At the start of each physician’s career, we take the Hippocratic Oath, committing ourselves to science and a set of ethical principles that promote health, honesty, trust and service to all patients in need of medical care. Fragments of the oath can be traced back thousands of years, making it sacred to medical providers like me.
The Connecticut State Medical Society believes it must ensure that Connecticut policymakers and their constituents — our patients — are informed about the health and societal ramifications of public policies. One such issue is legalizing recreational marijuana, which the CSMS sees as a bad idea.
Regrettably, this issue has been cast as a state budget matter. But to physicians, marijuana use is a public health matter.
Marijuana has changed drastically over the last few decades. The potency of today’s marijuana is much higher than the grass of the Woodstock era or the pot of the 1990s, and physicians nationwide have seen alarming data from states that have legalized recreational use. This is due to an ever-increasing percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in marijuana, the drug’s psychoactive ingredient, which jumped from an average of 4% in 1983 to between 17% and 28% in 2018, according to a study in Missouri Medicine.
In recent years, the debate over recreational marijuana use has created the impression that cannabis is less harmful than it is. Words like "recreational" sound safe, yet cannabis use increases the risk of depression, suicide, psychosis, cognitive impairment and worsened academic performance in youths. Since the state of Washington legalized the recreational use of marijuana, studies have shown that 23% of youths who committed suicide had marijuana in their systems — up from 14%. We have also seen reports of very young children accidentally ingesting edible marijuana products, such as brownies and chocolates, which can appear to be normal-looking treats.
Teenage marijuana usage in Connecticut has remained at a relatively low and steady rate, hovering around 16% from 2008 to 2018, according to the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. However, the DMHAS study also saw a 10% spike in usage from the 18-25 age group, with nearly half of that group using marijuana in 2018. Legalizing recreational use will likely boost those numbers, as studies show that cannabis user disorder in young people has grown 25% in states that have legalized marijuana.
Beyond public health, recreational marijuana is likely to throw Connecticut’s recent youth driver safety initiatives into reverse, as happened in Washington, where the number of fatally injured drivers testing positive for marijuana doubled after legalizing recreational marijuana. Studies in medical journals show marijuana can impair an individual for up to five hours, and because of the properties of marijuana (which differ from alcohol), we do not have blood tests which reliably and legally measure the amount of marijuana in an impaired individual’s system.
We physicians base our opinions on science, data from peer-reviewed writings, observation and patient interaction. That is why we believe Connecticut should not sacrifice the health and well-being of our youths for the unproven promise of increased revenues. The science and data show it’s just not worth it. In fact, studies from Rhode Island indicate a net loss of revenue with such legalization.
CSMS physicians cannot support this dramatic change in public policy, but we do support and recognize the need for decriminalization and reduced penalties for cannabis offenses, as we have seen wide racial disparities related to convictions for marijuana possession.
We cannot just concede to bad policy because our neighboring states have made a bad decision. Allowing the recreational use of marijuana is bad science, bad policy and dangerous to Connecticut’s public health.
Dr. Gregory Shangold, an emergency physician, is president of the Connecticut State Medical Society.