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Medical pot doesn’t lead to impaired driving

We’re all concerned about reducing impaired driving, but “Road Warrior” columnist D’Val Westphal consulted only one biased and uninformed source on the topic of cannabis in her Dec. 29th column. Her sole source, Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuq., is a retired Bernalillo County sheriff’s captain. Several of Rehm’s statements were glaringly wrong.

First, he states that “(n)ot everyone who drinks alcohol intends to become intoxicated. They have a drink with dinner. Smoking marijuana has one purpose: to get high.” That is absolutely wrong! Twenty-three states (including New Mexico) and Washington, D.C., permit the medical use of cannabis and according to procon.org there are approximately 2.4 million medical cannabis patients in the nation.

These 2.4 million patients are not ingesting medical cannabis to get high. It is their medicine; they are using it to relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy treatment, to generate an appetite and be able to eat and not waste away, to lessen pain and for an assortment of other medical conditions. Often, medical cannabis is the exclusive medicine to provide any relief to sick and dying patients.

Next Rehm also claimed, “(t)he more you smoke marijuana, the less smoke is needed to become high. Unlike alcohol, smoking marijuana lowers your tolerance to marijuana.” Again, he is entirely wrong. Numerous studies report that experienced cannabis users develop tolerance and display little to no change in cognitive or psychomotor performance.

Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML, testified as an expert before the Nevada Subcommittee on the Medical Use Of Marijuana on Aug. 21, 2014 that, “(s)everal recent papers in scientific literature affirm this phenomenon of cannabis tolerance, such as a 2012 literature review published in the official journal of the German medical association which states, ‘Patients who take cannabinoids at a constant dosage over an extensive period of time often develop tolerance to the impairment of psychomotor performance so they can drive vehicles safely.'”

Experienced cannabis consumers, such as the majority of qualified medical cannabis patients, become tolerant of its effects.

Finally, Westphal reports that “Rehm says it’s important to look at new studies that show ‘brain damage as a result of smoking marijuana.'” It’s not clear that Rehm himself has done so.

The most recent study identifying minor differences in the brain imaging of habitual cannabis consumers compared to non-users was published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science on Nov. 25, 2014. However, this study did not conclude that brains are damaged from chronic cannabis use. Instead, MRI scans revealed less gray matter in the orbital frontal cortex of cannabis consuming subjects compared to those who had never consumed cannabis.

Researchers also identified increased connectivity between certain regions of the brain in consistent cannabis users compared with non-users. The cannabis users may be functioning in their daily lives in a manner that is indistinguishable from controls.

The study indicated that shrinkage seen in brain scans doesn’t impact functioning. The study’s author Francesca Felbey, from the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas explained: “The changes in connectivity may be considered a way of compensating for the reduction in volume. This may explain why chronic users appear to be doing fine.”

The negative effects of cannabis use pale in comparison to the devastation on our highways caused by alcohol abuse. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2012, 10,322 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.

Our community’s goal, to minimize or eliminate impaired driving, should be achieved by employing evidence-based, scientific data, not by the proliferation of “Reefer Madness” lies.

Patricia M. Monaghan is an attorney with focus of practice in medical cannabis business law.

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