Answering Sullivan

12.20.12

Marijuana's Victims

Skill-testing question: how many people are serving time in jail for marijuana possession right now? Here's the surprising answer, in chart form:

American police departments long ago ceased sending people to prison for marijuana offenses. The third bar from the left, "crimes involving marijuana," refers to - for example - cases in which police arrest somebody for some other offense, then also found marijuana in the offender's possession.

If your impression of American drug policy is that lots and lots of young minority teenagers are being sentenced to prison merely for smoking marijuana, then your impression is sadly out of date.

And if your impression is that marijuana is harmless, then that impression is also out of date. The standard grade of marijuana sold today, authorities explain, contains more than 4x the intoxicants of the marijuana of the early 1980s. Imagine that they suddenly replaced the chardonnay in your wine bottle with 80-proof rum - even as the standard pour remained the same.

The result: Let the National Institute on Drug Abuse explain, in a statement released just today.

* The proportion of high school students smoking marijuana every day - every day! - has increased over the past 5 years from 5.1% to 6.5%%.

* Perceptions of the harmfulness of marijuana among high schoolers are at their lowest levels since surveys of this age group began in 1991.

Why does this matter? Among other reasons, this:

A 38-year NIH-funded study, published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that people who used cannabis heavily in their teens and continued through adulthood showed a significant drop in IQ between the ages of 13 and 38—an average of eight points for those who met criteria for cannabis dependence. Those who used marijuana heavily before age 18 (when the brain is still developing) showed impaired mental abilities even after they quit taking the drug. These findings are consistent with other studies showing a link between prolonged marijuana use and cognitive or neural impairment.

Yes, heavy drinking is bad for you too. But not like this. And anyway, our goal should be to reduce harms - not to maximize the array of harm choices on the harm buffet table.

I'll have more to say on this subject in the days ahead.