Don’t let this happen to your state was the warning issued by Dr. Doris Gunderson, an expert on the social and psychological impact of marijuana use. She was speaking in regards to Ballot Measure 2 which, if passed by Alaskan voters on Nov. 4, will legalize recreational use of the drug. About 40 people, including clergy, religious and laity, attended her presentation on Oct. 18 in the Lunney Center at Our Lady of Guadalupe church.
Gunderson is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado. She was invited by Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz and Juneau Bishop Edward Burns to speak to the public about the impact of pot use and abuse since its legalization in Colorado last April.
Lack of information about the effects of marijuana, especially in children and teens, prompted the bishops to adequately prepare Catholics to vote on the controversial initiative in the upcoming general election.
In respect to marijuana, Archbishop Schwietz said, “I am surprised by how much we don’t know about what we should know.” Citing the availability of products such as candy, baked goods, beverages and other items containing THC — the psychoactive ingredient in pot, and legally sold in the state of Colorado; he expressed great concern for children who might accidentally ingest such products. “There is a lot of misinformation concerning the industrialization of the drug,” he said.
HISTORY OF MEDICAL MARIJUANA
To dispel such misinformation, Gunderson began her lecture with a history of Colorado’s experience with legal pot use beginning with the Compassionate Care Act in 1975. It was hoped that medical marijuana would help those suffering from glaucoma, a condition where dangerous pressure inside the eye can lead to blindness. Newer drugs have since achieved that goal without the side effect of smoking 10 joints a day.
Then 14 years ago, Colorado amended its state constitution to outline rules and regulations for small enterprises engaged in supplying marijuana, which could only be prescribed for debilitating medical conditions. The announcement by the Obama Administration in 2009 of a low priority for marijuana offenses and an end to arresting medical marijuana suppliers resulted in exponential growth of applications for those seeking both to buy and sell the drug. According to Gunderson, “Storefront dispensaries sprung up like weeds.”
As the debate regarding the benefits and detriments of medical marijuana continued during this period, increasing studies showed positive results for people suffering symptoms of cancer, HIV and AIDS and other debilitating illnesses. An increase in appetite, along with reductions in nausea, muscle spasms and neuropathic pain improves the quality of life for many patients. Relief from intractable seizures in children appeared promising, however; such effects came from CBD — cannabidiol — another ingredient present in the marijuana plant.
While newer research painted a rosy picture in limited clinical applications, data on who was actually using medical marijuana showed a dubious one. A total of 94 percent of medical marijuana cards were issued to patients suffering from severe pain, 67 percent of whom were male with an average age of 41 and living primarily in metro Denver.
“Apparently there is an epidemic of severe pain in young men, “ Gunderson quipped.
In 2010 Colorado passed legislation to address medical marijuana abuse — where 50 percent of prescriptions were not legitimate medicine, and 15 doctors were writing 72 percent of all prescriptions.
While further research on marijuana, in both its clinical and recreational aspects are needed; much is already known about its effects on the human body. Adults smoking only four joints a week exhibited significant levels of impairment. This was dramatically illustrated by a study of airplane pilots who smoked one joint containing 19mg of THC. All exhibited levels of impairment, which continued after 24 hours.
“The pilots did not recognize they were impaired, which was more dangerous than the impairment itself,” Gunderson said. “We don’t have any way to measure marijuana in blood or urine that correlates with levels of impairment,” she added.
IMPACT ON YOUTH
What we do know, according to Gunderson, is that marijuana users are at increased risk for addiction — one out of six teens that use it will become addicted and likely move on to harder drugs. Teens are especially susceptible to cognitive effects and heavy users have lower I.Qs. The drug interferes with learning and memory. It can cause anxiety, depression, cyclic vomiting and amotivational syndrome. Earlier onset of psychosis and mental illness are seen in teens predisposed to such conditions. Similar, but lower, risks to adults are noted.
THC crosses the placental barrier and increases the likelihood that babies will be born with conditions that persist into adolescence such as inattention, hyperactivity, memory and learning problems and lower academic achievement.
Children are at risk for accidental or deliberate exposure to marijuana through THC laced candy, cookies and beverages. Because such products are ingested, rather than inhaled, the psychoactive and physical effects take longer to be manifested and diagnosed.
Colorado has seen a 268 percent increase in child exposure and a four-fold increase in poisoned pets since 2008, Gunderson noted.
While proponents of legalization tout the economic boon to state coffers through taxation, Colorado’s experience belies that notion. Annual revenue was projected to be $65 to $100 million, but a thriving black market for the drug has lowered actual income to $12 to $30 million. Marijuana use prevention campaigns, abuse and accidental exposure treatment, as well as law enforcement and public health and regulation oversight, have cost the state $103 million since 2008.
‘A GAME CHANGER’ IN ALASKA
As Alaska voters ponder the wisdom of legalizing marijuana, Gunderson stated it is a prescription for trouble as it increases access, availability and acceptability. It is important to distinguish between decriminalization and medicalization. She suggested that a wise course would be to dispassionately study the therapeutic properties of marijuana’s many components separately, as well as create delivery systems less prone to abuse.
Addressing the experience of Colorado in legalizing marijuana use, Gunderson said, “A lot of this was done backwards, a lot of people are saying this was a terrible idea.” Speaking to the voting public on Ballot Measure 2, she added, “If you could defeat this it would be a game changer across the country.”