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Published January 20, 2014, 09:30 AM

Potential harm of legalizing medical marijuana a key point of Minnesota debate

Proponents say the law proposed in Minnesota would be perhaps the most restrictive on the books, reducing the likelihood of medical marijuana being diverted to unintended users.effects.

By: John Lundy, Forum News Service

DULUTH -- Even while growing up, Gordon Ramsay says he could see the damage marijuana did to people.

“I remember watching friends and acquaintances use it, and it changed who they were,” the Duluth police chief recalled.

A career in police work has solidified his beliefs, he said.

“Many of the young people we deal with, if not the majority of them, have chemical abuse problems,” Ramsay said. “And many times it starts with marijuana.”

Kevin “KK” Forss, who smoked marijuana for 4½ years because of a medical condition and stopped when his condition improved, has a different perspective.

“What they say about this being a gateway drug? If you’re on this for medical needs you’re going to be hooked forever? That’s a bunch of BS,” the Cloquet man said. “I never had a single craving, never any side effects from not taking it or withdrawal or anything like that.”

The debate over whether to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Minnesota includes the question: What if it gets into the wrong hands, particularly into the hands of kids?

Proponents say the law proposed in Minnesota would be perhaps the most restrictive on the books, reducing the likelihood of medical marijuana being diverted to unintended users. But even if it does, they say, any detrimental effects of marijuana are relatively benign, especially when compared with some legal medications such as prescription opiates.

Opponents disagree, saying marijuana comes with its own negative side effects.

Carol Falkowski, who for a long time was the state’s chief drug policy architect in the Department of Human Services, cites the cognitive effect on teenagers.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse in August reported on a 25-year study of 1,037 people in New Zealand. It concluded that participants who began weekly marijuana use before age 18 dropped IQ points in proportion to how long they kept using it.

“I can’t help but think that if we had broader accessibility of marijuana that more young people would be using it,” Falkowski said. “And if it really had those sorts of dramatic effects, I think as a public health policy it’s ill-advised.”

Statistics also suggest a link between using marijuana and motor vehicle accidents. In Colorado, traffic fatalities decreased 16 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to a Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area impact study. But fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana increased 114 percent during that same period. That corresponded with a time when the use of medical marijuana was expanding.

State Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, cites that as one of his reasons for opposing the medical marijuana bill.

“In Minnesota, our state goal regarding transportation is to work ‘toward zero deaths,’ ” Barrett said. “Legalization of marijuana will result in our state moving toward many more deaths.”

The Minnesota Law Enforcement Coalition paper on medical marijuana cites studies pointing to other negative effects. Among them: more cancer-causing chemicals in marijuana smoke than in tobacco smoke; an increased heart rate that creates a greater heart attack risk an hour after smoking marijuana; narrower arteries and blood-flow problems in the brain; and links to depression, suicidal thoughts and schizophrenia.

Marijuana also can produce dependence in some people, especially in the young, the opponents of legalization say.

“Marijuana is an addictive substance,” Falkowski said. “Up until we had such an increase in opioid abuse in the state, the number of people entering treatment for marijuana was second only to the number of people entering treatment for alcohol.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports 9 percent of people who use marijuana become dependent. But that increases, the agency says, to one in six people who start using it while in their teens.

Heather Azzi, political director of the pro-legalization Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, agreed marijuana has “some addiction potential.” But she cited a National Institute of Drug Abuse researcher and a colleague from the University of California at San Francisco as saying its potential to be addictive is no greater than caffeine’s.

Moreover, she said, most people being treated for marijuana use didn’t seek the treatment but were ordered there by the criminal justice system.

Besides, some already legal drugs are much more dangerous and addictive than marijuana, said Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, author of the medical marijuana bill.

Poisonings are now the leading cause of injury death in 30 states, including in Minnesota, and more than 40 percent of those are caused by opioid painkillers, Melin said, citing a 2011 study. That amounts to 14,800 poisoning deaths in 2008 alone.

By contrast, “in the United States, there’s no recorded death, ever, where the primary cause was marijuana,” Melin said.

Possible negative effects of a drug are no reason to keep it out of the hands of those who can benefit from it, supporters say.

“Nobody’s talking about repealing laws that allow other prescription medications,” Azzi said. “We need to do our best to keep these drugs out of the wrong hands while still allowing patients to have the access that they need.”