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Politicking pot: The law, the risks, and Obama

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At one time, it was cigarettes making the headlines, along with pics of damaged smokers and their lungs. Then came word of e-cigarettes as a safe alternative, but they eventually got a bad rap, too. Now it’s marijuana that’s hit the front pages.

Call it what you will-- pot, weed, Mary Jane, bammy or any of its other nicknames--attitudes toward Cannabis are changing dramatically and in some places, so is the law.

Popular and versatile, marijuana can be smoked in a hand-rolled cigarette called a joint or in a pipe or water pipe, aka a bong. Some folks, though, choose instead to empty out a cigar and fill it with a mix of week and tobacco, and that’s known as a blunt. Who knew, right? And, of course, it’s also edible, as in cookies, brownies, candies, even beverages.

And what makes it such a hit, no pun intended? Among the hundreds of chemical compounds in the Cannabis plant, the one called tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC, is the standout. It acts on cannabinoid receptors in the brain, and the result? A feel-good high that’s potentially addictive.

That’s because those receptors happen to be in areas of the brain associated not just with feelings of pleasure but also:

  • Thinking
  • Concentration
  • Coordination and movement
  • Sensory and time perception.

Then there’s the fact that the weed available today is not the same as that smoked by folks back when. Indeed, the potency of THC has actually doubled since 1968—and that’s a red flag, especially for the younger set.

Says Dr. Paula Riggs, director of the Division of Substance Dependence at the University of Colorado School of Psychiatry, “It has a similar effect on the brain reward system as other drugs of abuse like heroin and cocaine.”

Don’t let that fact be obscured by all the recent politicking of pot amid the rush to follow Colorado’s and Washington’s lead in legalizing it and this from Obama: “As has been well-documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked. I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than alcohol.”

Unfortunately, this rather unpresidential proclamation has compounded drug-related problems for parents across the country, as they struggle to keep their kids on the straight and narrow. As a Norristown father confided: “Like it’s not hard enough. When I caught my son carrying some of the stuff on him, he actually said to me, “What’s the big deal, Dad? The president says it’s okay.”

It’s really not okay, though, and many experts concur that Obama is wrong when he claims marijuana is just a bad alcohol-like habit, and here’s why:

In the short term, marijuana can lead to:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Red eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased appetite

The risks don’t end there, though; in fact, long term use can result in:

  • Impaired thinking
  • Memory problems
  • Panic attacks and other psychological problems
  • A weakened immune system
  • Impaired lung function when smoked

Moreover, because it affects spatial perception, marijuana impairs driving. Users can also lose their ability to concentrate when behind the wheel and experience slower reaction times, as well. The upshot: an increase in accidents.

Then there’s this from Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse: “When you smoke marijuana, you cannot memorize or learn as you should. And if you’re at high school, and you need to be educating yourself, that’s going to put you at higher risk of doing poorly at school. The other issue is that the younger you start smoking marijuana, the higher the risk not only to becoming addicted to marijuana, but it also appears to increase the risk for addiction to other drugs in adulthood.”

In fact, research suggests that 9% of users become addicted, and that figure rises to 17%--or 1 in 6—for those who start at an early age and between 25% and 50% in daily users. Says the government’s own drug abuse site: “Thus, many of the nearly 7 percent of high-school seniors who (according to annual survey data) report smoking marijuana daily or almost daily are well on their way to addiction, if not already addicted (besides functioning at a sub-optimal level all of the time).”

Nevertheless, the movement to legalize marijuana has plenty of minions. Indeed, an October Gallup poll found that 58% of respondents favor it, a 46% increase since 1969. In addition, 38% admitted having tried it.

Some in Pennsylvania want in, too--here where we have some of the strictest drug laws in the country. Governor Corbett would like to keep it that way, but the push is on. In fact, in a recent poll 69% of Pennsylvanians favor legalization in the U.S., with just 30% opposing it.

Enter John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor of the commonwealth. He definitely has visions of legalization dancing in his head, right there along with votes. He has already been endorsed by the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, whose communications director, Erik Altieri, had this to say: “For Democrats in primaries, it has become an issue that sets you apart and gets you votes because there is overwhelming support for legalization. Soon enough, politicians are going to be stumbling over themselves not only to support this but to say who supports it more.”

Daylin Leach, the Democratic state senator for the 17th district, is on board, too. He and Mike Folmer, a Republican, have put forward SB1182 to allow the use of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania for the treatment of such illnesses as cancer, glaucoma, seizures, and muscular sclerosis for those 18 and older. Not surprisingly, a recent poll finds that 81% here favor such a move. It is currently under debate in the capital; Governor Corbett remains opposed.

Meanwhile, legalization is the central plank in Leach’s current bid to be the next representative from the 13th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. As he put it, “You know the Wayne Gretzky line, ‘I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where it will be.’ Well, most politicians want to skate where the puck already was.”

To that end, he’s also the sponsor of Senate Bill 528 which would legalize marijuana for recreational purposes—and, of course, tax it and regulate it, too. Those taxes would be set on a par with those for alcohol. The net result: about $550 million in tax revenues and law enforcement savings.

Thus, the state of the union in January, 2014.

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