For several years, Maine has had a law in place legalizing marijuana for certain medical conditions. Maine voters will soon be asked to consider legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. As the public health director for the city of Bangor, I am often asked, “What are you doing about drug abuse prevention?” “What about schools and kids?”
These are critically important questions that will be hugely affected by the decision made in November. We have a unique opportunity to speak loudly and clearly about what we want for our children, our communities and the future of our state. I believe our decision must be made based upon the evidence currently available to us.
We need to say no to legalizing marijuana. Public health research repeatedly demonstrates that when access and availability are increased, use of the product will also increase. Despite our best efforts, the new users will likely include our children, and marijuana will make its way onto our school grounds.
We know from sound, validated research that marijuana may not be the most harmful drug, but it does not come without dangers. An Aug. 10 BDN OpEd from Dr. David Hawkins provides a clear and succinct summary of the harms related to marijuana. For some, addiction is a real possibility. For youth who are daily users, declines in measured intelligence, difficulty concentrating, memory problems and greater risk of mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have been demonstrated.
Does this mean everyone who uses will suffer these consequences? Of course not. Again, what we do know is that with greater access and availability — a given if this law passes — there will be greater use. This is particularly troublesome for our youth. Research indicates that adolescence, once thought to end at age 19, actually continues to age 25. The brain, particularly the centers for judgement and complex thinking, is still developing until that time. Also troubling is the fact the 2015 Maine Integrated Youth Drug and Alcohol Survey showed a lessening in our youth’s perception of the harm potentially caused by marijuana over the 2013 survey.
As a drug, marijuana has shown the potential to be helpful in certain diseases. Similarly, we know that medications like antibiotics and nonsteroidal pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, are certainly helpful, but with overuse they can potentially cause harm. In fact, recent efforts within the medical and public health community have been aimed at encouraging providers and patients to limit the use of such medications. What we should be able to agree on is that, much like all medications, widespread use of marijuana should not be encouraged or condoned, especially among our youth. Much is at stake, and I believe the development of drug policy should remain with the experts who have the time and expertise to examine the data and facts.
In this perfect storm of reduced perception of harm, potential greater access and a growing drug crisis, our children stand to lose the most. Our time for the ultimate prevention tactic is now. We are being handed a golden opportunity to protect our children, and we must take it.
Patty Hamilton is the director of public health for the city of Bangor.