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In our opinion: Marijuana's dangers should be considered by voters

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 4 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Marijuana is harmful to teen brain development and may lead to long-term IQ decline, new research shows.

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Six initiatives were circulating in California this year, trying to expand the state's current medical marijuana law into something more lenient. All six failed to gather enough signatures to make it on this November's ballot.

We hope this is a signal that the nationwide movement toward legalizing this dangerous drug is waning. Colorado and Washington state both have measures on the ballot that would tax and regulate the production and sale of marijuana statewide. Both states already have medical marijuana laws. The measures are just further mileposts along the road toward making the drug socially acceptable, under the false premise that regulation would eliminate a dangerous illegal drug trade.

Voters in those states, and anywhere else where the debate rages, need to be informed. Marijuana may not be as immediately harmful as many other drugs, including alcohol, but it is not harmless. It makes no sense to add it to the list of legal harmful substances that alter the mind.

New research was published last week showing a direct link between early and continuous marijuana use and a long-term decline in IQ. Researchers tracked 1,037 people from birth to age 38, paying attention to how often they smoked marijuana. Those who used it heavily beginning in high school and continuing through their late 30s scored 8 points lower on an IQ test than they did at age 13. Their peers who did not smoke marijuana suffered no decline.

While the study did not determine how much a person would have to use the drug in order to harm the brain, common sense would indicate that the decline in IQ is relative to the amount of the drug consumed and the frequency of its use.

Researchers have long known that brain development is at a critical stage during the teenage years, continuing well into the 20s for many people. During those years, harmful substances can have a particularly negative and permanent effect.

The advocates of legal marijuana use generally do not support its use among those too young to legally drink alcohol. However, recent studies have shown that states in which medical marijuana has long been legal have seen significant increases in the number of youths who smoke the drug. Medical marijuana laws provide enough of an official sanction to encourage people who otherwise would not have begun smoking.

In addition to its effects on the brain, marijuana causes the heart to beat faster, increasing the risk of a heart attack four-fold; it increases the risks of lung infections; and it contains more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco. Clearly, its effects are a danger to young and old and the drug does not deserve official sanction.

A concerted effort is underway to make marijuana more socially acceptable, along the lines of alcohol. But society has enough of a problem keeping up with the enormous costs of alcohol abuse. We hope California's failure to put even one of six initiatives on the ballot is a sign that more Americans understand this.

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