WASHINGTON—Marijuana has been decriminalized and legalized for recreational use in Washington and Colorado, while New York is set to become the 23rd state to legalize it for medical purposes. But what are the health effects?
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony Friday from a panel of witnesses to determine whether marijuana use, both medicinal and recreational, is harmful or helpful.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., in his opening remarks voiced concern about the messaging available to the public regarding issues of marijuana and public health. “The jumbled messaging has been initiated by the president’s own statements,” he said. Mica mentioned quotes from President Barack Obama equating smoking marijuana to smoking cigarettes.
In an interview with The New Yorker in January, Obama spoke openly about his own personal marijuana use. “I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person,” he said. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., spoke strongly against marijuana use, mentioning that the University of Mississippi’s pharmacology department has been studying the effects of marijuana for 40 years.“There are no reports of good things because there are no good things to report,” he said.
Fleming continued to list seven myths about marijuana that have become widely accepted. One is that people are behind bars simply for smoking marijuana. “That’s not true. The people behind bars were involved in dealing, theft, or other crimes,” he said.
Pope Francis is joining the discussion, too. “The problem of drug use is not solved with drugs,” Francis said in a meeting in Rome on Friday.
After voters in 2012 approved marijuana use in Washington and Colorado, stores opened in January to distribute marijuana products to anyone over 21, even though the drug is still considered illegal under federal law.
The FDA classifies marijuana as a schedule one narcotic, which means the drug has not been officially accepted for medicinal purposes and has a high potential for abuse. Other drugs in this category include heroin and peyote.
But Carl Hart, a professor at Columbia University, argues that marijuana is less harmful or addictive than other legalized substances, including alcohol and tobacco. “About 9 percent of all marijuana users will become addicted to the drug,” he said. “By comparison, about 15 percent of alcohol users and 33 percent of tobacco smokers will become addicted.”
Nora Volkow, director at the National Institute of Drug Abuse, thinks those numbers shouldn’t be used as a comparison. “Many people have not used marijuana because it is still an illicit drug,” she said. She believes if marijuana were to be nationally legalized, the percentage of marijuana addicts would increase.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., thinks the issue of marijuana legalization is a liberty and freedom issue. “Liberty is not going to jail, and for some, the pursuit of happiness is marijuana,” he said.