Op-Ed: Legalizing Marijuana Puts New Jersey Adolescents at Risk

Melissa Tassé | May 24, 2018 | Opinion
We owe it to ourselves to be educated and informed about what recreational marijuana legalization will do to our society and especially our children

Melissa Tassé
As a Ph.D. neuro-pharmacologist, New Jersey resident, and founder of The Honey Bee Foundation, I strongly urge our legislators to oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana.

The Honey Bee Foundation is a privately funded nonprofit whose mission is to educate parents about the developing brain and its vulnerability for developing substance-use disorders (aka addictions) in children and teens. If parents truly understood how the brain develops and the effects of substances — e-cigarettes, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and the like — on their child’s developing brain, they would have a very different view about the wisdom of the use of these neuro-active agents during the adolescent and teenage years.

When we talk about legalizing marijuana, we must acknowledge that we are talking about legalizing a mind-altering substance that affects the brain by impairing cognition, judgment, and reflexes. We need to discuss the science and data behind the consequences of marijuana consumption on our youth and their developing brains, as this is an issue that is far-too-often overlooked.

Studies have shown that children using any drug — legal or illegal — are more likely to develop an addiction, or substance-use disorder. In fact, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, 90 percent of all addictions start during adolescence, and 17 percent of adolescents and teens who begin using marijuana will develop a marijuana-use disorder. The adolescent and teen brain is still in a process of critical development, making it that much more vulnerable to drug use.

What you don’t know can hurt you

What the marijuana industry doesn’t tell you is that regular heavy marijuana use has been shown to cause an eight-point drop in IQ, that is not reversed when use stops. We also know from several studies, including the Monitoring the Future Study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that heavy marijuana use among adolescents is associated with lower grades and exam scores and a lower satisfaction with life. Moreover, the study shows that heavy marijuana users are less likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, while being more likely to earn a lower income and be unemployed than nonusers.

Furthermore, in a study of postal workers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, those who tested positive for marijuana on a pre-employment urine screen experienced greater number of accidents, injuries, and absenteeism. In states that have legalized the drug, ER visits and car accidents have also increased with marijuana usage. Additionally, marijuana is often used in conjunction with alcohol. One question that needs to be asked: In states that have legalized recreational marijuana, has there been a drop in alcohol consumption, alcohol-related hospitalization, or DUIs?

As we’ve seen in other states, the rate of children under 21 using pot will increase if it’s legalized for recreational use. By legalizing it, we — as a society — are endorsing and normalizing its use. The brightly colored THC sodas, candies, gummies, billboard ads, sponsorships, newspaper advertisements, and more will be in the faces of our children every day, similar to the “Joe Camel” ads of Big Tobacco. And just like Big Tobacco, the marijuana industry makes money developing addictions in children, as these are their lifelong and most profitable customers. Is this really where New Jersey wants to gain its tax revenue? We, as parents and grandparents, should feel morally obligated to protect our children from an industry that will most definitely target them.

Before legalizing recreational marijuana, we need to remind ourselves of the lessons learned from opioids, alcohol, and cigarettes. These were all introduced as substances that were believed to actually be good for people without sufficient data. It has taken us decades to reverse the harm on the youth of our country of advertising to children and easy access.
More research and data are needed to understand the effects on children, and the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, will answer many questions in the coming years. I am baffled as to why we would want recreational marijuana to be legalized without first understanding the science and the data that is coming out of states where it is already legalized.

Marijuana is not a benign, harmless substance — far from it. We owe it to ourselves to be educated and informed as to what recreational marijuana legalization will do to our society and especially our children. We should not pass any legislation to legalize recreational marijuana until we better understand the science, data, and consequences. Anything short of that would be deeply irresponsible.