Marijuana: Far from the Harmless Drug Many Would Make it out to Be

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If you believe all the campaigners associated with medical marijuana, cannabis is the most benign of substances. Since it is now legal for people prescribed medical use in many states in the US and has been legalized for recreational use in several other states, how harmful can it be?

What are the Facts in the Matter?

A recent analysis of studies finds that when it comes to driving, marijuana use makes it more than twice as likely that a driver will have an accident. This compilation and analysis of risk from marijuana use was recently published in Epidemiologic Review and was cited in USA Today. If the marijuana user had also been drinking, there was an even greater chance of an accident. In recent years, the universal trend among drug users has been toward poly-drug use or consumption of more than one drug at a time.

The authors of the study in Epidemiologic Review noted that a large US survey estimated that more than 10 million Americans had driven while under the influence of illicit drugs in the year prior to the survey and that testing of drivers who die from a traffic accident showed that 28 percent test positive for drugs other than alcohol. Among all drivers, 11 percent test positive for drugs other than alcohol. And of these other drugs, marijuana wins the #1 spot.

In addition to the review of this large survey, researchers also evaluated similar studies from six other countries. They concluded that after marijuana use, driving skills are most severely affected for three to four hours after use.

The results of this study cast a somewhat different light on the harmless image of marijuana portrayed by those who endorse decriminalization or liberal medical use of the drug.

Further, the 2011 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes a significantly increasing number of people who enter addiction treatment for marijuana (cannabis) use in the US. About a third are under 18 years of age. More than half are students and more than half also started using marijuana when they were 14 or younger. Another third started between 15 and 17 years of age.

Perhaps this may be partly due to the fact that the cannabis cultured by drug traffickers today is much stronger than decades past – some say nearly double.

In Europe too, there were a significant number of young people in treatment for addiction to cannabis. Nearly one-quarter of all out-patient clients in Europe were being treated for cannabis addiction in 2009, and among the young (ages 15-19) in treatment, 83 percent reported that the primary drug they were having trouble with was cannabis. The majority of cannabis users also reported the use of a second drug, usually alcohol or cocaine.

While this news may be sufficient to hit USA Today, it is not anything new. Similar news was reported in 2008 by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. In their 2008 report Non-Medical Marijuana III, CASA stated that the US National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration reported that “low doses of THC [the active ingredient in marijuana] have been shown to moderately impair the tasks associated with driving, while high doses, as well as chronic use, produce severe impairment.”
This report went on to note that habitual use of marijuana was found by one study to be associated with a ten-fold risk of injury or death from a traffic accident and in France, an increased risk of being responsible for a fatal crash was found to increase commensurate with the amount of cannabis used.

These adverse effects may be increased even further in young people who are less experienced drivers.

In tests on open and closed courses and simulators, marijuana was shown to cause the following impairments of driving skill and judgment:

  • Increase in reactions times
  • Decrease in car handling performance
  • Sleepiness
  • Reduced motor coordination
  • Impaired attention to driving
  • Impaired ability to estimate time and distance.

In the US, more than 22 million people use an illicit drug each month, with marijuana leading these numbers. More than two million people start using marijuana in the US each year. Around the world, somewhere between 150 million and 270 million people are drug users, with perhaps three-quarters of these using cannabis. Based on the results of the studies cited in this article, there are millions of impaired drivers and heavy equipment operators at any particular time. Add to this many more impaired people in jobs demanding accurate reaction time and perception, including construction workers operating power equipment, doctors, nurses, airport support staff, boat captains, firefighters and law enforcement, just to mention a few.

When considering legalization, decriminalization or medicalization of a substance that is so widely abused and creates widespread addiction requiring treatment, it would be wise to consider all the effects of the drug before casting a final vote that may be hard to retract later.

If you need help with marijuana addiction or need more information about marijuana, contact Narconon today.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years.