Letter: Don’t legalize marijuana

Recently, two of our state legislators announced they would push for marijuana legalization as a solution to the state’s fiscal crisis when they return to Springfield in January. While quick to tout the potential for increased tax revenue, these politicians are ignoring the long-term, well-documented costs increased marijuana use would bring to our communities. As the Director of an addiction service line and clinical psychologist with first-hand experience treating addiction, I know the public health consequences of promoting the sale of another addictive drug in Illinois will far outweigh any temporary benefit.

Marijuana policies deserve a robust and informed debate, but that discussion should be driven by science and facts, not the motives of for-profit special interest groups (read: addiction profiteers) lobbying our elected officials. And when it comes to the negative health implications of marijuana use, the science is crystal clear. According to the CDC, one in 10 adults will develop an addiction when using marijuana regularly, and new research has even indicated that one in every three current marijuana users has a diagnosable marijuana use disorder.

This is something I see in my clinics often. I treat patients suffering from marijuana addiction - a problem that, according to both my own experiences and published research, undermines my patients’ ability to complete school, achieve their maximum earning potential, hold their jobs, function in a healthy marriage, and find overall life satisfaction.

Perhaps most concerning is the disproportionate impact legalizing marijuana would have on our young people. We now know Colorado leads the country in past-month marijuana use by youth. And the Centennial State isn’t an outlier in this trend: Oregon and Washington State, which have also legalized the drug, each rank in the top six states nationwide for past-month marijuana use by adolescents.

Making matters worse, marijuana-related emergency room visits by young people in Colorado more than quadrupled since the state legalized marijuana. In fact, more Coloradans in drug treatment are self-reporting heavy use of marijuana than ever before.

Moreover, states with legal marijuana are proving the impact of legalization stretches far beyond harms to the individual. A study conducted by the American Automobile Association in Washington State showed a doubling in the number of fatal drug impaired car crashes after legalization. Adding insult to injury, Colorado still faces a $700 million state budget shortfall that it must compensate for through increased taxes or budget cuts elsewhere.

Years ago, we realized that exposure to lead created significant adverse public health consequences. In response, we removed lead from nearly everything we could: paint, pencils, window blinds, glass, and so on. Like lead, the greater marijuana’s exposure to the public, the greater the negative health impact. Why move backwards? There are far better ways for our state to make money than selling a new intoxicating, addictive substance to our residents.

Marijuana commercialization will drive more kids to smoke pot, increase treatment admissions for addiction, and become a significant setback for public health and safety. The answer to criminal justice reform and our state’s financial crisis does not require creating a new industry that preys on our youngest and most vulnerable by marketing pot gummy bears, pot lollypops, and 93% THC concentrates.

It’s time for politicians in Springfield to stand up to special interest groups campaigning for laws that would create a new for-profit addiction industry – the next Big Tobacco – and choose to promote healthy lifestyles instead. The residents of Illinois are depending on you.

Dr Aarin Weiner

Clinical psychologist and Director of Addiction Services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville.