The decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts has paved the way for a new business enterprise: medical marijuana dispensaries. These government-regulated businesses will provide marijuana to patients who have been authorized to possess and use the drug by a physician. However, in the rush to allow access to the drug by those with legitimate medical needs, we have failed to fully consider how decriminalization has affected recreational use and misuse of marijuana by our youth.
In 2008, when Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative leading to the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, youth perceptions regarding the drug changed. A substance, which was once illegal to possess and could lead to arrest, fines, and loss of driving privileges, was now considered a civil offense ($100 fine), much like a speeding ticket. Offenders under the age of 18 are subject to the same civil fine but must also complete a drug awareness program and community service.
Since decriminalization occurred, law enforcement officers across the state have observed a change in youth attitudes towards using marijuana. The use of civil consequences to control and deter the recreational use of marijuana by our youth has been entirely unsuccessful.
As Berkshire County prepares for its first marijuana dispensaries, it is important to remind our community of the effects marijuana can have on the young, developing brain.
Immediate consequences of marijuana use are seen behind the wheel. Driving under the influence of marijuana is linked to an increased risk of a motor vehicle crash, especially for fatal collisions, as published in the British Medical Journal. The analysis found driving under the influence of marijuana was associated with almost twice the risk of a motor vehicle crash when compared with unimpaired driving.
Lead researcher Mark Asbridge of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, found that while alcohol impairs drivers' speed and reaction time, marijuana affects their spatial awareness. Drivers who have recently smoked marijuana may follow cars too closely, and swerve in and out of lanes. The study also showed that while people who are drunk often recognize they are impaired by alcohol, those under the influence of marijuana often deny they are impaired.
Berkshire County is already at a distinct disadvantage with educating young people about the potential harms of marijuana use. While researching this topic, I spoke with Paul McNeil of the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership (PPP). The PPP is a coalition whose work includes reducing and preventing youth substance use. As part of their effort, the PPP, and other prevention coalitions in Berkshire County, conduct a biannual survey of all 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders in Berkshire County Public School districts. According to the 2013 Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, more Berkshire county youth report attitudes favorable to drug use than those reported in a national comparison sample.
For example, 55 percent of Berkshire County 12th-graders report attitudes favorable to drug use as compared to 43 percent nationally. Berkshire County 10th-graders reported a 20 percent increase in 30 day marijuana use from 2009 to 2013. At 26 percent, local 15-16 year-olds reported 30-day marijuana use is almost 50 percent higher than the University of Michigan's national Monitoring the Future comparison sample. Massachusetts has the third highest 30-day marijuana use rates for 12-17 year olds in the country, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), ahead of Colorado and Washington where use is recreationally legal.
To protect our youth from the harmful effects of tobacco and alcohol, Massachusetts has laws that restrict their sale and possession. Although chronic use of tobacco has been medically proven to be addictive and harmful, tobacco products do not have the intoxicating effect of alcohol, which can impair judgment and motor skills. As a result, our society has decided that laws restricting tobacco sales to persons under 18, combined with civil fines for adults, other than parents, who furnish tobacco products to children, is a sufficient deterrent.
The possession and use of alcohol by minors in Massachusetts is considered more serious than tobacco products. The alcohol laws in our state prohibit individuals under the age of 21 from possessing or purchasing alcoholic beverages. Individuals caught violating this statute are subject to arrest, fines, and the suspension of their driver's license. The law deters minors from openly engaging in the consumption of alcohol and acts as a deterrent by criminally penalizing those who are caught violating the law.
The possible consequence of losing one's license, a particularly important privilege for most teens, is an especially effective deterrent. Unlike tobacco products, it is the impairment effects of marijuana and alcohol, in addition to the long-term medical and mental health problems associated with their use, which necessitate their tighter restriction under the law. Based on the available evidence, which shows the harmful effects marijuana use can have on our youth, the state of Massachusetts has a responsibility to establish sensible, criminal, marijuana restrictions for minors under the age of 21.
The decision to decriminalize marijuana, without maintaining criminal sanctions designed to control the use of the drug by our youth, is an oversight that must be revisited.
Jeffrey J. Bradford is a lieutenant with the Pittsfield Police Department.