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Legalizing marijuana would be bad for Tennessee

Barry Staubus, Sullivan County District Attorney • Jan 15, 2018 at 10:15 AM

As the district attorney general for Sullivan County, I feel it is necessary to respond to several misstatements of law and fact contained in your recent editorial, “It’s Time for Tennessee to Legalize Marijuana.”

In the state of Tennessee, “otherwise lawabiding citizens” do not become felons imprisoned for possessing small amounts of marijuana, as the editorial suggests. The legalization of marijuana will certainly not eliminate the underground economy, as claimed — instead, the black market will continue to thrive because illegal marijuana is cheaper and tax-free, while legal recreational marijuana is heavily taxed.

And the editorial statement that the continued criminalization of marijuana has corrupted entire nations like Mexico ignores the fact that Mexican drug cartels continue to import heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs into states that have legalized marijuana, as well as into Sullivan County.

Additionally, regardless of Tennessee’s decision in this matter, it must be noted that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. This fact was underscored on Jan. 4 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to set aside the Justice Department’s 2013 policy that de-emphasized the importance of prosecuting the widespread, illegal use of marijuana in individual states.

For nearly 10 years there has been no widespread public discussion or public service announcements on the risks associated with marijuana. The risks, regardless of whether we talk about them, are there. Many of our citizens have been misinformed about these risks because of the ongoing advertising campaign promoting the fallacy that medical marijuana is the cure-all for all of society’s medical problems.

The term “medical marijuana” refers to the treatment of symptoms of illness and other conditions with the whole, unprocessed marijuana plant or its basic extracts. As pointed out by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this campaign ignores the medical research finding that cannabinoids — the chemical compounds found in marijuana — hold the most promise for medical purposes. However, the development of oils and pills containing cannabinoids is not popular for recreational use because these forms are not smoked. They do not lead to the user’s intoxication, which is the underlying reason for the popularity of medical marijuana.

This campaign to legalize marijuana has resulted in the wrong impression that using the drug is safe. It has greatly overstated, with no established proof, that marijuana has the ability to treat and cure a vast number of maladies and illnesses, and that legalization has the potential to reduce the rate of overdose deaths associated with opioid use. Those of us tasked with the depressing responsibility of reviewing all drug-related deaths in Sullivan County know differently.

Marijuana is often found, along with more potent opioids, in the bodies of our citizens who die from drug overdoses. To insinuate, as your editorial does, that we would experience a 25 percent drop in overdose deaths from prescription painkillers is spurious and ignores the opioid epidemic that exists in this region, generally — and, more specifically, in Sullivan County.

Those funding the legalization of marijuana do so knowing it is addictive and disruptive. The marijuana industry of today looks remarkably similar to tobacco companies from decades ago, and employs marketing tactics gleaned from successful campaigns that attempted to convince the general public that their product was harmless.

Like the tobacco companies of the last century, these entrepreneurs do not care about the harm that will be caused to those who will, inevitably, become regular-paying customers. Their sole concern is their bottom line and the increase of wealth, not the human cost of addiction or the damage to health and safety.

Over the past decade, the potency of marijuana’s psychoactive compound, THC, has been isolated and bred for potency by growers, increasing its potential harm and addictive power. Simply put, the marijuana of 2018 is not that of the 1960s and ’70s.

The societal effects of this attitude of legalization are already becoming clear. According to a University of Michigan study, marijuana use by adolescents increased sharply in 2017 — the first such spike in nearly a decade. “This increase has been expected,” said Richard Miech, principal investigator. “Historically, marijuana use has gone up as adolescents see less risk of harm in using it. We’ve found that the risk adolescents see in marijuana use has been steadily going down for years, to the point that it is now at the lowest level we’ve seen in four decades.”

The evidence, stemming from five years of legalized marijuana in Colorado, is clear that use of this potent, mind-altering drug harms youth education and brain development, increases automobile accidents, elevates the rate of emergency room visits, and increases the risks and costs associated with lung and respiratory-related illnesses.

It also leads to lower workplace participation, causing a shortage of workers for employers, as documented in the recent report “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact Volume 5,” produced by the Investigative Support Center of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

A study by the Review of Economic Studies concluded “College students with access to recreational cannabis on average earn worse grades and fail classes at a higher rate.”

Many of the arguments on behalf of legalization are no different than what we heard for the expanded use of opioids: that the drug is far less destructive than we imagined, far more necessary for the eradication of pain, and ideal to enhance the quality of life. Increased use of opioids now bears destructive impact on our schools, communities, law enforcement and legal communities. It also bears grievous and untold personal costs with many effects of the epidemic yet to be seen.

Legalization of marijuana is a bad idea for our children, our families, our communities and our state.

In states where this foolish action has taken place, more than enough data has been collected and vetted to convince our elected legislators to avoid this serious misstep.

Barry Staubus is the district attorney general for Sullivan County.

 

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