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Think twice before passing medical marijuana laws

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Ed Gogek, guest columnist

State after state is legalizing medical marijuana, but doctors and patient groups aren’t demanding these laws. The AMA doesn’t want them, nor does the American Cancer Society. The American Academy of Pediatrics is against medical marijuana and the Glaucoma Foundation warns patients not to use it.

Instead, demand comes from marijuana users, and from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project. These are not medical organizations; they’re pro-legalization groups.

They tell us these laws are for serious illnesses, but it’s a bait and switch. The largest survey of medical marijuana patients found that only 6 percent reported cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, or Hepatitis C. The vast majority—91 percent—got their marijuana for pain.

Pain is every drug abuser’s favorite diagnosis; it’s easy to fake and impossible to disprove. And there’s good reason to doubt all these marijuana patients claiming pain. A study of over 4,000 medical marijuana patients in California found that 90 percent of them had been smoking pot since their teen years, and they were mostly young and male whereas pain patients are older and female.

Medical marijuana laws effectively legalize the drug for anyone. They’re also responsible for most of the growth in adolescent use. Teen use in the United States surged between 2005 and 2011, but it didn’t surge equally in all states. In 2005, only about 20 percent of the U.S. population lived in medical marijuana states, yet those states accounted for most of the increase in adolescent use. If it weren’t for states with medical marijuana laws, teen use would barely have increased at all.

Marijuana interferes with adolescent brain development, causing irreversible changes. Teenage marijuana users do worse in school, drop out at much higher rates and are less happy with their lives as adults. Heavy teen users earn less as adults and have lower IQ. No parent wants this, but almost everyone who smokes pot starts as a teen.

The drug is also dangerous behind the wheel. A meta-analysis that combined the best studies on marijuana and driving found that people who drive stoned are twice as likely to have a serious or fatal car wreck. During the two years when Colorado’s medical marijuana program increased the fastest, the number of traffic fatalities caused by marijuana-impaired drivers doubled.

These problems might be tolerable if medical marijuana laws served a purpose, but they don’t. While some seriously ill patients are helped by marijuana, two prescription cannabinoid medications work just as well—Marinol and Cesamet.

Prescription cannabinoids are also much less likely to be abused or diverted to teenage use. And they’re more long acting, which is good for genuine patients who don’t want to be stoned all the time. So there’s no reason for anyone to smoke marijuana.

The main people who benefit from medical marijuana laws are people who want to get high or who want to sell the drug.

• Ed Gogek is an addiction psychiatrist and the author of Marijuana Debunked: A handbook for parents, pundits and politicians who want to know the case against legalization. Comments: www.marijuanadebunked.com

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