LENOX -- The swirling debate on whether to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts, and nationwide, is bound to be decided at the ballot box or in the court of public opinion.

There are powerful advocates who favor opening the floodgates for pot use. The fulcrum of the argument seems to be whether recreational use of marijuana is any more troublesome than moderate consumption of alcohol, also known as social drinking.

I submit that excessive use of marijuana is a scourge similar to alcohol abuse that contributes to family breakdown and remains a leading cause of major traffic accidents, along with texting and other forms of distracted driving. It’s only a small step, one too often taken, from occasional or moderate use to abuse and addiction.

Polls show public opinion swinging behind legalization now that Colorado has gone that route, soon to be followed by the state of Washington.

In his compelling interview with New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick, President Obama opined that he doesn’t consider pot more dangerous than alcohol, even though his administration’s official policy remains opposed to legalization.

"I view it as a bad habit and a vice," he stated, "not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life."

With all due respect, Mr. Obama seems to be downplaying, if not ignoring, the severe health impact of tobacco use. A new, 980-page report issued by acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak this past week revealed a long list of diseases, in addition to lung cancer, attributed to nicotine addiction that still afflicts about 18 percent of Americans -- at least 40 million people.

"I don’t know if we have any definitive answers about cannabis use and its long-term health impact," Dr. Yasmin Hurd, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai in New York City, told The Boston Globe recently. "It hasn’t been studied as much as cigarettes and alcohol."

Ironically, that’s because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a "Schedule 1 dangerous drug." Scientists have to apply for special approval to study its effects on people.

But the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that one out of six teens who smoke pot regularly become addicted.

Dr. Jennifer Michaels, a medical director of the Brien Center in Pittsfield -- which provides mental health and substance abuse services countywide -- has cited research showing adverse medical impacts on teens since it’s a key time of brain development. In public forums, she noted that the chemicals in marijuana are much stronger now than in the past. She also considers pot a "gateway drug" to even more dangerous substances.

A recent Duke University study showed pot smoking negatively affects IQ scores and memory while impairing the ability to assess dangerous risks.

Law enforcement officials are understandably worried about decriminalizing marijuana, the first step on the road to legalization.

In an enlightening Eagle op-ed commentary on Jan. 5, Lieut. Jeffrey Bradford of the Pittsfield police department pointed to research by the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership (PPP), which surveys all eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders in the county’s public school districts every two years.

The 2013 report showed that 55 percent of Berkshire County 12th-graders report attitudes favorable to drug use as compared to 43 percent nationally. The survey found that 26 percent of area 15- and 16-year olds had smoked pot in a one-month period, far above national averages.

A statewide survey described Massachusetts as having the third highest 30-day marijuana use rates for 12- to 17-year-olds in the country.

Bradford advocated "sensible, criminal marijuana restrictions" for young people under 21 statewide.

The decision to lift criminal sanctions designed to control the use of the drug by our youth is "an oversight that must be revisited," he wrote, adding that the threat of suspending driver’s licenses for teens is an especially effective deterrent.

In a recent interview, Lenox Police Chief Stephen O’Brien emphasized the downside of marijuana use: Impairment behind the wheel or at work while operating industrial equipment -- "if you’re compromised by any type of drug, it puts you in a spot where you’re more susceptible to injury, as are the people around you."

Field sobriety tests such as Breathalyzers are widely available to police in potential cases of drunken driving, O’Brien noted. "We have yet to develop those for the use of narcotics or other drugs," he said, "and that makes it very difficult for us to enforce." Only a few drug-recognition experts with specialized training are available to police in the Berkshires to help determine if a driver was under the influence of drugs.

O’Brien hastened to point out that it remains illegal in Mass-
achusetts to possess even less than an ounce of marijuana, with a $100 fine as potential punishment. But it’s a civil charge, rather than criminal, and speeding violations often carry a more severe fine. (Using marijuana in public risks a $300 fine in Lenox, according to a town bylaw.)

Although marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, the Justice Department adopts a hands-off approach in the two states where the drug has been legalized.

Now that Massachusetts has authorized up to 35 nonprofit dispensaries to cultivate and distribute marijuana legally for legitimate medical purposes -- several are planned for Berkshire County, most likely in Pittsfield and Great Barrington -- supporters of recreational use are planning a ballot question for 2016 to coincide with the presidential election.

Supporters will spend heavily to promote legalization; opponents may be less well-funded, but will be just as outspoken.

It would be foolhardy to predict the outcome. But if pot smoking becomes legal, youngsters will believe that it’s perfectly OK. And that’s all we need -- future generations of potheads posing risks to their own well-being and creating even more danger for the rest of us.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com