Op-ed: Health and Financial Risks of Marijuana Legalization Far Outweigh the Benefits

Think for a moment about taking a leisurely walk in a park with a child or grandchild and you pass through a cloud of smoke made by a group of people sitting on a bench smoking marijuana. You then witness these same individuals get into a vehicle and drive away. Do we want this scenario to be the new norm in Pennsylvania?

Lt. Governor John Fetterman was in Blair County on Sunday on a listening tour regarding the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. I was in attendance and listened to folks expressing support and opposition. I was surprised by the misinformation put forth by attendees. There seems to be major confusion about medical marijuana vs. recreational marijuana. We currently have a process in place for obtaining medical cannabis for 21 diagnosed conditions. This process is highly regulated on a state level. I urge you to consider the major difference in using marijuana medically or using it for leisure.

In my 4 years in the legislature, I have heard from constituents as well as business owners who are adamantly opposed on this subject. In fact, the majority of my correspondences and communications with folks on this issue has been to express their opposition.

Many employers are currently struggling to hire employees who do not practice drug use. With this change in the law, employers could have employees who are now impaired during work duty, therefore causing a safety concern for themselves and other co-workers. What do we do when our workforce becomes increasingly more impaired? According to Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), states that have legalized the use of marijuana have seen massive increases in workforce positive drug testing since legalization. Oregon has seen a 63% increase, Nevada has seen a 55% increase, and Colorado has seen a 47% increase. Overall positive test rates in the workplace rose 10% last year while rates in safety-sensitive workers increased 5%.  It is very concerning to think truck drivers, crane operators or amusement park operators in safety sensitive occupations could be impaired.

Perhaps most troubling is the impact that this policy could have on the health of our youth. According to their Department of Health and Human Services, Colorado holds the top ranking for first-time marijuana use among youth in the country. Marijuana use has been linked to a variety of serious health problems in young people, including immune system complications, changes in brain activity and development, respiratory concerns, fertility issues and a variety of mental health conditions. Central Oregon hospitals saw a nearly 2,000% increase in emergency room visits due to marijuana poisoning, and 434 marijuana-related emergency visits in January 2016, compared to a maximum of 32 visits per month prior to legalization. (Kent 2016).  Today‚Äôs highly potent marijuana is extremely concerning.  In Seattle, Washington the average THC potency level far exceeds the national average at 21.24% for marijuana flowers compared to 72.76 % for marijuana concentrates (NHIDTA, 2016). 

Legalization of recreational marijuana also raises the question of how to measure impairment behind the wheel. There is a clear standard and testing procedure for alcohol impairment of drivers; no such test or standard exists for marijuana impairment. Traffic deaths in Colorado involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled in 2017 according to the Highway Loss Data Institute. Legalizing recreational marijuana without a coherent policy to avoid impaired driving would be blatantly irresponsible and will only lead to more victims on the highways.

There is a very real concern that the new tax revenue promised by recreational marijuana advocates may never materialize. California’s marijuana tax revenue has consistently fallen well short of projections, including a shortfall of approximately $100 million in the first year alone.  Colorado had to raise its tax rate to compensate for overproduction. The prospect of realizing additional revenue is an insufficient reason to set aside the public health concerns. The mountains of red tape required to operate a recreational marijuana system safely has also created a thriving black market that not only siphons money away from state coffers, but also brings all the dangers we have come to expect from the illegal drug trade.

We are working hard to combat addictive substances not only in Pennsylvania, but nationally. Making more and highly potent drugs widely available will do nothing to curb the ongoing public health catastrophe that has already claimed far too many lives across the state. Pennsylvania is currently facing a heroin and opioid addiction crisis that shows no signs of stopping. Do we really want to start off a new generation of youth to believe that marijuana use is harmless?

For the reasons outlined above, I do not support the legalization of recreational marijuana. I hope you will join me in voicing your opposition to our Lt. Governor by visiting https://www.governor.pa.gov/recreational-marijuana-feedback/.