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Don’t pretend marijuana is harmless

First Posted: 5:51 am - November 7th, 2015

By Scott Ballard - District Attorney



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Every few months, the local employees of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice provide a luncheon for school personnel and law enforcement officials that work with young people. Wednesday we had another. This time the speaker was Lt. Matt Myers with the Peachtree City Police Department.

His topic was marijuana.

It’s a pertinent topic. States are beginning to legalize marijuana for various purposes. Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have made it legal for recreational use. As you know, Georgia passed a law last year that would permit very limited medical use for the drug.

Many argue that we should legalize marijuana for all purposes.

I suggest we slow down and think rationally.

The Governor and the Attorney General of Colorado both have said that it was a mistake to legalize the drug there. They expressed that opinion even after the state had received tens of millions of dollars in revenue from the legalization of marijuana.

I’m not exactly sure why they feel that way. I have heard that the marijuana business in Colorado is an all cash enterprise, because banks are forbidden by Federal law from participating in any way in the industry. Businesses that deal in massive amounts of cash are very vulnerable to robbers, burglars and other criminals. And, of course, much of the income from a business like that would go unreported to the IRS.

Our friends at NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) would argue that businesses have a right to operate on a cash-only basis. I agree. They would also argue that individuals have a right to engage in an activity that may harm them personally. I agree with that, too.

Just when laws should be passed that protect individuals from danger (seatbelt laws, age limits on alcohol possession, requirements that riders of motorcycles or bicycles wear helmets) is a sticky issue. But, it is quite clear that legislatures have the right—and likewise, the duty—to pass such laws after sufficient study and debate.

In that light, I wanted to pass along some of the points that we heard at the luncheon.

First, usage of marijuana among 12th grade students is directly linked to the perception of the harm caused by the drug. As more perceive that marijuana is harmless, its use increases. Let’s Be Clear Georgia, a partnership of private and public agencies seeking to prevent marijuana abuse in Georgia studied the issue. In 1993 26 percent of Georgia 12th graders had used marijuana in the previous year and 35.6 percent said that they saw great risk in smoking the drug occasionally. Ten years later, 34.9 percent of the high school seniors had used marijuana that year and the percent who viewed it as harmful had dropped to 26.6 percent. By 2013 36.4 percent had used marijuana in the previous 12 months and only 19.5 percent thought it was harmful. Many kids are using marijuana believing that it is harmless.

Second, the THC levels in marijuana cigarettes (that’s the intoxicating part of the plant) are much greater now than in the past. In the 1980’s it was around 4 percent. By 2012 it had risen to 15 percent. In other words, a joint is about four times as potent as it was then.

Third, the adolescent brain is quite susceptible to addiction to marijuana. This was a finding of the California Society of Addiction Medicine published in 2009. Another study, published in 1994 in the publication Experiential and Clinical Psychopharmacology, concluded that one out of every six kids who try marijuana will become addicted to it. And according to the Substance Abuse and Medical Health Services Administration, marijuana is the number one reason adolescents are admitted for substance abuse treatment in the United States.

So, legislators all across America can legalize marijuana use if they want to do so. After all, deadly cigarettes are legal and alcohol use has always been permitted.

Just don’t pretend that marijuana is harmless.

It’s not.

Scott Ballard is the District Attorney for the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which consists of Fayette, Pike, Spalding and Upson counties.

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By Scott Ballard

District Attorney

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