Tomorrow, voters in Ohio will confront marijuana legalization, with an initiative that promises benefits for the few, but great costs for the many. Though the siren call of legal dope and state revenue is popular, do voters really understand the stakes?
Last month saw news about marijuana on three related fronts. We learned from a Gallup poll that Americans’ support for legalized marijuana has now reached its highest level; from an epidemiological survey that marijuana use has more than doubled over the past decade; and finally, from a troubling medical report, about potential life-long consequences for embryos exposed to THC (marijuana’s intoxicating chemical), as a consequence of in utero exposure. These facts are now on the line in Ohio.
First, the Gallup results. Americans’ support for legal marijuana has risen to 58 percent in 2015, the increase concentrated in recent years. Opinion steadily climbed from 1969 (when 12 percent were in favor), to about 25-30 percent approval, where it remained until 2009, when it surged to over 40 percent. It didn’t reach 50 percent until 2011.
The recent increase is striking, and one suspects that current drug policy liberalization has affected the political support (no doubt aided by the reported $80 million spent by legalization billionaires to shape public opinion).
Liberalized attitudes about marijuana appear to have the predicted effect. The latest results from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) showed that by 2012-2013, past year prevalence of marijuana use has risen 132 percent since last measured in 2001-2002 (from 4.1 percent of study participants to 9.5 percent).
The results may be even worse than they appear. The NESARC is a longitudinal survey, tracking the subjects over time, and reporting once a decade (there were interim “wave” results issued in 2004-2005), meaning that the temporal trajectory of this change (the sharp upswing in the most recent years) is masked by looking only at the beginning and ending of the decade.
There appears to be an acceleration in the most recent years, with decline occurring in the middle. Confirmation of this trajectory can be found in a “wave” finding in 2004-2005, which showed a decline down to 3.57 percent “past year” use (at least in the 41 states that did not have medical marijuana laws).
Collateral confirmation can be found in a parallel study of youth (the Monitoring the Future school-base survey done yearly by the National Institute on Drug Abuse), which revealed a 25 percent decline in marijuana use between 2001 and 2008 for high school youth, only to increase thereafter, and the even larger survey known as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
There are differences in the studies rendering them not completely comparable. The NSDUH samples those 12 and older, while the NESARC reports on those 18 and older. Thus, the absolute numbers are not fully compatible, but the trends support the interpretation of a recent rise, not a steady increase from 2002.
In the NSDUH, between 2002 and 2007 past month use of marijuana first fell by 6 percent, to be followed by a 29 percent increase between 2007 and 2013. Further, the NESARC measured in the year prior to the impact of legal commercial marijuana, implemented in 2014. NSDUH reveals that in the period subsequent to 2013 (NESARC’s final year), steep increases continued, rising an additional 12 percent during a single year by 2014.
The Obama Administration’s support for legal marijuana could well be reflected in both positive public opinion, as well as by sharp increases in marijuana use.
Finally, what are the consequences of our choices? While the impact of high-potency use has been well documented, the impact affects more than just current users. The medical report found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) addresses the future that we are sowing, showing that marijuana’s THC affects the brain structure and functioning of the progeny of maternal users (which, depending on the community, reaches as high as 41 percent of neonates born in North America).
Though prenatal risks in maternal marijuana use are well known, the PNAS, through an animal study, hits upon a specific neural mechanism:
“Prenatal exposure to cannabinoids (through the impact of THC on developing cortical neurons) evokes long-lasting functional alterations …[with] remarkable detrimental consequences of embryonic THC exposure on adult-brain function.” The consequences were lifelong, including an increased risk of seizure in adulthood.
This is only the latest study to dispel the widely but mistakenly-held belief driving legalization efforts that marijuana is harmless. Pulling together the three reports, it seems undeniable from the weakening of attitudes against marijuana, the associated sharp increases in marijuana prevalence, and now the further demonstration of harm from maternal marijuana use for future generations, damage is already being done.
While for some, that damage appears irreversible, it is not too late for responsible Americans to push back against this clear public health threat. The fate of future unintended victims is in our hands.