TAMPA — The nation’s top drug official has weighed in on the marijuana debate, publishing a paper in a prestigious medical journal this week arguing that the substance has been associated with substantial adverse effects.
The paper in the New England Journal of Medicine by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, focuses on existing research and breaks no new ground. But the document is sure to influence the debate over Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment on this fall’s statewide ballot that would allow the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions in Florida.
The nation’s “drug czar,” along with a trio of other drug specialists, said marijuana is potentially addictive; can affect brain development, particularly in adolescents; can lead to harder drug use; has been linked to anxiety, depression and psychoses; is associated with impaired school performance and an increased risk of dropping out of school; and impairs driving ability.
In the paper released Thursday, the authors say the THC content, or potency, of marijuana has been steadily increasing from about 3 percent in the 1980s to 12 percent in 2012.
“This increase in THC content raises concerns that the consequences of marijuana use may be worse now than in the past and may account for the significant increases in emergency department visits by persons reporting marijuana use and the increases in fatal motor-vehicle accidents,” the authors state.
Ben Pollara, executive director for United for Care, the Orlando-based group behind the medical marijuana citizen initiative, dismissed the Volkow review as old news.
“I don’t think the document is really that relevant to the debate over medical marijuana,” Pollara said. “We’re talking about the use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating illnesses. We’ve never suggested that marijuana is wholly benign.”
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A medical marijuana citizens’ initiative has been circulating for years. In 2013, lawyer John Morgan of the Morgan & Morgan law firm bankrolled the effort, and in January, organizers said they had surpassed the 683,000 signatures needed to place it on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. Days after the petitions’ submission, the state Supreme Court OK’d the ballot language.
The measure will require 60 percent approval of state voters. Polling has shown majorities of 70 percent of Floridians or more — one as high as 88 percent — support medical marijuana use.
Opponents of the pot measure welcomed the findings in Volkow’s paper.
Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society from Drugs, said the document “reinforces everything that we’ve been saying.”
St. Petersburg-based S.O.S. is affiliated with the Drug Free America Foundation and is organizing opposition to Amendment 2.
Volkow’s article “brings out to the public information that has just been building and building,” Fay said. “The research keeps piling up that marijuana is not a harmless drug.”
The higher potency of marijuana “creates a whole new set of dangers.”
Volkow’s report includes a section on conditions with symptoms that may be relieved by treatment with marijuana, including nausea, AIDS-associated anorexia and wasting syndrome, chronic pain, inflammation, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
But in their conclusion, the authors, state, “As policy shifts toward legalization of marijuana, it is reasonable and probably prudent to hypothesize that its use will increase and that, by extension, so will the number of persons for whom there will be negative health consequences.”