Oregon’s marijuana legalization: Gateway to unintended consequences

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths from drug overdose have increased 137 percent since 2000.  A total of 47,055 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2014 – about 130 people a day – representing a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year.

During the past ten years, highway fatalities in the United States have fallen more than 25 percent, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Even though 2014 was the safest traffic period recorded during the past 40 years, a total of 32,675 Americans lost their lives in crashes, about 90 traffic-related deaths each day.

Incredibly, Americans are about 44 percent more likely to die from a drug overdose than in a traffic crash.

The rate of death from over-dosage of opioids has soared more than 200 percent over the past 15 years. According to CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., “the increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming. The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders.”

Strong evidence detailing how the use of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco serve as thresholds to the use of more addictive and harmful drugs is undeniable. There is no doubt that marijuana serves as an entry-level drug, especially among adolescents.

The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia (CASA) recently released a study showing that children between 12 and 17 years of age who use gateway drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana are up to 266 times more likely to use cocaine than those who do not use gateway drugs. Former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and current CASA President Joseph A Califano, Jr. stated that “this study, the most comprehensive national assessment ever undertaken, reveals a consistent and powerful connection between the use of cigarettes and alcohol and the subsequent use of marijuana, and between the use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana and the subsequent use of cocaine and other illicit drugs.”

CASA’s study establishes a clear progression, starting with gateway drugs, and leading to cocaine use. It states that “nearly 90 percent of people who have ever tried cocaine used all three gateway substances first. More than half followed a progression from cigarettes to alcohol, to marijuana and then on to cocaine.”

A recent research paper published in the Journal of American Medical Association Psychiatry describes the increasing prevalence of marijuana use disorder in the United States. The National Institute of Health sponsored a study disclosing that nearly six million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the entire adult population of the United States, suffer from marijuana use disorder.

That study evaluated the use of drugs and alcohol, as well as related psychiatric conditions, among more than 36,000 participants over the age of eighteen during the 12-month period between 2012 and 2013. The research revealed that “past-year and lifetime marijuana use disorders were strongly and consistently associated with other substance use and mental health disorders.”

The research shows those who smoke marijuana most heavily, and for the longest periods, are most susceptible to marijuana use disorder. They are strongly and consistently prone to a lifetime of “association with other substance use disorders, effective disorders, anxiety, and personality disorders,” as well as other mental health disease. The researchers found that the risk for onset of the disorder peaks during late adolescence and among people in their early twenties, especially among young males.

The director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism commented that “the new analysis complements previous population-level studies by Dr. Grant’s group that show that marijuana use can lead to harmful consequences for individuals and society.” This study removes any ambiguity regarding how marijuana serves as a gateway, or threshold level, drug.

Marijuana use has already been legalized by the states of Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Washington and the District of Columbia. According to BallotPedia, ballot proposals to either decriminalize or legalize marijuana have been proposed in 16 additional states this year.

Marijuana remains an illegal controlled substance under federal law. Two synthetic cannabinoids, nabilone and dronabinol, have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered whether to hear a marijuana-related federal lawsuit filed in 2014 by the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma. The suit asked the courts to overturn a Colorado Amendment adopted by the people in 2012, which legalized the use of recreational marijuana. The lawsuit argues that “the State of Colorado has created a dangerous gap in the federal drug control system” that has caused “irreparable injury” to its two neighboring states.

That case was ultimately dismissed by the Supreme Court on procedural grounds, but not on its merits.

Nevertheless, Oregon is serving as a national leader in the efforts to make the use of both medical and recreational marijuana not only legal, but commonplace. Perhaps more parents and lawmakers should take the time to read these sobering research analyses.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls