Marijuana legalization is apparently sweeping all resistance before it, with two states, Washington and Colorado, leading the way (insert your own “Rocky Mountain High” joke here, I’m tired of them). Several other states seem poised to follow.

Portland approved an ordinance last year to stop penalizing consenting adults for possessing small amounts, and two more Maine communities (South Portland and Lewiston) will vote on similar measures next month.

Back in 1999, Maine voters approved the use of medical marijuana in a referendum, and authorized dispensaries under certain conditions in 2009. Twenty-two other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws.

But a lot is being said on both sides of the issue that’s worth hearing before the effort to add “a third legal recreational drug” to the nation’s pharmacopoeia kicks all objections to the curb.

The “About Marijuana” page of the NORML website (, for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) says, “Marijuana is the third most popular recreational drug in America (behind only alcohol and tobacco), and has been used by nearly 100 million Americans.”

It continues: “Our public policies should reflect this reality, not deny it. Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. Around 50,000 people die each year from alcohol poisoning. Similarly, more than 400,000 deaths each year are attributed to tobacco smoking. By comparison, marijuana is nontoxic and cannot cause death by overdose.”


And according to the pro-pot Marijuana Policy Project (, “These (Maine) campaigns will help build momentum for a change in marijuana policy statewide. We have been clear about our efforts to bring the question of taxing and regulating marijuana to voters statewide in 2016. Talking to folks around the state, it is clear that Mainers are ready to make marijuana legal.”

But saying that marijuana is less dangerous than currently legal drugs is not the same thing as saying it is safe, according to Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency.

“Look at the evidence,” Volkow said recently, pointing to the harms already inflicted by tobacco and alcohol. “It’s not subtle — it’s huge. Legal drugs are the main problem that we have in our country as it relates to morbidity and mortality. By far. Many more people die of tobacco than all of the drugs together. Many more people die of alcohol than all of the illicit drugs together.

“And it’s not because they are more dangerous or addictive,” Volkow continued. “Not at all — they are less dangerous. It’s because they are legal. … The legalization process generates a much greater exposure of people and hence of negative consequences that will emerge. And that’s why I always say, ‘Can we as a country afford to have a third legal drug? Can we?'”

Interestingly enough, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, where voters legalized pot two years ago, said in a televised debate this week, “I think for us to do that without having all the data, there is not enough data, and to a certain extent you could say it was reckless. I’m not saying it was reckless because I’ll get quoted everywhere, but if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done it, right? I opposed it from the very beginning.”

And then he added, “In matter of fact, all right, what the hell — I’ll say it was reckless.”


Why might that be? England’s Daily Mail newspaper reported Oct. 7 that a 20-year study by an adviser to the World Health Organization found that pot has a long list of detrimental effects, especially for teenagers who use it heavily.

Wayne Hall, a professor of addiction policy at King’s College in London, said that while pot may have no fatal dosage, “One in six teenagers who regularly smoke the drug become dependent on it; cannabis doubles the risk of developing psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia; users do worse at school; heavy use in adolescence appears to impair intellectual development; one in 10 adults who regularly smoke the drug become dependent on it and those who use it are more likely to go on to use harder drugs; and driving after smoking cannabis doubles the risk of a car crash, a risk which increases substantially if the driver has also had a drink.”

Hall added, “Rates of recovery from cannabis dependence among those seeking treatment are similar to those for alcohol.”

What’s the cost of a third legal drug? Apparently, it would be substantial — and painful. We ought to ask ourselves if approving for general use a drug strong enough to ease the pain of cancer patients is really a good idea.

Put another way, approving marijuana for medical use is an entirely different question from making it readily available to everyone — including, inevitably, teenagers.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. Email at:

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