The harmful effects on health and society outweigh any potential benefits
Fifteen years ago, Wisconsin outlawed public smoking because it is harmful. Today, many of the same anti-smoking advocates favor legalizing marijuana because they believe it isn’t harmful.
The increasing popularity of recreational marijuana is not reason to legalize it. In fact, the more we learn about the impact of recreational use, especially in Colorado, the more we should take caution. Crime and traffic deaths have increased. There are more than twice as many marijuana stores as there are McDonald’s, according to a 2018 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
The negative impacts in Colorado, where marijuana has been legal since 2014, outstrip any revenue gains. In short, the reality of legalized marijuana doesn’t match the rhetoric.
While advocates claim marijuana isn’t a “gateway” drug, the facts are clear. While not every marijuana user goes on to “harder” drugs, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2013 that marijuana users consume more legal and illegal drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that marijuana addicts are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin. That’s because marijuana “primes” the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs. By its very nature, THC — marijuana’s main psychoactive compound — serves to make a user desire other drugs.
The marijuana from the 1960s and ’70s doesn’t resemble the marijuana of today. It’s been genetically engineered over time to heighten its effects. In fact, marijuana today is three times more potent than it was just 20 years ago, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In the first three years of Colorado’s legalization, marijuana potency increased nearly 25%. Worse yet, I recently learned from the Milwaukee Police Department that nearly all the marijuana sold in Milwaukee is laced with the highly addictive and dangerous opioid Fentanyl.
While the effects of the new, more powerful strains of THC haven’t been studied in depth, the older, less powerful ones have been studied. The results aren’t encouraging.
Persistent marijuana use leads to a significant decline in verbal ability and IQ and alters brain development, studies have indicated. Canadian studies have shown that there is a relationship between marijuana use during and following psychiatric episodes and violence. Other studies have shown links between marijuana use and increased risks in offspring of psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, depression and anxiety. Ironically, advocates often claim that marijuana eases these disorders, not that they cause them.
In Colorado, short-term health detriments associated with legalized marijuana have emerged as well. Marijuana hospitalizations are up 148% in four years, and emergency room visits have increased 52%, according to the HIDTA report. A new study found a 300% spike in marijuana-related ER visits in that period. Suicides in which a person shows traces of marijuana are up 60% to 140%, depending on the year and age.
Harm beyond the individual
Some will argue that marijuana only harms the person using it, implying the state should stay out of it. That might be a valid argument if only it were true. We have all sorts of laws that limit personal freedom for the greater good. For the safety of everyone, government either prohibits or requires something — from building permits to seatbelt use to mandatory insurance.
Those marijuana hospitalizations cost everyone, not just the patient. In Colorado, violent crime has increased almost 20% since legalization, and property crime is up over 8%, according to the HIDTA report. Traffic deaths have increased 35%, and just marijuana-related traffic deaths are up 151%.
Supporters will point to racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws, but those disparities are not unique to marijuana laws. The solution isn’t to eliminate laws. To the extent that more African-Americans are arrested and prosecuted for marijuana possession than other races, that disparity is little different than the disparities for other crimes.
While we’re at it, let’s dispense with the argument that we’re filling up our prisons with people convicted of simple pot possession — black or white. It rarely happens. The 11% of inmates in Wisconsin prisons on drug-related convictions aren’t just marijuana users. They’re dealers and worse.
The argument that drug-related crime will decrease with legalization is false as well. Organized crime is on the rise. In California, 74 marijuana “grow houses” in the Sacramento area were underwritten by Chinese organized crime, authorities say. Chinese, Cuban and Mexican drug rings have set up shop. In Colorado, over seven tons of black-market marijuana were seized, the HIDTA report said.
You may wonder why Colorado even has black-market marijuana since it is legal there. From the Boston Tea Party and the Whiskey Rebellion to today, Americans go to great lengths to avoid taxes. Hence, the rise in organized crime and black-market marijuana to skirt the 15% tax.
That’s not to say Colorado doesn’t earn revenue from its legal marijuana. The state is earning about $250 million per year — that’s less than 1% of all revenues. In Wisconsin, it would be an even smaller percentage.
When one looks dispassionately at the evidence, the conclusion is clear. Following marijuana legalization, crime and traffic deaths have spiked. Organized crime and human trafficking have moved in and/or expanded. Hospitalizations and suicides have increased. The research on individual health effects is mixed at best and downright scary at worst. Taxpayers and families bear the burden of these costs — all for less than 1% of state revenues. And by the way, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
The costs of legalizing marijuana for recreational use outweigh the benefits — and it’s not close.
State. Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) served as a Racine police officer for nearly 30 years. He is chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.