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."