Recreational Marijuana - Consider the Risks
By U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme, District of Montana
In November, Montanans will vote whether to legalize recreational marijuana for state law purposes. Marijuana offenses will still be illegal under federal law.
Because of the serious ramifications of this vote for our public safety and health, I encourage all Montanans to review in detail CI-118 and the lengthy 36 sections of I-190 to understand the system it would create.
The potency of marijuana has increased substantially. The average potency of DEA samples of marijuana increased over 400% between 1995 and 2018, and marijuana resins and extracts used in vaping and edibles can have much higher levels of THC, the active compound in marijuana.
Legalization will increase use, as seen in Colorado and Oregon. The percent of the population age 12 and older using marijuana in the past month increased from 12.7% prior to legalization to 17.3% in 2018 in Colorado, and from 13% to 18.8% in Oregon, well above the national percentage which increased from 7.4% to 9.8%.
Traffic fatalities and accidents will increase. Marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination and reaction time, and studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC concentration and impaired driving. Since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, annual traffic deaths where the operator tested positive for marijuana more than doubled by 2019. Between 2014 and 2019, annual cases of Driving Under the Influence of Drugs in Colorado where marijuana was involved increased from 676 to 1,041.
Marijuana is addictive. Recent data suggest that 30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. Studies suggest that 9% of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it, increasing to about 17% for those who start using in their teens. At Rimrock in Billings, marijuana is already the third most used substance by patients being treated for substance abuse disorder, ahead of opioids.
I-190 could dilute state laws protecting children, the public and users from marijuana abuse. One provision states that a person may not be denied custody rights to a minor solely for conduct related to this initiative. In 2019 in Yellowstone County, however, marijuana use was identified as a contributing factor in over 25% of removals of children for abuse or neglect. A second provision states that a person currently under probation or released awaiting trial may not be penalized solely for conduct permitted by the initiative, apparently regardless of whether the person’s marijuana abuse contributed to their criminal conduct.
Many who use other drugs start with marijuana. The Surgeon General recently highlighted a study showing that in 2017, teens 12-17 reporting frequent use of marijuana showed a 130% greater likelihood of misusing opioids. Of course, most people who use marijuana do not go on to use other substances; however, in 2019, during focus group interviews of meth users in Billings for Yellowstone Substance Abuse Connect, users stated that they often started using methamphetamine in their late teens or early twenties after being exposed to and using alcohol and marijuana at an early age. Until more research determines the extent of the link between marijuana use and additional drug use, voters should strongly consider this risk.
Other public health facts are important to know. Smoking marijuana, even occasionally, can increase the risk of severe complications from COVID-19; the Surgeon General recently advised that marijuana exposure, before brain development stops in the mid-20s, can cause long-term harm; and studies link marijuana use to depression, anxiety, suicide planning and psychotic episodes. Since 2014, hospitalizations related to marijuana in Colorado increased from 6,720 to 16,614 in 2017.
Fellow Montanans, let’s be sure we take a close look at these proposals before voting on CI-118 and I- 190.