Marijuana is a hot button topic following November’s election. Pro-legalization and prohibitionists abound with arguments for and against legalization. It can be hard for many to distinguish the myths from the facts.

Marijuana is the most commonly abused illegal drug in the U.S. Approximately 17 million Americans have used marijuana within the past month. Locally, 22 percent of high school teens have recently used marijuana as reported by the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Despite new laws in Washington state and Colorado legalizing marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law. President Obama has spoken out against legalization, stating “firm opposition” to legalization.

“In the last several decades, science has come a long way in understanding marijuana’s impact on the body,” Karen Pershing, executive director for MDC, said. “Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between these scientific facts and public opinion.”

Science shows that THC, the active chemical in marijuana, can provide health benefits. Cancer patients and other chronic pain suffers have benefited from the drug Marinol, an FDA-approved oral medication using synthetic THC.

However, smoking raw marijuana is not recommended by the medical community as the best way to reap the benefits of THC. Today, marijuana is much stronger compared to decades past. Modern marijuana is at least 15 percent more potent than marijuana in the 1960s and 70s, according to analyses of seized plants.

In addition to potency, smoking marijuana can have other negative impacts:

  • Marijuana is addictive– Despite the misperceptions, marijuana can lead to dependence in some individuals. Nearly one in ten people will become addicted to marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). That number is much higher for those that begin using marijuana during the teen years. Moreover, it is the number one illicit drug causing young people to enter drug abuse treatment.
  • Marijuana irritates the lungs– Marijuana is not as “pure” as some might think. It contains 50-70 percent more harmful carcinogens than cigarette smoke, NIDA reports. This can lead to emphysema-like symptoms among chronic users.
  • Marijuana negatively impacts health– In addition to respiratory problems, marijuana can cause accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, lower immune system response, distorted vision, diminished cognition and impaired motor skills. Mental health is affected as well with higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and schizophrenia shown among chronic marijuana smokers.
  • Marijuana can lower a person’s IQ– Marijuana really does make you dumber, especially if the user starts young. Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows heavy marijuana use beginning in the teen years and continuing through adulthood may lead to a drop of eight IQ points. That can place a person of average intelligence into the lowest third of the intelligence range.

One of the arguments for legalization stems from potential tax revenue. Proponents claim that marijuana taxation would help bolster the lagging economy. However, multiple studies show the costs of marijuana use would greatly outweigh the tax benefit. Societal costs associated with alcohol, a legal substance, provide a great example. In 2007, $14.5 billion in alcohol taxes was collected. This accounts for a mere 10 percent of $185 billion in healthcare costs, criminal fees, productivity loss and other expenses incurred by alcohol abuse.

Other arguments claim legalization would reduce the burden upon the legal system and reduce prison populations. However, most people whose only crime is marijuana possession do not go to prison. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 0.7 percent of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only.

“The evidence is clear. Study after study shows that smoking marijuana is unsafe, unhealthy and costly,” Pershing said. “Health decisions should be made based on sound scientific research, not popular culture.”

For more information about marijuana, visit the Marijuana page.