Photo: David Croxford

Editor’s Note: Should Hawaii Legalize Marijuana?

August, 2014

In this issue, freelance writer Tiffany Hill examines the economic consequences for Hawaii if we legalize marijuana, as Colorado and Washington state have done. Her story starts on page 63. This is a business magazine, so it makes sense for us to focus on the financial side of legalization – which includes the cost of enforcing our existing prohibition on nonmedical marijuana.

But health is a more important issue than economics, especially the health of teenagers. That should be the defining factor in whether Hawaii legalizes recreational marijuana. A strong case can be made that marijuana is a useful treatment for many illnesses and that its dangers and addictiveness are roughly equivalent to alcohol, which is a legal drug. Furthermore, the cost of America’s war on drugs in lives and money has been horrendous – and the call for that war to end now comes from people across the ideological spectrum. Pot is the least defensible target in that war.

But there is no debate that marijuana harms teenagers. The National Institute for Drug Abuse estimates that one in nine marijuana users become addicted; for people who start using as teenagers, this increases to one in six.

“Young people who try marijuana are especially vulnerable to develop addiction, as well as problems related to use, like memory and cognitive impairment, because their brains are still developing,” says A. Eden Evins, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

People who start using marijuana as teens are “potentially at risk of losing IQ points because of an interference in normal brain development that occurs in the teenage years,” says Roger Roffman, a professor emeritus in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington and author of “Marijuana Nation,” a book that addresses both sides of the marijuana debate.

When my friends and I smoked marijuana as teenagers, we would laugh off the concerns about “brain damage.” But that’s exactly what we were doing, and our pot was less potent than today’s.

Both Colorado and Washington allow sales only to adults 21 and older, but it is naive to think that none of those sales end up in the hands of underage users. The question is: Will more teenagers be using marijuana in Colorado and Washington now that it has been legalized? The intuitive answer is yes: Legalization means more adults users who might share some with teenagers. Worse yet, the sweetened edible-marijuana products – candies, cookies and sodas – that are some of the biggest sellers post-legalization will undoubtedly appeal to youthful taste buds.

The chances of accidental overdoses, even among adults, are much higher when the active ingredient, THC, is ingested rather than smoked. Drinking a bottle of vodka is difficult for just about every 16-year-old; most can eat a half-dozen cookies without losing their appetite for a half-dozen more.

Evins advocates for decriminalizing marijuana, as Massachusetts has done, instead of legalization. Decriminalizing reduces the number of people imprisoned, without seeming to significantly increase the number of users. That may be a reasonable middle ground. In any case, Colorado and Washington are creating living laboratories for us to study as we ponder our own marijuana laws. Social scientists will have a field day in the two states as they examine the consequences for individuals and society. When the reports pour out, let’s keep our eyes focused on the teenagers.

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Steve Petranik