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Critics Warn Against Legalizing Pot|at Silicon Valley Symposium

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — While Californians will decide whether to legalize marijuana for general consumption this November, a sundry group of law enforcement officials, district attorneys, doctors, public health experts and policy wonks convened in Silicon Valley to explore the detrimental impacts of the drug on human health and the implications legalization could have on the body politic.

The Silicon Valley Marijuana Awareness Symposium held this past Thursday and Friday featured a list of speakers who almost universally spoke about the negative repercussions of the permissive atmosphere surrounding marijuana, particularly on the nation's youth.

"This is a pivotal time in our history," Kevin Sabet, founder of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said. "We are poised to make a decision to undertake the massive normalization and commercialization of a third drug, marijuana."

The group's political action arm is the single largest contributor to anti-legalization initiatives.

The normalization part of the equation worried many of the educators speaking at the symposium, including California Department of Education director Gordon Jackson, who said legalization would lower the perception of harm for young people, making them more inclined to try it.

Young people's perception of the drug as essentially harmless is why the public should marshal and fight against legalization, Sabet told a mostly receptive crowd at the Santa Clara Convention Center.

Furthermore, the public's embrace of some of the virtues of marijuana, including its medicinal properties, tends to overshadow lingering concerns that the drug is prone to abuse and such abuse can lead to harm for individuals and society.

Bertha Madras, a professor with Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the World Health Organization's report on marijuana, said an increasing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that marijuana use is not safe and instead can be very harmful.

"Marijuana affects the brain, and the brain is the single most important organ in our body," Madras said.

She added that marijuana use, even at low levels, impairs cognitive function, hinders learning and working memory, reduces attention span and other functions of the brain such as decision-making and problem-solving.

Furthermore, marijuana impacts motor coordination and reaction times, making things like operating a motor vehicle or heavy machinery dangerous, according to Madras. Studies show that heavy use among young people may diminish an individual's IQ by as much as 8 points.

Those who begin using while young have a greater chance of developing a use disorder or addiction problem, according the increasing corpus of scientific studies seeking to clarify the public health impacts of marijuana.

Sabet in particular was careful not to invoke past anti-marijuana screeds that relied on wild exaggerations of marijuana's baleful effects, including scientifically erroneous claims that the drug was deadly. He also conceded that the so-called war on drugs and mass incarceration are not the most effective way to confront marijuana use.

However, he did say the pro-legalization faction is attempting to draw the issue in such a way that presents a false choice.

"Some people will have you believe there are only two ways to deal with it, incarceration or legalization," Sabet said. "But it is a complex issue."


Jason Kinney, spokesman for Yes on Prop 64 — a campaign to legalize adult use of marijuana in California — said in a phone interview that much of the criticism of marijuana use and its potential to harm young developing brains provides the rationale for legalization rather than detracts from it.

"Right now we have a billion-dollar illicit marijuana industry," Kinney said. "It is unchecked and unregulated and we want to bring it out of the shadows and into the light."

Because marijuana remains unregulated, children have easier access to it than to alcohol, where proof of age is required for purchase.

"The evidence shows the reverse is true, there has been a steady decrease in the amount of teen use where legalization has occurred," Kinney said. "Bring the market into the light so you know who sells it, who buys, and you can crack down on the bad actors."

Impact on the land

Aside from the public health concerns raised at the symposium, a slate of speakers also attested to the dramatic destruction of public and private land throughout California. Growers are ripping down forests without permits, diverting streams and plundering watersheds, using rat poisons that kill endangered animals and grading land to cause erosion — all of which is causing significant harm to California's landscape and wildlife.

In some cases, drug cartels are hiring people to tend to large industrial grows in national forests, national parks, state preserves and Indian reservations. Those tending to the operations leave large amounts of refuse and in some instances dangerous chemicals related to fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and rodenticides.

Mark Higlye, a wildlife biologist who works for the Hoopa Tribe in northwestern California, said marijuana grows have had a devastating impact on a variety of species, including barred owls and black bears.

Higley patrols the 144-square mile Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, tucked in between the Trinity and Klamath Rivers. His specialty area of study for the past 25 years has been the small carnivorous animal called the fisher.

As Higley and other biologists began to fret that fisher populations in Northern California were in rapid decline, they collected the corpses and sent them to the University of California, Davis, for necropsies to determine what factors led to the fishers' deaths.

Higley and others soon found that 79 percent of the many fishers sent to the lab tested positive for rat poison, which led the scientists to conclude that the sundry marijuana grows, quasi-legal and illegal, near the reservation were exposing the opportunistic foragers to rat poison.

"For the male population, rat poison is an important aspect of how they are dying," Higley said.

But the fishers are emblematic of how widespread the threats are to the natural environment, particularly in what is known as the Emerald triangle — a large swath of forested territory in Northern California that includes Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties and is known for its cannabis production.

Yvonne West, an attorney for the State Water Resources Control Board, said there are as many as 20,000 grow operations in the area and the agency is just now attempting to quantify the impact to water quality.

"The development of these sites is causing problems," she said. "We have sedimentation issues, erosion issues in what were formerly pristine areas."

As is the case with youth access, Kinney - who was not at the symposium - agrees that these grows are a problem, but believes the transition from the black market to a legitimate market will help alleviate the land-use issues.

"We have growers doing it the right way," Kinney said. "But when you have an illegal market it allows people to get away with this stuff."

Furthermore, Proposition 64 contains language that will divert 20 percent of the tax revenue — as much as $120 million in the first year alone — toward environmental restoration projects and the enforcement divisions of water quality, wildlife and land use agencies, Kinney said.

"Right now, we have no dedicated funding source to address these problems," he said.

While the symposium touched on a wealth of other marijuana-related issues, including how to properly analyze the impact of the drug on driving, traffic accidents and traffic fatalities, Kinney and other proponents believe these problems will be solved through legalization and regulation rather than prohibition and incarceration.

Nevertheless, there are those in law enforcement and public health who believe legalization will exacerbate the mental health issues associated with marijuana.

They point to a growing body of evidence that shows teenagers and young adults who use marijuana regularly do not have good outcomes when it comes to graduation rates, college attendance, job procurement and income levels.

Law enforcement agents also point to the anecdotal evidence that has come out since Washington state and Colorado legalized marijuana.

Wyoming college student Levy Thamba Pongi, leapt off of a Denver hotel balcony after consuming several marijuana edibles, one of a spate of suicides or deaths believed to have been caused by the ingestion of marijuana in the edible form.

In Washington state, Pastor Eric Renz was killed while riding his bicycle between homeless shelters when a driver who had been smoking marijuana hit him.

But Kinney points out there have been no scientific studies that prove marijuana impairs driving, largely due to a research drought. Furthermore, the proponents of Proposition 64 are working with the California Highway Patrol to develop a test capable of discerning whether a driver is impaired due to marijuana use.

Also, edible marijuana products — particularly those marketed to children and young people or that could be confused with a regular household item — will be made illegal under Proposition 64.

While people like Sabet and others claim the pro-legalization lobby has downplayed or ignored the substantive health and social issues presented by a normalized acceptance of marijuana, people like Kinney say the only way to properly grapple with those issues is to legitimize the market, regulate it and tax it, and to use the money to offset some of the inevitable issues.

California voters will decide in November which is the best route for the Golden State, as the possibility it will join Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia as legal marijuana havens looms.

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