The unintended consequences of marijuana legalization

Colorado and Washington are the first states to legalize recreational marijuana.  In my state of Colorado, Amendment 64 was passed by 55 percent of voters by ballot referendum last year and took effect on January 1 of this year.  State government officials are giddy with the prospects of increased revenue from marijuana sales.  Marijuana tourism is booming in Colorado, giving new meaning to “Rocky Mountain High.”  Now, four months into this new experiment, it may be worth looking at some of the unintended consequences.

Tax revenue may not be as much as anticipated, according to Governor John Hickenlooper.  No surprise there: Government officials salivating over this supposed cash cow may get a chicken rather than a cow.  With legal weed costing three times as much as black-market weed, savvy consumers may go with the cheaper product in the same way they did before legalization.  Remember the luxury tax on yachts about 15 years ago that actually reduced government revenue by decimating the U.S. boatbuilding industry?

Within two weeks of marijuana legalization in Colorado, a stoned motorist plowed into two State Police vehicles in metro Denver.  And a 69-year-old driver was pulled over in Idaho, detained, and his vehicle searched.  He was profiled over his Colorado license plate and Washington driver’s license.

Tragically, a 19-year-old Wyoming college student jumped to his death from a Denver hotel balcony after eating a marijuana cookie.  Forgoing the usual spring break beaches of Florida or Texas, the student and a group of his friends visited Denver over their spring break to “sample marijuana.”  Turns out he sampled a bit more than one cookie, as most cookie-eaters would be prone to do.  But he missed the recommendation of the store clerk to cut the cookie into six pieces and eat one at a time.  Who cuts a cookie into six pieces and eats one at a time?  Does Mrs. Fields cut her cookies into six pieces like a pizza pie?  Maybe obvious for this student in hindsight, but he won’t be the last person to eat an entire cookie, as everyone normally does.  What about a hungry child who comes across one of his parent’s marijuana cookies and wants a snack?  What could go wrong?

A week later, a Denver man shot his wife to death after smoking and eating marijuana.  He ate marijuana-infused orange ginger candy, purchased legally, earlier that evening.  According to the store, “a single bite is enough.”  Like the cookie, who eats a “single bite” of candy?  The man’s legal defense will revolve around the “we didn’t know this would happen” argument.  “The defense will argue strongly that this is an involuntary intoxication in the sense that he didn’t know it would produce this kind of effect on his mental state.”  Gee, wouldn’t this kind of thing be important to know about marijuana before making it legal?

The FDA certainly doesn’t take this approach — if anything, it’s the opposite.  A life-saving meningitis vaccine called Bexsero is slowly moving through the approval process despite approval in Europe, Canada, and Australia, and despite lives lost waiting.  The FDA has also dithered over a drug for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a crippling and ultimately fatal children’s disease.  While it is important to be sure that approved drugs are safe and effective, even limited safety and efficacy is a better option than doing nothing for these otherwise fatal diseases.  Yet for a recreational drug like marijuana, also potentially fatal, public safety relies on a store clerk advising customers to cut their cookies into sixths or eat only one bit of a piece of candy.

Researchers at Northwestern and Harvard found potentially serious brain alterations in young adult casual marijuana users.  The Wyoming college student certainly falls into this category.  What if a pharmaceutical company brought such a drug to market?  Especially in a form appealing to children, like a cookie or piece of candy?  Would the FDA approve it for market?  In the unlikely event they did, imagine the public outcry and litigation over such a drug.  Ten years ago, Merck paid out billions of dollars to settle multiple lawsuits over Vioxx for numerous drug-related deaths.

Who is at fault over marijuana-related fatalities?  One of the numerous Denver dispensaries?  The state legislators charged with regulating marijuana sales and use?  The governor, who signs the legislation into law?  Or the voters who approved the use of recreational marijuana use in Colorado?

Marijuana is here to stay in Colorado.  The news of Easter Sunday was not a celebration of the resurrection of Christ or Easter egg hunts, but instead the 4/20 rally in Denver.  To each his own, but is anyone thinking about the unintended consequences of laissez-faire weed and the mounting causalities left in its wake?

Brian C. Joondeph is an ophthalmologist and can be reached on Twitter @retinaldoctor.  This article originally appeared in American Thinker.

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  • guest

    How many marijuana related crimes and deaths occurred prior to legalization in Colorado or Washington? Put this information in your article and we may be able to have a discussion.
    I’m one who is glad the war on drugs no longer includes marijuana in CO and WA.

  • ninguem

    I find it……remarkable……..that all the stories of cannabinoid toxicity, all the stories of pediatric poisonings, and veterinary poisonings for that matter………all started popping up AFTER “legalization” (or whatever you want to call the Washington and Colorado votes).

    Really. I think anyone saying this before the votes in those two states would have been laughed at, like “reefer madness”.

    Not to mention the usual…….bias, cowardice, maybe just plain incompetence…….of the press.

    • DeceasedMD1

      well the one positive note is in states where it is legal, doctors will no longer be asked to write prescriptions for it. Well at least I hope so.

  • Nathan Johnson

    Very poor form for a doctor to write this based on anecdotes. Why not use actual statistics rather then scare stories. “The study — by University of Colorado Denver professor Daniel Rees and Montana State University professor D. Mark Anderson — found that the traffic-death rate drops by nearly 9 percent in states after they legalize marijuana for medical use.” http://www.denverpost.com/ci_19437417

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  • DeceasedMD1

    oh I was afraid of that. Plus i assume medical MJ is “FREE” with your copay under the ACA. So far the medical MJ is such a joke. I was on a college campus a few months ago and found fliers on how to get it from someone on campus with a medical MJ card. I have seen mostly college students with drug issues get cards. They are obviously crafty.

    • ninguem

      Legalization will put the marijuana mills out of business. I have yet to encounter one marijuana clinic that is truly interested in the medical benefit of the drug. I have had a couple, where I was truly concerned that marijuana was contraindicated (ongoing schizophrenia with recent psych admission, and a “caregiver” who was exploiting the mentally ill patient).

      That particular case, the “clinic” requested the records. that’s their way of pretending to be legitimate, they have no intention of actually reading the records, except to find something to hang a pretext for the prescription.

      I sent the records, with specific request that they NOT approve the marijuana, that it was contraindicated.

      No matter, they wrote an authorization anyway.

      In those days, when the “clinics” were more rare, they charged $600.

      In Oregon, we had one physician who was responsible for…..one-third, two-thirds, I forget now………about the majority of marijuana authorizations in Oregon. He would take a phone call from the applicant, and based on a phone call, without physical examination or even physical meeting with the patient, he would sign off on an authorization.

      It took years for the Board to deal with that guy, because of the politics behind “medical” marijuana.

      • DeceasedMD1

        How the heck could they prescribe medical MJ to that psychotic guy? They do need a prescription. I assume they got it from another doc? Well when there is a will there is a way. Couldn’t they technically be reported going against your medical advice? Don’t they have any oversight these medical MJ clinics? I am guessing you are going to tell me not.
        What good does it do them to have your documentation that they are going AMA?

      • DeceasedMD1

        Ninguem, That is pretty disheartening not that I had any notions that they were ethically run. But they DO need a prescription. Right? ( I guess you are saying that is easy to find a few docs that write MJ for anyone.) But there has to be some sort of gov’t oversight of these”clinics”?

  • DeceasedMD1

    that last line is not far from the direction things are headed. As crazy as it sounds. Seems like the laws are made to be punitive rather than rehabiliatative and even in prison it seems there is money to be made as you wryly point out.

  • SarahJ89

    Welcome to Reefer Madness, Part II. Yes, I’ll bet there will be some overindulging after years of prohibition.

    I was a young woman living in a hippy commune when Nixon started the so-called War on Drugs. We all smoked marijuana and several of my roommates sold the stuff. There was a steady stream of young people coming in and out to buy nickel and dime bags.

    Here’s what happened after DEA managed to cut off the supply of marijuana: Kids would come in, looking for it.
    Supplier: “We don’t have any.”
    Kid: “What else do you have?”

    Within days everyone was buying and selling cocaine and opium and the limited supply of prescription pills available. Months later a young man I knew was the first to import heroin into our rural state. Soon after people started dying. Young people went from smoking dope and eating chips on Saturday night into full blown addiction.

    I was very young, but logic told me that the people who decided to start at the lower end of the scale KNEW they would be pushing users up, not down. I concluded that someone (in Washington, most likely and somewhere along the supply chain) was making lots of money off this War on Drugs. It was impossible for me to believe DEA actually was so dumb they didn’t know what they were doing.

    If a stupid hippy chick in her early twenties was able to figure this out in five minutes… well, I really don’t get why this isn’t screamingly obvious to one and all. But then, I’ve never been a big fan of hysteria as a means of implementing social policy.

    • ninguem

      Fine, legalize it. Treat it like beer, fine with me. The usual restrictions about sales to minors, tax it like alcohol, etc., etc.

      All I want is to drop the pretense that people are taking it for a medical reason.

      • SarahJ89

        Totally agree with you. But I did want to point out that there seems to be some sort of payoff in these scare tactics.

  • http://euonymous.wordpress.com euonymous

    You seem to be writing about two totally unrelated problems: the potential for deaths related to overindulging in legalized (or otherwise) marijuana and that the FDA is not approving potentially lifesaving medications in a timely manner. The FDA did not have anything to do with the legalization of marijuana; such legalization was the result of a state vote. Your stories demonstrate that state regulation is in order.

  • DeceasedMD1

    Well, it’s always worse than I thought Ninguem. So there are no limits to the amount of THC given to the pt? What then? Pts are instructed to just dose till there is no pain before the paranoid delusions kick in? Is there no limit to the amount they can buy?

    • ninguem

      They’re not given dosage guidelines at all. Remember, all the doctor is doing, is certifying that the doc feels the patient has a “debilitating disease”, or some language like that. There is a condition where marijuana might offer symptom relief.

      No physician that I know, no patient that I know, I’ve never seen any doctor ever prescribe a dose or frequency.

      In fairness, to “prescribe” marijuana in a classic sense…..drug, dose, frequency, indication…..would probably get the doc in trouble with the law.

      • DeceasedMD1

        Thanks. What a joke. I assume a pt can buy as much as they can afford as there seems to be no monitoring. I sure hope this does not become a trend for the rest of the states but hopefully I will retire before it becomes law in all 50 states.

  • ninguem
  • Jeandre Gerber Pretorius

    People have been smoking cannabis for thousands of years. Extracts have also been around for thousands of years.

    These “Two” alleged cannabis deaths cannot be ‘blamed’ on cannabis. The child that “fell” (not jumped) to his death didn’t die from cannabis but rather the impact of the fall. He did not overdose on the drug, he fell. If he were sober, slipped and fell we wouldn’t have heard anything about his death. If he were drunk, slipped and fell….we would never have even heard his name.

    But merely because it was cannabis, the story is thrown into the mainstream like a dying attempt from prohibitionists to blame something else on pot.

    The man who killed his wife. Nobody addressed past issues, nobody investigated mental health problems. He was also on “Prescription Pain Medicine” which was conveniently left out in this report as well.

    Now in terms of regulation. Sure, I think people are unaware that stuff is more refined these days and needs to be informed on how to take it. The cookies need to be dosed down to a Light-Medium-Strong category so people can ease into it. Seasoned smokers know how to partake.

    Prohibition has left a trail of chaos throughout the past 70 years. Hundreds of Thousands of dead people. But oh, that’s right…they died in some other country, it’s not important right…those death’s don’t count. How about the 1.5 million Americans arrested in 2012 for non-violent drugs? Half of them for marijuana alone!

    It doesn’t matter what argument you spew, statistics, science and common sense dictates that cannabis legalization and the END of drug prohibition is the only way we can actually turn this ‘Prohibition Problem” around.

    Oh and when Hemp legalized…everything is changing.

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