As a family doctor, I treat and prevent illness in my patients, and I am also committed to improving public health. When it comes to cannabis, I believe the best way to do this is to fully legalize its use for adults and strictly regulate who can grow and sell it.
Prohibition was an epic failure in the 1920s, and criminalizing cannabis has done no better: Nearly one in seven Connecticut residents say they have used cannabis in the past year, and 80 to 90 percent of 18-year-olds report “easy” access to cannabis — a figure that remains unchanged since the 1970s.
Instead of reducing the use of cannabis, our drug laws have simply driven it underground. While cigarettes are responsible for over 400,000 deaths a year in the United States, and alcohol kills almost 90,000 Americans annually, cannabis use is not associated with increased mortality, and no one has ever died of a cannabis overdose.
Yet, arrests and prison sentences for possession of this common plant have destroyed countless lives, ripped families apart, and consumed precious taxpayer dollars. Some would argue that decriminalization is enough. I disagree. Our failure to regulate cannabis sales continues to fuel organized crime, and adults who choose to use cannabis recreationally or for its medicinal properties are endangered by products that could be contaminated with pesticides and mold, or laced with PCP, K2, fentanyl, or cocaine.
I know that cannabis is not harmless. No drug or medication is. Some cannabis consumers develop dependence. However, unlike nicotine, cannabis dependence is not associated with increased rates of cancer or heart disease. And unlike alcohol, cannabis dependence is not associated with cirrhosis, pancreatitis, seizures and dementia, nor is its use linked to sexual assault or other forms of violence.
Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that there are real benefits of cannabis for a wide variety of medical problems, though studies have been hindered by legal red tape.
Cannabis is a bad idea for young people; their brains are still developing, and they do not always have the maturity to use it responsibly. And as a physician, I don’t encourage anyone to use cannabis recreationally — it is a plant with a long history of medicinal and ritual use and should be treated with the utmost caution and respect.
But if adults can legally buy cigarettes and alcohol, they should be able to buy cannabis, and in the same highly regulated way. It is the tight regulation of liquor and cigarette sales that has reduced teen smoking by over 80 percent in the last 20 years and lowered the rate of drunken driving deaths by more than 60 percent over the last 40 years. Plus, unlike pot dealers, state-licensed cannabis retailers would not peddle cocaine or heroin.
Far from promoting drug use, regulating the cannabis industry will protect public health. Cannabis can be tested for potency, checked for contaminants and sold in childproof packaging. Taxes can be used to fund programs that help prevent teen use and provide treatment to those who struggle with substance misuse.
I stand with the 71 percent of Connecticut residents — and a growing number of physicians — who think our state’s legislators should promote public health by legalizing cannabis. We hope they will check the facts and do so this year.
Hugh Blumenfeld has worked as a family physician in Hartford since 2010. He is a member of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, a national organization of physicians dedicated to the legalization and regulation of cannabis in the United States.
Originally published at Hartford Courant