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Health officials urge caution on marijuana legalization

If the drive to legalize can't be stopped, they want some restraints and precautions placed on the drug, 

A marijuana plant.

A marijuana plant. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Don MacKinnon

 ALBANY — Some health and academic researchers are urging New York to slow down in its rush to legalize marijuana, months after polls showed most voters support legal weed and after many politicians made it a popular promise in last fall’s elections.

 “There is not enough long-term evidence to demonstrate this is something that is safe and won’t harm our communities,” said Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the state Association of County Health Officials.

 The association last week called for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature to derail the measure, which legislators said is gaining enough support to be an early Democratic victory in the legislative session beginning Jan. 1. If the effort can’t be stopped, the group that represents health professionals in every county wants some serious restraints and precautions placed on the drug, which is now legal in 10 states and in Washington, D.C.

 Among them:

  • Require a minimum age for use and regulate sales
  • Require marijuana smoking to be held to the same laws governing indoor smoking.
  • Provide educational material to schools and pregnant women about the known dangers to cognitive functioning.
  • Fund studies to create a reliable field test for impairment by marijuana.
  • Provide more funding to counties to pay for the increased workload for enforcement.

“There is a lot of short-term evidence and journal articles that suggest we should be concerned,” Ravenhall said in an interview.

One of the researchers in that field, psychology professor Judy Grisel of Bucknell University, supports legalizing marijuana, but said more research and far more education of the public is needed first. She said most people don’t realize that marijuana prompts the brain to compensate for the drug’s high. The result is that a user feels better about the task at hand while high — say eating a meal, watching a play, hearing a new song, meeting someone new — but will feel less motivated and less excited about these and other encounters when not smoking marijuana, impairing their judgment.

“Any drug you take that affects the brain, your brain creates the exact opposite effect to balance,” she said.

Her book, “Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction,” began after a friend said when he was smoking marijuana, he was very much enjoying his kids’ soccer games, but when he wasn’t smoking pot, hanging out with his kids was “not so great.”

“It’s kind of like a neurological highlighter,” she said.

She said the concern is more acute in adolescents, who she said will undoubtedly have greater illegal access to marijuana if it’s made legal for adults. Unlike adults, most young people are trying to decide life interests, career paths and the people they are attracted to.

She said keeping marijuana illegal would reduce the number of people using the drug, but those who do will continue to smoke larger amounts. Instead, she said time is needed to find best ways for government to regulate the drug and find the safest way for people to use it.

“Education is more important than legislation,” she said.

In recent months, the state Medical Society, as the American Medical Association before it, opposed the legalization of marijuana. Recent research in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than narcotics — not because they are more toxic, but because they are legal and widely available.  As marijuana is legalized, more people will suffer  its negative health effects, the article stated.

Cuomo said he is now considering these concerns, but so far has cited research by his health department’s marijuana task force as a reason to move forward quickly. A year ago, he had called marijuana “a gateway drug.”

“It has to be done right,” he said last week in a public radio interview. “There are a lot of pitfalls, but I defer to the experts and the task force and the reality for the world.”

Part of that reality is that surrounding states and Canada are legalizing and taxing marijuana, he said.

 “I said I had doubts, for sure, and I think many had question marks,” Cuomo said. “The benefits outweigh the risks. Also, times have changed.”

Cuomo has already heard from legislators and lobbyists seeking to legalize marijuana as a benign drug, safer than alcohol and tobacco, which are involved in far more deaths. Other supporters noted that marijuana use is already widespread but more minorities are arrested for low-level marijuana possession than whites.

“We are encouraged by the governor’s commitment to marijuana legalization,” said Jessica Wisneski, deputy director of Citizens Action of New York. “It’s critical that we pass a legalization bill that prioritizes the black and brown communities that have been harmed the most by the senseless war on drugs.”

On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he supports legalization. But he said he will try to help shape state legislation to protect people from abuse by corporate marijuana producers, the way he said big tobacco companies preyed on smokers like his father.

 “Governor Cuomo has been very clear that legal cannabis is coming to this state,” de Blasio said. “So legalization is at a crossroads.”

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