Colorado and Washington became the first two U.S. states to stop marijuana prohibition and legally regulate marijuana production, distribution, and sales. Since 2014, Alaska and Oregon have also made this change. The purpose of making marijuana legal is to lower the arrest rate of marijuana users. The judicial and prison systems were being burdened with what some citizens, politicians and law enforcement officials would call unnecessary arrests. Critics believe it encourages drug use, increases crime, lowers traffic safety, negatively impacts public health and puts adolescents’ educational achievement at risk. According to this political analysis, “Dose of Reality: The Effect of State Marijuana Legalizations”: “Proponents argue that legalization reduces crime by diverting marijuana production and sale from the black market to legal venues. This shift may be incomplete if high tax rates or significant regulation keeps some marijuana activity in gray or black markets, but this merely underscores that more legalization means less crime. At the same time, legalization may reduce the burden on law enforcement to patrol for drug offenses, thereby freeing budgets and manpower to address larger crimes. Legalization supporters also dispute the claim that marijuana increases neurological tendencies toward violence or aggression.”
The Early Days: What Happened During the First Two Years of Legalization of Pot in WA State?
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) has been charged with evaluating Initiative 502’s (I-502) effect on the public. The law, I-502, legalized limited adult possession and private use of cannabis, as well as its licensed production and sale. In 2015, WSIPP conducted a cost-benefit analysis of how things went during those first years (2014-2015). They examined public health, public safety, substance use, the criminal justice system, economic impacts, and administrative costs and revenue. Unfortunately, the 2015 report did not yield enough data for WSIPP to make any final determinations. The main point: wait until 2017 to see a better understanding of how I-502 has affected the state of Washington. According to Bob Young of the Seattle Times: “Instead, the report lays out its goals, methods, and challenges. In trying to pinpoint pot consumption in Washington, for instance, the state report notes that surveys tend to underreport use. The institute will try to get a more accurate estimate by incorporating results from a University of Puget Sound and University of Washington study that will sample wastewater for evidence of cannabis use. The first report also contains a few tidbits about the first year of the state’s pot industry. Spokane and Clark counties had the highest per capita sales ($47 and $57 per person, respectively) of the state’s biggest counties. That may be because those two counties border Idaho and Oregon and draw customers from those states.” As for revenues, the first half of 2014 totaled $260 million, and dedicated pot-tax revenues hit $65 million — about one-quarter of what state analysts had predicted. This is not exactly the boon lawmakers were hoping for. Still, WSIPP will continue its reports (funded by the marijuana tax), and 2017 promises more useful data. By doing these in-depth analyses, Washington State is paving the way for other states contemplating legalization. Their process, if proven fruitful, will likely be adopted by other states.
Driving Under the Influence: An Unexpected Outcome of Pot Legality in WA State
One big issue proving to be impacted by I-502 is people driving while under the influence of marijuana. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) is a safety hazard for drivers. In 2009, 18.2% of DUI cases received at the Washington State Toxicology Laboratory tested positive for THC. In the first four months of 2015, that percentage had increased to 33%. It seems that with the stigma of marijuana use decreasing, more people believe that it’s safe to drive while under the effects of the drug. In August of 2016, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission released the following in a press release: “Newly released data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) shows that marijuana is increasing as a factor in deadly crashes. The number of drivers involved in deadly crashes who tested positive for marijuana increased by 48 percent from 2013 to 2014. ‘We have seen marijuana involvement in fatal crashes remain steady over the years, and then it just spiked in 2014,’ said Dr. Staci Hoff, WTSC Data and Research Director. From 2010-2014, nearly 60% of drivers involved in fatal collisions were tested for drugs. Among these tested drivers, approximately 20% (349 drivers) were positive for marijuana.” According to the Washington State Department of Licensing, “Driving under the influence (DUI) refers to operating a vehicle while affected by alcohol, drugs, or both. This applies to both legal and illegal drugs, including prescription medication and over-the-counter drugs. A driver is considered to be DUI when they have a blood alcohol content of:
- “.08 or higher for adults (21 and over).
- .04 or higher for commercial vehicle drivers (CDL disqualifications).
- .02 or higher for minors (under 21).
- He or she is found to be driving a vehicle under the influence or affected by alcohol, any drug, or a combination of alcohol and drugs, regardless of the concentration of alcohol in their breath or blood.
○ Starting August 1, 2012, the definition of a drug also includes any chemical inhaled or ingested for its intoxicating or hallucinatory effects.”
For long term users, THC stored in the fat may continue to be released into the bloodstream. So even if they’re not using or “high” while driving, they may test positive for DWI screenings. DWI laws in WA state are fairly strict. If found guilty of DWI, the following minimum penalties are:
- You must serve 24 consecutive hours of jail.
- Impose a fine and fees of $940.00 to $5,000.00.
- Your driver’s license is suspended for 90 days. When that period of time is over, it will only be reinstated if you install an Ignition Interlock Device and maintain it for one year, and have at least the last four months of the twelve month period with no failed tests.
- Regular drug and alcohol evaluations and you must comply with all treatment recommendations set by the court.
- Attend a DUI victim impact panel.
- Placement on probation for at least two years (but five years is more common)
One thing is certain, marijuana legalization in Washington state has had a negative impact on drivers. Although traffic deaths have not increased, it’s getting more difficult to test and fairly penalize drug offenders as well as recreational users.
How Does I-502 Affect Adolescents and Families in WA State?
Marijuana is the most widely used substance among adolescents. Many studies have shown that teens who engage in heavy marijuana use often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning. The main chemical in marijuana, THC, attaches to cells neurons and cells in the body when ingested or smoked. By attaching themselves directly to cannabinoid receptors. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens (NIDA), the following is effected in teens:
- “Learning and memory. The hippocampus plays a critical role in certain types of learning. Disrupting its normal functioning can lead to problems studying, learning new things, and recalling recent events. A recent study followed people from age 13 to 38 and found that those who used marijuana a lot in their teens had up to an 8 point drop in IQ, even if they quit in adulthood.
- Coordination. THC affects the cerebellum, the area of our brain that controls balance and coordination, and the basal ganglia, another part of the brain that helps control movement. These effects can influence performance in such activities as sports, driving, and video games.
- Judgment. Since THC affects areas of the frontal cortex involved in decision making, using it can cause you to do things you might not do when you are not under the influence of drugs—such as engaging in risky sexual behavior, which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like HIV, the virus that causes AIDS—or getting in a car with someone who’s been drinking or is high on marijuana.”
Teenage years are the absolute worst time to be experimenting with marijuana use. One study out of New Zealand showed that people who began using marijuana in their teenage years loss eight IQ points when they reached adulthood. The study showed, “Neuropsychological testing was conducted at age 13 y, before initiation of cannabis use, and again at age 38 y, after a pattern of persistent cannabis use had developed. Persistent cannabis use was associated with neuropsychological decline broadly across domains of functioning, even after controlling for years of education. Informants also reported noticing more cognitive problems for persistent cannabis users. Impairment was concentrated among adolescent-onset cannabis users, with more persistent use associated with greater decline. Further, cessation of cannabis use did not fully restore neuropsychological functioning among adolescent-onset cannabis users. Findings are suggestive of a neurotoxic effect of cannabis on the adolescent brain and highlight the importance of prevention and policy efforts targeting adolescents.” So how does this affect families? Like any addiction, families suffer from someone’s persistent drug use. For a teen, they may struggle in school, putting stress on the whole family to get grades back up. Poor study can affect future opportunities in college and careers. The consequences can be long term for a teenager yet marijuana use is not taken as seriously as it should be.
How Pot Legality in WA State Affects Those Who Are Already Addicts?
Let’s start with how it helps – due to the decriminalization of marijuana, fewer addicts are finding themselves going through detox in a jail cell. But for those who rely on marijuana to hide a co-occurring disorder or use it in addition to other, more dangerous drugs, I-502 can be harmful. It’s difficult to encourage those becoming sober to ignore marijuana when it’s used more openly. This temptation can put a damper on rehabilitation. Those struggling with mental disorders such as schizophrenia may see worsening symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia and disorganized thinking. Those with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation may also see an increase in symptoms. Even though some would say that marijuana is not an addictive drug, patient anecdotes say otherwise. According to Narcanon, marijuana users have been known to experience drug withdrawal symptoms as well. These include:
- “Anger, tension, irritability, restlessness, depression
- Chills, stomach pains, shaking, sweating
- Decreased appetite, sleep difficulties, bad dreams, nausea
These symptoms are not normally severe but they may need help resisting the cravings that probably will last for weeks or months.” Using marijuana doesn’t mean you’re sober according to medical professionals. It directly interferes with the objectives of most rehab and detox programs. Although there are some substance abuse groups that encourage the use of the marijuana as a means of self medicating in order to transition off another drug, the science is still out on whether or not that is a medically sound approach. Overall, Washington is doing well in its newfound attempt to legalize marijuana. From the perspective of an addict or other at-risk users such as teens, the temptation may be too much to bear. Every day, just like with alcohol, they are present at parties and hang out with friends where marijuana is present. They may even have doctors who do not thoroughly understand marijuana and its effects on the brain of an addict. This may lead, like opioid prescriptions, to greater risk of marijuana misuse. Marijuana detox and rehabilitation centers do exist. Even though it is legal in WA state, pot is still considered a Class 1 controlled substance according to federal law. Those trying to stop using marijuana, should not feel discouraged due to its legality in some states. The effects of marijuana use are very real and for those struggling with addiction, it can directly lead to relapse.