A few weeks after bringing her baby girl home from the hospital, a friend of mine began the process of divorcing her husband. The main reason was her husband’s marijuana use. He couldn’t quit.
“It was a terrible cycle of him lying and hiding it,” my friend said. “Toward the end, he started threatening suicide if he couldn't have his marijuana and said he chose that over me and (our baby).”
Others among her friends and family have used marijuana for depression and anxiety. It has led them to drop out of school and sever family relationships.
These are a few examples of the tragedies caused by attempts to use marijuana for medical purposes.
Some in Utah believe marijuana is good for medical use, and that it should be legalized for the sake of replacing opioids because marijuana is not addictive. But, as my friend eloquently said, “Anyone who is willing to leave their job, family and everything they care about to chase a substance is absolutely addicted.” Backing up this commonsense point is the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found strong evidence that marijuana is addictive. About 1 in 10 users will become addicted, and that number increases to 1 in 6 when the user begins before age 18.
Addiction is a family disease that increases mental, physical and financial stress. It disrupts families and leaves scars that last a lifetime. In advocating marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic, we may simply be trading in one crisis for another.
The history of opioid use has worrisome parallels to the legalization of marijuana. In 1970, a published study said opioid addiction was rare if patients had no addiction history. Without understanding the broader consequences, but seeing the opportunity for profits, the pharmaceutical industry used this research and invested in a broad push for the approval and widespread use of various opioids for pain. A few doctors were enlisted – including a prominent Utah doctor – and opioid prescriptions grew from 76 million nationwide in 1991 to 207 million in 2013. Similarly, medical marijuana advocates use international research studies to argue that marijuana does not harm those who use it for pain. Without understanding the broader consequences, but seeing the opportunity for profits, the cannabis industry is investing in a broad push for marijuana legalization and widespread access to it. A few doctors have been enlisted to prescribe marijuana, but the broader medical community is hesitant to do so since reliable dosing standards do not yet exist.
The consequences of replacing an opioid crisis with a marijuana crisis could be significant. Marijuana can lead to breathing problems if smoked, and it causes declines in memory, learning and attention. There are increased risks of poisoning in children, low birth weights in babies whose mothers used during pregnancy, and schizophrenia and psychosis. There is also evidence showing an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Pressure to prescribe cannabis could lead to an increase in access and therefore addiction. More women might use marijuana while pregnant. Teens could have greater access to cannabis products from family or friends, which could impair their future. All this would be in addition to the widespread damage that addiction causes in individual lives, families and communities.
Historian Will Durant wisely said, “So the story of man runs in a dreary circle because he is not yet master of the earth that holds him.” With the effects of the opioid crisis fresh in our minds, let us proceed cautiously before legalizing another addictive substance without fully considering the long-term consequences. Given the possible harm, marijuana could do to people already suffering from opioid addiction, taking the time to understand what we’re doing is the real course of compassion.
Amber Maxfield is a policy intern with Sutherland Institute.