People who want to legalize marijuana in Ohio like to point out that it’s safer than a widely used legal substance: alcohol.
Opponents, however, raise concerns about the potential side effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis.
But there’s one thing that both sides of the debate acknowledge when it comes to the health effects of pot: We need to know more.
Twenty-three states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use and four states that have made personal use legal.
Ohio could be the first to go full legal without first establishing a medical system. Meanwhile, the federal Government still classifies ganja with substances that have no medical use and a high potential for abuse, such as LSD and heroin.
Despite their opposition, public health advocates said cannabis deserves more scientific research — on both the negative effects and potential medical benefits.
Dr. Steve Matson, president Ohio chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and chief of adolescent medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said neurologists are starting to study the effects of cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound in marijuana that does not cause a high.
CBD has been found to alleviate severe seizure disorders, but instead of legislating from anecdotal studies, Matson said state policy makers should base their decisions on science.
“Most people who want to use medical marijuana are having everyday problems that are treated with other meds,” Matson said.
Paul Coleman, president and CEO of the central Ohio treatment center, Maryhaven, said science should continue to be the method to identify safe and effective drugs.
“Marijuana should be continued to be explored through that process, and if that process finds that it is safe and effective, then it should be legalized for medical use,” Coleman said. “We didn’t vote on Lipitor, why should we have a vote on something far more dangerous?”
Colorado voters legalized marijuana for medical use in 2000 and for personal use in 2012. State lawmakers there required the health department to issue a report about drug-use patterns, science and medical information, the first report issued in January, concluded enough data hadn’t been collected to paint a complete picture of drug use in the state.
Chris Lindsey of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that works to reform marijuana laws and supported Colorado’s legalization ballot initiative, said most marijuana research relies on correlation instead of causation.
Lindsey said both sides of the debate rush to studies to bolster their arguments or spin the data to support their position.
“Hanging your hat on the latest study is dangerous territory because you can expect to get undermined by the next study,” Lindsey said.
For example, both sides point to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study when discussing the risks of driving under the influence of marijuana. The study found marijuana users were about 25 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers with no evidence of marijuana use. But after controlling for demographics and alcohol use, the study concluded drivers who tested positive for THC were no more likely to crash than sober drivers.
Tony Coder, assistant director of Drug-Free Action Alliance, said the conversation shouldn’t be framed as prohibition vs. legalization but in terms of drug policy reform. Coder said the science on marijuana is years behind state policies, and the Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency should encourage research.
Coder said legalizing the drug for adults would make it more prevalent and available to children and teens. In Colorado, children have been rushed to hospital emergency departments after consuming edible marijuana products, which vary in their potency.
“If alcohol really worked regulation-wise, there’d be no kid in the world getting it, but underage drinking is still a problem in this country,” Coder said. “To say it’s going to be kept out of the hands of young people is absolutely a fallacy.”
Matson, the pediatrician who has studied addiction, agreed. Matson said ResponsibleOhio’s plan won’t eliminate the black market nor prevent children from obtaining the drug.
“No matter how much they want to say they want to limit the access to kids under 18 it’s going to happen because there will be a lot more out there,” Matson said.
Lindsey, the marijuana policy expert, said that hasn’t happened in states that have legalized marijuana for medical or personal use.
“It’s a favorite refrain because they assume that’s what would happen, but it’s not based on any real world experience,” Lindsey said. “These arguments are the same thing we get in other states. They’re the low-hanging fruit of scare tactics.”