Ted S. Warren, Associated Press
If educated adults do not speak out about the real hazards, lives could be lost. And if Washington continues to stand idly by as the falsehoods persist, it will be increasingly difficult to stop the momentum toward public acceptance.

Smoking marijuana alters perceptions, impairs coordination, makes it difficult to think and solve problems and inhibits the brain’s ability to learn and remember. It leads to respiratory problems similar to those caused by smoking tobacco, increases the risk of heart attack and can lead to mental illness. And just like tobacco, it is addictive.

It is important to present this information in clear and straightforward terms, given the increasing normalization of marijuana — even as tobacco use is increasingly unacceptable behavior.

Colorado and Washington State have both legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Several other states have legalized it for medicinal purposes. Teenagers around the country are developing a more casual and even welcoming attitude toward the drug. That is dangerous: marijuana’s hazards are magnified when applied to the developing bodies of young people.

Educated adults, including leaders in politics, entertainment, sports and business, need to speak out about the hazards of marijuana. But some political leaders in Washington seem determined to minimize its harmful effects.

Indeed, the Justice Department has effectively abandoned enforcement of the federal Controlled Substances Act in regards to marijuana. In December 2012, the administration weighed a number of legal actions against the states of Colorado and Washington. But eight months later, the administration reversed course. In failing to enforce federal laws against the production, distribution and use of marijuana, it is effectively re-writing drug law.

Yesterday, the administration went further. It issued rules allowing banks to open accounts for marijuana sellers, even as selling the drug remains illegal under federal law.

The risks of the substance are carefully outlined on the federal government’s website, drugabuse.gov. And buried on the website of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy is this statement by an office deputy director and the president of the National Association for School Nurses: “There is grave concern that marijuana use, given its impact on cognitive development, motor skills, and attention, will be detrimental to the learning environment for our young people. We encourage professionals in all health fields, parents, educators, and communities to get involved with this issue. We all must work together to reduce marijuana use and prevent substance use disorders among our young people.”

This sort of factual information about marijuana has been a casualty in the growing acceptance of the drug. So have consistency and common sense. It makes little sense for the nation to be systematically discouraging cigarette smoking, regulating trans fatty acids, limiting the size of soft drinks — all while many are turning a blind eye to the dangers of marijuana.

A Drug Control Policy spokesman told the Deseret News that the administration continues to regard the drug as a harmful substance. Spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said, “drug policy is a public health, and not just a criminal justice issue.” He added that “the policy of the administration is to pursue innovative strategies of preventing drug abuse before it begins.”

That message needs to be delivered more frequently, and more often — because it is not sinking in.

As Salt Lake police officer Doug Teerlink told the Deseret News, “You talk to the kids and with everything that's going on with it being legalized in Colorado and comments being made that it's just not that bad for you, the kids are taking it one step further and they're telling me, 'It's just an herb. It's OK. In fact, it's used for medical purposes, it's not bad for you. It's good for you.' And that's the belief that our kids are getting," he said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future Survey found similar trends nationwide. The graph of usage by 12th-graders tells much of the story: tobacco and alcohol use are down among teenagers. With marijuana, unfortunately, the trajectory is in the other direction.