Marijuana Debate Heats Up; Lifespan, Kennedy At Odds

Feb 21, 2014

A bill is making its way through Rhode Island's General Assembly that would legalize marijuana and regulate and tax it like alcohol. Possessing small amounts has already been decriminalized here. And interest has been growing in legalization for a while.

Proponents say that legalizing the drug would keep harmless people out of jail. Opponents say marijuana is just as dangerous as any other drug and should remain illegal.

The arguments are heating up.

Kennedy and Lifespan at odds
The Providence Journal reports that former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy is frustrated over the cancelation of an educational conference about marijuana, which was to include such participants as National Institute of Drug Abuse head Nora Volkow. Lifespan withdrew its sponsorship of the event, citing the controversy over marijuana legalization and the fact that the organization hasn't decided on a position yet. Kennedy has spoken publicly about his opposition to legalization and even started an organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, that aims to educate about the dangers of the drug.

Here's the statement Lifespan spokeswoman Gail Caravelli emailed me:

"Congressman Patrick Kennedy is a well-respected member of the Lifespan community and we regret  any confusion regarding the sponsorship of this event. We believe that hosting this forum could be viewed as taking a position on this important, yet controversial issue.  Since we have not formulated an opinion on this issue, we did not think it was appropriate to host such a forum at one of our facilities. We continue to gather information on this, as well as many other important issues. That said, all of our employees have the right to share their personal views on matters that are important to them and their families."

But Kennedy expressed his surprise to the Projo that a health care organization like Lifespan wouldn't come out against legalization without hesitation, given what we already know, he says, about its negative health impacts. And an op-ed in the paper today from a private practice psychotherapist talks about the harm he sees amongst his patients, all from marijuana, that it's addictive, it saps motivation, and that it is, in his experience, definitely a so-called "gateway" drug, leading users on to other addictive substances.

What the health research says
So what's the latest research about the health effects of marijuana? The National Institute on Drug Abuse says early, heavy use of marijuana can affect the brain's development and have long term consequences, citing a possible relationship between chronic marijuana use and mental illness. It's also addictive, NIDA says, and it can impair driving and functioning as much as other drugs like alcohol.

What legalization proponents say
Supporters of legalizing marijuana say we should regulate and tax it like alcohol, and that doing so would free up police to focus on other, more serious crimes. They say it would make marijuana safer, because it would be tested. And that it would generate economic benefits - jobs, tax revenues, etc.

So here's the dilemma, as I see it: legalize something we know can be harmful in the name of improving public safety (and let people decide whether to partake or not), or outlaw it in the name of protecting public health? I'm not weighing on this question. But I will say it's not the first time we've faced such questions and it won't be the last.