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Deni Carise Headshot

Legalizing Marijuana -- The Real Costs

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Much has been written and argued about the legalization of marijuana. Media outlets have recently reported that anywhere from 40 percent to 52 percent of U.S. adults are in favor of the drug's legalization. In the study for the first figure, overall public support among adults for medical use, decriminalization and legalization of marijuana was 70, 50 and 40 percent respectively and -- surprisingly -- only slightly lower among parents. Many of these adults -- and much of what has been written in favor of legalization -- believe that legalizing this drug will bring in increased tax revenue and lesser emphasis on criminalizing its users, allowing law enforcement officers more time to focus on our bigger problems in this country and solve our overcrowded prisons issue. But is that actually true and what are some of the real costs our country would pay for legalizing pot?

Tax Savings -- At What Cost?

Pro-legalization groups are often comparing the potential tax revenue of marijuana with alcohol and tobacco; it is true that nothing is more heavily taxed in our society than these two substances. Yet, under closer examination, it is clear that this revenue doesn't even come close to covering the enormous costs to our society from these products: alcohol misuse results in increased traffic accidents, ER visits, domestic violence and lost work productivity, while both substances lead to substantial and costly medical problems, and even death. In 2010, there were 15,990 alcohol liver deaths and 25,692 alcohol-induced deaths excluding alcohol-related accidents and homicides. In the prior year, there were 10,839 traffic fatalities in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes. These are just the figures for fatalities -- quite obviously the costs to society soar even higher when figuring in those "lucky" enough to just be injured in accidents or still living with emphysema, lung or liver disease.

There are still many people who believe that a person high on marijuana can function properly at home or work and can operate a motor vehicle without impairment. But the reality is that in 2011, marijuana was involved in 455,668 emergency room visits nationwide, and marijuana has been proven to impair motor coordination and reaction time, being the second most prevalent drug (after alcohol) implicated in automobile accidents.

Criminal Justice Relief -- Are There Better Ways?

Many believe that prisons are overcrowded with people who have been arrested and convicted for using marijuana. The first part is true -- there are many people in prison related to their marijuana use, however, they are not there because they were arrested or convicted of any marijuana-related legal offense. The prisons are overcrowded with marijuana users due to policies that send a person who is on probation/parole back to jail if they test positive for any illegal substance, including marijuana. Essentially no one is in jail for solely using marijuana, but for testing positive while on probation for another crime. This is, quite frankly, a misguided and unnecessary policy. We can -- and should -- seek to modify this policy to address prison overcrowding without having to legalize marijuana. Legalizing the drug will only increase its use and result in added costs to our various systems.

Perhaps one of the biggest prices we would pay for legalizing marijuana has to do with the message we send to our youth and the negative effects we now know are caused by its use. Recent NIH reports show that fewer adolescents believe that regular marijuana use is harmful to their health. At the same time, adolescents are initiating pot use at younger ages, are more likely to use it on a daily basis, and are using marijuana that is much more potent than that used by previous generations.

Most unfortunately, research has shown that persistent marijuana use is associated with neuropsychological decline and more cognitive problems. It has an impact on mental development and is associated with the onset of major mental illness, including psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. Impairment is worst when marijuana use begins in adolescence, with more persistent use associated with greater decline. Even more disheartening, stopping use does not fully restore neuropsychological functioning among adolescent-onset users. In addition, marijuana use is consistently associated with poorer academic grades and reduced likelihood of graduating from high school. Heavy adolescent marijuana use (defined as using more than 20 times) may lead to drug and property crime and criminal justice system interactions.

Legalizing marijuana sends the explicit message to our youth that this drug is okay, that it is harmless, when it is addictive and can destroy their lives.

A person under the influence of marijuana has a diminished cognitive capacity, regular use leads to persistent decreases in cognitive abilities, and -- for young people -- its use can delay cognitive development, and its users are more likely to be involved in an accident or perpetrate a crime. Legalizing marijuana will increase users, increase frequency and have long-term consequences for our youth. The tax revenue it would generate would be dwarfed by the costs to our society. Isn't that enough to make us just say no to legalization?