Five years ago, I submitted a guest column to The Gazette about compassion offered to those who use marijuana. This compassion originates from the professional substance abuse counselors in Iowa who walk alongside people with use disorders, supporting their journey toward recovery. It’s a well-informed compassion that is different from that of the local city officials, state and federal legislators or columnists at The Gazette who desire to change the legal status of this substance in Iowa but don’t encounter its problems every day. I’m hoping to highlight the problems that would result from efforts to decriminalize marijuana.
In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) updated its criteria to diagnose a substance use disorder. The APA added the experience of craving a substance and eliminated legal problems associated with substances. To put it another way, trouble with the law due to using marijuana is no longer needed to diagnose a problem. This in no way eliminates the significant negative effect marijuana use can have on an individual’s life. In fact, it underscores that someone who has legal problems related to marijuana may already have a substance use problem.
The APA focuses a diagnosis on 11 criteria: amounts used, attempts to stop, time involved to use, cravings, responsibility issues, interpersonal problems, lost pro-social activities, high-risk situations, physical or psychiatric problems, tolerance and symptoms of withdrawal. One may think, “It’s just marijuana. People don’t have problems with it.” That’s not the case. We see people every day meeting these criteria from the use of marijuana, resulting in a substance use disorder. Relaxed marijuana laws would result in more use of marijuana. This in turn would result in more of the APA criteria being met. That’s a lot of potential problems added for people who use this substance.
Substance abuse in our great state of Iowa is an ongoing problem. There are no easy answers. Contrary to any Libertarian viewpoint, the abuse of substances never affects only the user. It affects anyone and everyone close to them. Increased use will result in more frequent and varied problems. What we hear from patients in treatment centers are the negative impacts on their mental health, physical health, relationships with family and friends, employment, education, personal finances, general motivation, parenting, including child exposures, and many more. I find it amazing that pro-marijuana local officials, state legislators and editorial staff writers would promote these negative outcomes with their encouragement to decriminalize this substance.
To those who currently use marijuana and feel a sense of inspiration from people that promote change with the legal status of marijuana — I caution you. Please be aware, these people are not on your side. In fact, just the opposite. The citizens they claim will be helped the most will actually be the one’s hurt the worst. Also, we are not talking about the marijuana of the 70s or even the 90s. Marijuana today is significantly more potent and in various forms. And let’s not forget, many of these proponents are the same people concerned about the lost tax revenue opportunities from their desired commercial marijuana sales. I don’t believe they are concerned about the negative impact on your life as much as the lost revenue.
The problems I identify are what we care for every day in treatment programs. We get to hear from these patients. We hear how the use of marijuana has damaged their lives — by their standards. We offer a supportive and safe environment for these patients to learn about the impact of their use and consider healthier alternatives to using marijuana. This will never change.
Change is not easy, but it also is not impossible. I hope someday that those promoting the freedom to use this substance consider real change in themselves. As Iowans, are we way behind on this issue? Or perhaps we are way ahead … for now.
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Matt Rocca of Marion is an Advanced Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and has worked with substance use disorder patients in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area for 26 years.