. We can no more undo all the consequences than BP can stuff the oil back in the well.

In a survey reported by NIDA, marijuana use among eighth graders seems to have leveled off, but the proportion of kids who disapprove of marijuana use or believe that it’s harmful has decreased in the last year.

Not surprising. How can we teach our kids it’s a harmful drug with consequences beyond the sensation of getting high when pot shops spring up weekly? When convicted felons operate the pot shops? When there’s a wink-wink acceptance of medical marijuana and anyone who complains of chronic pain can get it?

If medical marijuana is a legitimate option for health management, then put it through the same FDA testing that every other legitimate drug must undergo. Regulate the potency, study the links between marijuana use and depression and tell people that chronic use can lead to paranoia and thoughts of suicide. Make sure that a legitimate doctor, not a mail-order MD who doesn’t meet with patients face-to-face, consults with marijuana users on a frequent basis. Sell it in a pharmacy with all the other legitimate options for health management.

If medical marijuana is legal and acceptable to citizens, then tax it to high heaven, and earmark those taxes to pay for the treatment of the consequences that those who abuse the drug will suffer. If citizens discover that the cost and consequences of medical marijuana are unacceptable, perhaps we need to revisit the 2000 amendment. Unfortunately, we may be trying to stuff oil back into a blown well.

I can’t say my son died simply because of his marijuana use. He had other issues in his life that contributed to his depression and led to suicide. By the time he died, he had become a master at concealing his life and his problems, which made it difficult for anyone to help him.

However, I can say that every issue was magnified and exacerbated by his marijuana use. It’s not benign and it’s not harmless. It doesn’t belong in corner shops, dispensed with less scrutiny than it takes to get a fishing license.

Penny Stine is a special-sections writer for The Daily Sentinel.


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