Some aspects of the marijuana issue deserve more thought

Jun 10, 2014

Over the years, people have asked me why I haven’t taken a position on the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. One man told me it was my patriotic duty as a baby boomer to do so.

I should have told him that all my patriotic fervor was invested in making sure that the music of Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder would never be forgotten. But unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough.

But I do feel that there are a couple aspects of the marijuana issue that deserve more thought. Personally, I don’t have any particular feeling about it one way or another.

I don’t use it, and I don’t plan to. I tried it long ago, and didn’t like it, or the way it made me feel. I don’t like not feeling mentally sharp. I realize lots of people, including many of my friends do enjoy pot, and in theory I have absolutely no problem with that.

I think the main flaw in the legislation was that it didn't provide for the state to supply and regulate the drug so that patients could be assured of proper quality control.

Nor do I think anyone who has a medical condition should be denied anything that relieves their suffering. I voted enthusiastically in favor of medical marijuana, and think the main flaw in the legislation was that it didn’t provide for the state to supply and regulate the drug so that patients could be assured of proper quality control.

Society is also moving closer to general acceptance of recreational marijuana use. This has already happened in Colorado, and last I looked, Michigan activists were trying to get symbolic decriminalization proposals on the ballot in a dozen communities.

I don’t live in any of those towns, and don’t face a choice. But there are two things we need to think more about. First of all, based on what I’ve seen, we don’t know how carcinogenic marijuana is.

Concerns about cancer risks and impaired driving

Different studies have indicated contradictory things, but there is no reason to think that taking smoke into your lungs is ever harmless. Whether you love Obamacare or hate it, our health system doesn’t need a flood of new lung cancer cases.

But one thing is clear: Driving a car while high is a bad idea. Thanks largely to safer cars and social pressure against drunk driving, the number of highway fatalities has fallen dramatically from more than 50,000 a year in 1980 to barely 30,000.

However, there were still more than ten thousand drunk driving deaths two years ago. That’s nearly twice as many dead Americans than in our entire 10 year war in Iraq.

And there’s new research that indicates medical marijuana may be making this problem worse. Columbia University researchers have been studying traffic fatalities, and concluded that marijuana played a role in one out of every eight traffic deaths four years ago. That’s triple the rate it was ten years earlier. There’s been a significant jump in marijuana-involved traffic fatalities in Colorado.

My instincts here are purely selfish. I drive a lot, and don’t want to be badly injured or killed by some pothead.

My guess is that I am not alone in this. NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is close to finishing a three-year study to determine the impact of marijuana on driving performance.

I think we ought to carefully consider their results.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.