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Editorial: Look at brain research, DWI before legalizing pot

This legislative session, lawmakers should be having a real “if we knew then what we know now” moment regarding marijuana. Instead, less than two weeks into the 60-day session, they have introduced 10 cannabis bills – including legalizing recreational pot, expanding the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, and establishing an excise tax on the sale of the drug and sending all revenues to Medicaid funds.

To paraphrase a well-worn idiom, all that activity amounts to lawmakers plucking their buds before they’re mature.

In 2007, when the Legislature passed the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act legalizing medical marijuana for chronic and terminal illnesses (which the Journal supported), lawmakers did not have the brain studies that document the long-term damage the drug can cause and they did not make any provisions for driving under its influence. They just knew New Mexicans dealing with debilitating diseases, such as HIV-AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis, deserved relief from their nausea and pain. But, today, seven qualifying conditions have morphed into more than 20, 182 patients into 33,000-plus and “nonprofit producers” into those that offer online deals and a multimillion-dollar pot farm.

And still the state Legislature is looking at growing the pot business irrespective of consequences.

It is time to take a breath, and look at the medical research and law enforcement outcomes, and remember that, under current state law, officers have discretion on citing and, if they do, possession is just a petty misdemeanor that carries a possible penalty of up to 15 days in jail and fines up to $100.

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine examined 17 years of research and found strong evidence pot increases the risk of schizophrenia and other causes of psychosis, worsens respiratory symptoms, induces frequent episodes of chronic bronchitis and may increase heart attacks. It said there is not enough research to conclude whether it is effective for treating cancers, irritable bowel syndrome, epilepsy, Parkinson’s or helping people beat addictions. And a 2014 published study based on research conducted in part at the Mind Research Network at the University of New Mexico found chronic marijuana use causes significant abnormalities in brain function and structure, and may lower IQ.

Meanwhile, a 2016 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analysis found that, in Washington state, 17 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes two years after marijuana was legalized had THC, the component that creates the high, in their system. And a New York University professor specializing in issues involving drugs and criminal policy says studies show using marijuana and driving roughly doubles the risk of a crash.

For years, Rep. William Rehm, R-Albuquerque, has introduced a bill targeting “drugged driving,” but fellow lawmakers have had little appetite to address the issue. Meanwhile real-life cases here include no charges being filed against a driver who smoked pot, dropped ecstasy, then ran over and killed a teen, and one who shot up heroin, ran over a man changing a tire and killed him.

Rehm’s latest version would set presumptive drugged-driving blood concentration levels for marijuana, cocaine, heroin, amphetamine and methamphetamine. And, as is the law in Colorado, it would make it illegal to drive with a THC level higher than 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood.

Other lawmakers have expressed concern that THC stays in a person’s system much longer than the high it induces. The AAA Foundation agrees and says, rather than setting legal limits for THC, police should train officers as drug recognition experts. It’s a debate worth having but, in a state with a terrible substance abuse problem – eighth in the nation for drug overdose deaths in 2015, 157 of 398 traffic deaths last year attributed to alcohol – laws should make the state safer, not more dangerous.

(There’s also the very real problem in a state with 6 percent unemployment that employers already don’t hire and can, and do, fire employees for using what is still an illegal substance under federal law, even if the employee has a medical prescription card.)

In 2014, Rehm said it was important to look at new studies that show “brain damage as a result of smoking marijuana,” as well as consider that “New Mexico’s DWI problem does not need to be increased.” It was true then and it is true now. Lawmakers searching for a new revenue stream to help fill the looming nine-figure deficit – supporters claim taxing marijuana could generate $20 million to $60 million annually – need to consider the negative medical effects of marijuana use and the state’s continual struggle with impaired driving.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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