As our community faces tough questions about how we will choose to regulate the marijuana industry post-Amendment 64, it is important that we are aware of the little- discussed, long-term social costs that will impact us all.
One of the greatest concerns is availability to adolescent users. Proponents of legalization frequently state that recreational use by adults will reduce the availability of the drug for those under the age of 21. We must recognize that tobacco and alcohol use by young people is an ongoing problem, despite restrictions on purchasing, and with well-funded education and prevention programs.
Since Colorado made allowances for medical cannabis, 74 percent of teens who admit to marijuana use in blind surveys say they obtained their product from a licensed red-card holder. Marijuana is now the primary addictive substance responsible for teens admitted to treatment facilities in our state and No. 2 for adults, following alcohol. According to the most recent data from Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 29 percent of high school students report using marijuana in the past month.
What is most alarming about adolescent use is the danger to the developing brain. Science confirms that the part of the brain which regulates planning for complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making and social behaviors is not fully developed until the early to mid-20s. Adolescents are especially susceptible to all of the negative effects of THC, the addictive, psychoactive component in marijuana.
Young people are at greater risk for psychotic episodes, early-onset mental disorders, depression and anxiety. Studies show significant permanent IQ loss results for the frequent adolescent user.
We have yet to determine what the costs will be for adolescent education and prevention messages that will help young people understand these risks, but greater still will be the price tag for imminent treatment, recovery and associated health care.
Kids are not the only ones who face long-term negative impact. Research by the American Lung Association shows that marijuana smoke contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke. This same study shows a definitive correlation between lung cancer and marijuana use.
Marijuana smoking during pregnancy has been shown to decrease birth weight, most likely due to the effects of carbon monoxide on the developing fetus. Additionally, studies reported in the British Medical Journal conclude that marijuana use doubles the risk of car crashes due to deficits in motor coordination, reaction time and multi-tasking.
Despite the fact that voters were promised tremendous revenue, we must consider the model of Medical Cannabis. Colorado has seen consistent revenue shortfalls, causing the regulatory office to be extremely underfunded. Initially, regulation was to be overseen by 55 fulltime equivalent staffers but has only been able to sustain 15 FTEs to date.
It is yet unknown where resources will be found to seed the initial regulatory work for implementation of Amendment 64. The state hopes that 2013 funds from Medical Cannabis might possibly allow for an additional 1.5 FTEs to oversee the entire project.
While Amendment 64 is supposed to generate revenue that would cover costs for implementation, it will take time for the complicated taxation and banking issues to be unraveled. Meanwhile, litigation will cost our state as lawsuits promise to be in motion for TABOR violations, employees’ constitutional rights to marijuana use, DUID cases, and neighbors suing Colorado for costs of law enforcement to keep marijuana out of their states.
Also consider that lessons learned from regulation of alcohol historically show devastating shortfalls. Our country spends $185 billion per year on alcohol treatment programs while recovering $14.5 billion from tax revenues. This does not bode well when applied to marijuana.
Colorado Springs has a small window of time to determine what types of restrictions may or may not be put into place regarding industrial grows, manufacturing, retail shops, clubs, and distribution methods, etc. We must think through the harsh realities and recognize that the grass is not always greener when it comes to marijuana legalization.
Lynette Crow-Iverson is founder, CEO and president of Conspire!, a Colorado Springs-based drug screening franchise.