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Foss: What are the downsides of legalizing pot?

Foss: What are the downsides of legalizing pot?

Foss: What are the downsides of legalizing pot?
Photographer: Gazette file photo

Lately I've gotten a number of emails from readers concerned about drugged driving. 

Drunken driving is already a major problem, these readers note, before wondering whether we can expect drugged driving to become a bigger headache should New York legalize recreational marijuana. Will people get stoned and drive and cause accidents? 

It's an important question, and it made me wonder what states that have already legalized weed might be experiencing. 

The answer, I discovered, is disappointing: States that have legalized recreational marijuana are seeing an increase in police-reported car crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which looked at data from Colorado, Oregon and Washington. 

In these three states, legalization of marijuana was associated with a rate of police-reported car accidents that was 5.2 percent higher than in neighboring control states, the study found. 

Driving while stoned is obviously a bad idea. 

And yet one study, from the Governors Highway Safety Association, found that many regular users of marijuana believe pot has no impact on their driving, and will drive when they're high. 

I've written before that I support legalizing marijuana for recreational use for adults, and I still believe that. 

But I've also come to believe that lawmakers will be doing residents a disservice if they fail to engage with research showing that marijuana use can have real downsides. 

If New York decides to legalize pot -- all signs indicate that it will, possibly this year -- it needs to take these risks seriously and prepare for them. 

An article in the most recent New Yorker, titled "Is Marijuana As Safe As We Think?", suggests that we actually know very little about pot's impact on users, and that we should be cautious about promoting it as a benign or harmless substance. 

The article discusses a 488-page report on cannabis released by the National Academy of Medicine in 2017. 

The report "simply stated, over and over again, that a drug North Americans have become enthusiastic about remains a mystery," article author Malcolm Gladwell writes. 

In chapters five through 13 of the report, which focus on marijuana's potential risks, "The haze of uncertainty continues," Gladwell writes. "Does the use of cannabis increase the likelihood of fatal car accidents? Yes. By how much? Unclear. Does it affect motivation and cognition? Hard to say, but probably. Does it affect employment prospects? Probably. Will it impair academic achievement? Limited evidence. This goes on for pages." 

Another journalist, Alex Berenson, has authored a book coming out this week, "Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence," that looks at some of the more troubling research on marijuana. 

While the title of Berenson's book is a little too "Reefer Madness" for my taste, it draws on research that comes from legitimate and credible sources, such as the National Academy of Medicine report, which finds that cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses, and that the higher the use, the greater the risk.

One of the challenges with discussing marijuana's impact is the dearth of quality scientific research on the drug, and there's always a chance that future research will contradict some of the more alarming findings on marijuana. 

Perhaps we'll learn that there's some other explanation for the growth in drugged driving, such as the opioid epidemic, or that the increased risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses faced by marijuana isn't as strong as the National Academy of Medicine report suggests. 

But we shouldn't dismiss these findings simply because they aren't what we want to hear. 

There are good reasons, such as reducing the power of violent drug cartels, to legalize marijuana and regulate it like cigarettes or alcohol.

But we need to be honest about what legalization will entail, and that requires discussing the positives as well as the negatives. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. 

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