Marijuana

A marijuana plant.

THE ISSUE

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced his support last week for the legalization of recreational marijuana, and called on the Republican-controlled General Assembly to draft a bill that decriminalizes nonviolent and small cannabis-related offenses and offers a “path to restorative justice through the expungement of past convictions of nonviolent and small cannabis-related crimes.” Wolf also asked the Legislature to “seriously debate and consider the legalization of adult-use, recreational marijuana.” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro echoed Wolf’s call. Fellow Democrats Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale also support legalizing marijuana. Eleven states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized recreational marijuana.

Republican House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, said last week that this was the wrong time to legalize marijuana.

We agree. If ever there will be a time, this is not it.

How do we object to marijuana legalization? Let us count the ways.

1. Pennsylvania continues to deal with an opioid crisis that, in Wolf’s own words, has required an “all-hands-on-deck” response from government, health care providers, law enforcement officials and especially emergency responders. Deaths are down in Pennsylvania but overdoses are not. The crisis is far from over.

As Cutler said in a statement last week on behalf of the GOP House leadership, "We do not believe easing regulations on illegal drugs is the right move in helping the thousands of Pennsylvanians who are battling drug addiction.”

We supported the legalization of medical marijuana, in part because we hoped it would be a pain-relieving alternative to prescription opioids. But medical marijuana is tightly regulated and available only to those who follow the multistep process for obtaining it.

Which brings us to our second objection.

2. Laugh if you want at the much-mocked and much-memed phrase “gateway drug,” but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some research suggests that “marijuana use is likely to precede use of other licit and illicit substances.” We need to persuade against drug use — not invite it.

3. Marijuana use comes with health risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those risks:

— “The compounds in marijuana can affect the circulatory system and may increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.”

— “Marijuana users are significantly more likely than nonusers to develop chronic mental disorders, including schizophrenia.”

— About 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. Among those who begin using before age 18, it’s 1 in 6.

4. Specifically, smoking marijuana damages a person’s lungs.

According to the American Lung Association, “Marijuana smokers tend to inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than cigarette smokers, which leads to a greater exposure per breath to tar.”

And smoking marijuana can “affect the immune system and the body's ability to fight disease.”

5. Teenagers shouldn’t smoke pot. It may damage their developing brains.

So indicates a growing body of literature, according to Susan Weiss, director of the division of extramural research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in a 2015 American Psychological Association article.

Also quoted was neuroscientist and researcher Staci Gruber, who noted that at least until the early or mid-20s, “the brain is still under construction.” During this period, the brain is believed to be especially sensitive to damage from drug exposure.

More research needs to be done to confirm whether such damage is permanent. But one Duke University study found that long-term marijuana use led to a significant decline in IQ.

Should marijuana be legalized, it would be so only for adults 21 and older. But we’re guessing that parents who don’t lock their liquor cabinets won’t lock away their weed — or their weed-infused brownies and cookies. And if teens don’t get marijuana from their parents’ stashes, they’ll get it from older siblings.

Obviously some teens are getting their hands on marijuana already. But why make it easier for them?

6. Even if, as Auditor General DePasquale has predicted, the commonwealth makes millions by taxing legal marijuana, what will be the societal costs?

After legalizing adult marijuana use in 2012, and sales in 2014, Colorado saw significant increases in hospitalizations and emergency department visits.

Andrew Monte, one of the physicians who analyzed that data, told The New York Times that he’s treated heavy marijuana users with severe vomiting and children “who have eaten edibles, accidentally or not. They come to the E.R. disoriented, dehydrated or hallucinating after consuming too much marijuana.”

“There’s a disconnect between what was proposed as a completely safe drug,” Monte told the Times. “Nothing is completely safe.”

7. Too many Pennsylvanians drive under the influence now.

A 2017 Denver Post analysis of federal and state traffic fatality data found that the “number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana has risen sharply each year since 2013, more than doubling in that time.”

That newspaper pointed out that the data “do not indicate whether a driver was high at the time of the crash since traces of marijuana use from weeks earlier also can appear as a positive result.” But its findings suggested that too many Coloradoans mixed pot with driving.

As Republican state Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, pointed out in a February LNP op-ed, there is no reliable way to assess whether a driver is impaired by marijuana use.

“Legalizing recreational marijuana without a coherent policy to avoid impaired driving would be blatantly irresponsible and will only lead to more victims on the highways,” Martin wrote.

We agree.

We realize our stance will displease some LNP readers. Sixty-seven percent of the 2,028 Lancaster County residents who called, emailed or mailed comments to Lt. Gov. Fetterman during his 67-county marijuana listening tour were in favor of legalization.

But the LNP Editorial Board aims to be a voice, not an echo. And we’re using our voice to say that legalization is a lousy idea.

As we wrote in March, we support efforts to decriminalize marijuana. This is not a contradiction.

FBI/Uniform Crime Reporting and U.S. Census data have shown that African Americans and Latinos nationwide are much more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than whites. People of color aren’t more likely to smoke weed — just to be penalized for doing so.

A person’s life shouldn’t be ruined by a lengthy prison sentence over possession of a small amount of marijuana. Even if a prison sentence isn’t imposed, marijuana possession can mar a person’s record, making it difficult to find a good job.

So we’d be on board with Wolf’s suggestion that lawmakers draft bills that would decriminalize nonviolent and small cannabis-related offenses and allow for the expungement of such offenses.

But legalization is a step too far.