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State Sen. Alex Bergstein and Paige Greytok When we legalize, we normalize

April 16, 2019

“If it’s legal, how can it be bad?” That is a question teens often ask about marijuana, and they have a point: When we legalize a behavior, we normalize it.

The belief that marijuana is safe is deeply concerning, because early use can cause irreparable damage to the still developing brains of adolescents and young adults. Research shows that teenage use of marijuana containing Tetrahydrocannabinol, or “THC,” compromises brain development and can induce or exacerbate mental illness, lower IQ, impair academic performance, and cause seizures, psychosis, early onset schizophrenia and even violence.

THC is particularly addictive for adolescents, who are four to seven times likelier than adults to become dependent. In short, cannabis poses a real and present danger to the mental health and wellness of young people.

Last week, legislators advanced a bill that, if passed by the Senate and House, would make Connecticut the 11th state to fully legalize marijuana for adults. Medicinal use and possession of up to 1.5 ounces is already legal in our state. But if the current bill becomes law, recreational use for those over 21 would also be fully legal.

Reasons to support legalization include: 1) remedying a long history of racial and social injustice, 2) new tax revenues from marijuana sales and 3) the ability to regulate a dangerous substance.

While we respect the validity of these arguments, we oppose legalization because we believe the costs to human health and public safety outweigh the potential benefits. Human health costs are difficult to quantify, but damaging the brains of young people is a price we are not willing to pay.

In her psychotherapy practice, Paige sees the brutal psychological effects of marijuana on young people every day. Teens typically begin using because they’re curious and believe it’s harmless. But many young clients report quickly becoming addicted and unable to control their use. Nearly 6 percent of high school seniors report using cannabis every day. And nearly 30 percent of all young users develop some form of marijuana use disorder, which includes a range of symptoms.

Paige routinely hears young clients tell her about their delusional thinking and hallucinations, driving under the influence while hallucinating, becoming unable to move or talk rationally, and believing they are stalked by imaginary beings or possess super powers. These stories should alarm us all.

The bill currently under consideration prohibits use for those under 21, but the reality is that if we legalize cannabis, the perception of safety will only grow. Teenagers today are half as likely as teens 20 years ago to believe “weed” is harmful. But marijuana today is actually more harmful than it was back then. In the 1990s, THC levels in the plant ranged between 3-8 percenty; today the range is 8-16% and rises as high as 50-80 percent in cannabis extracts and edibles. At these levels, ingesting or vaping THC is similar to using LSD, and can result in flashbacks, panic attacks, withdrawal, and other side effects.

Another concern we have is the difficulty detecting when someone is under the influence of THC. When people consume cannabis and drive, public safety officers can’t pull them over and determine their “intoxication levels” as they can with alcohol and a breathalyzer. How can we ensure safety on our roads if we don’t have effective detection and deterrence methods? And now that some states may ease restrictions or ban testing in the workplace, the risk posed by intoxicated workers in hospitals, assembly plants, food preparation, transportation services, and other work environments will only grow.

A final concern about legalization is the rapid adoption of vaping among young people. This new technology allows potent THC oils to be consumed in a discreet and odorless way that makes detection more challenging. Between 2017 and 2018, vaping among eighth graders increased by 59 percent, among 10th graders by 62 percent, and among 12th graders by 50 percent. This alarming trend shows no sign of abating.

We are not acting as overbearing parents trying to protect children from all potential harm. “Snowplow” parenting only undermines kids’ ability to develop independence and their own good judgment. But as adults we are responsible for creating policy that reflects the best interests of the public, and especially children. The current disturbing evidence about cannabis and the lack of accurate detection is reason to pause. Until the science and technology advances significantly, we believe that legalizing cannabis will create human costs that no amount of new tax revenue can justify.

State Sen. Alex Bergstein’s district includes Greenwich and parts of Stamford and New Canaan. Paige Greytok is a psychotherapist who practices in Greenwich.