Her letter arrived in mid-May and, glancing at the first few lines as I stood in my kitchen sipping coffee, I got it wrong. I thought it was going to be a letter in which someone was agreeing with me.
“I read with great interest your book Marijuana Nation….”
The writer was a woman my age (early 70s), who also had read some of my op-ed articles and Pro Talk essays. “I too now have a
passion for working in this field to get future marijuana laws right.”
I’d spoken out about the rationale for regulating and taxing marijuana for adults. I’d also said that such laws need to acknowledge and meaningfully address the drug’s potential harms…-Roger RoffmanAs I continued reading, I wondered if she was thinking we might do some work together on marijuana legalization. I’d spoken out about the rationale for regulating and taxing marijuana for adults. I’d also said that such laws need to acknowledge and meaningfully address the drug’s potential harms by investing new tax revenues in science-based public education about
marijuana, youth drug prevention, treatment of marijuana addiction, and research.
I was about to set her letter aside with the thought that I’d finish it later in the day. Then, I came to this: “My passion was ignited in March, 2014, when I read my son John’s suicide note that included, “I want to die. My soul is already dead. Marijuana killed my soul and ruined my brain.”
I sat down and put my coffee cup aside.
Her letter told me more of the story. John* was 31 when he took his life. He’d been happy and successful through his mid-twenties, but then began struggling with marijuana addiction. Bouts of depression, acute anxiety, and suicide ideation accompanied his heavy marijuana consumption and then, with the help of a treatment program, he achieved abstinence, allowing him to “mend fences with his family and begin a new try at life without marijuana.”
From what I learn now from addiction counselors it seems it is one of the hardest drugs to break away from BECAUSE it is seen as so safe.-Roger RoffmanHis recovery didn’t hold. He sought and was given authorization to use marijuana medically for what his mother described as a false claim of leg pain. John’s addiction struggle quickly returned. “… (D)erivatives are dangerous. I am convinced that is what my son John’s experience came from – misuse of highly potent marijuana….From what I learn now from addiction counselors it seems it is one of the hardest drugs to break away from BECAUSE it is seen as so safe. That’s all the young brain hears – safer, safer, safer.”
I believe she’s right.
Moreover, there are a number of quite powerful factors that contribute to why so many underestimate marijuana’s risks:
- Making an argument for legalization: Some legalization advocates make a convincing point: if alcohol, a more dangerous substance than marijuana, is legal for adults, what is the justification for keeping marijuana illegal? “Safer than” has become a campaign mantra. But, here’s the problem. Far too many hear the words “safer than” and interpret them to mean “there’s nothing to worry about.”
Legalization makes sense at this point in our history, but it needs to come along with a major effort to inform consumers about what’s true.
- The challenge of proving causality. There is considerable evidence that some marijuana consumers struggle with depression, anxiety, psychosis, or suicidality. Can marijuana be proven to cause these consequences? To date, the answer is no although there are a good number of studies in which there’s a correlation and reason to suspect marijuana use is a contributing factor.
Here’s the point. Scientists can judiciously caution readers to understand that while evidence of correlation warrants concern, causality hasn’t been proven. But, public health specialists don’t do well in crafting education messages to deal with “suspected” but unproven risks. Also, some advocates for legalization pounce when educators speak of possible harms, denouncing the messaging as unfounded because there isn’t proof of causality.
In an earlier essay -“Is the Road to Legalization Paved with Risk for the Heavy User? – I speculated that at a time when the momentum for ending marijuana prohibition is continuing to build, the adult heavy consumer is likely to be thrown under the bus. No one will be dedicating efforts to informing these individuals of the risks that their consumption patterns incur. Indeed, many of them will hear consistent messages that warnings are propaganda, marijuana is harmless, and they’ve nothing to worry about.
…until we get serious about meeting the need for consumer education and meeting it with sufficient resources to do the job, we’re going to see casualties.-Roger RoffmanSeveral years ago, a reporter who had witnessed his neighbor’s suicide came to speak with me. Looking into her background, he discovered the woman had been sexually abused when younger, had had psychiatric illness, and was a daily marijuana user. When I told him that this history likely had placed her at increased risk for suicide, he looked at me quizzically and asked,
“Why don’t people know this?”
The pendulum is swinging and we’re shifting our support for ending marijuana prohibition and adopting a regulated legal market for the adult consumer. But, until we get serious about meeting the need for consumer education and meeting it with sufficient resources to do the job, we’re going to see casualties.
*Name changed for privacy