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Mike Stuart

Mike Stuart Mike Stuart

Mike Stuart

Since taking the oath of office as United States Attorney, enforcement and prosecution at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia are “through the roof.” Pure metrics of prosecutions are on record pace — not by a little but a lot. From Project Huntington to Project Charleston and record drug takedowns throughout the district, we have proceeded with a sense of urgency and the results could not be more certain.

Despite our efforts for a safer West Virginia, the drumbeat for marijuana legalization is growing louder and louder. Legalization efforts are in full swing. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana and another 33 have legalized medicinal marijuana. Canada recently legalized government-distributed marijuana, and a 2017 Gallup poll indicated that 64 percent of Americans favor broad legalization. The public, however, is largely unaware of the ultra-potency of today’s marijuana or new studies urging extreme caution.

Advocates and lobbyists tout the “game changing revenues” from broad legalization but virtually no one acknowledges or, much less, wants to discuss, the significant costs, risks and uncertainties associated with the powerful and potent marijuana of today.

The most prominent experiment in legalization has been in Colorado. The Colorado experiment has not been a panacea — far from it — despite the loud voices championing the industry. In 2018, less than 1 percent of Colorado’s tax revenues came from marijuana. And all those revenues were washed away by regulatory costs, public health costs and public safety costs.

Colorado’s marijuana tax revenues do not nearly account for the substantial costs associated with increased crime, teen truancy, regulatory oversight, environmental and ecological damage, law enforcement and other costs to ensure public safety. The costs are real and far exceed all revenues.

The marijuana lobby is loud — very loud. Perhaps no group in the nation has capitalized more from the dramatic effects of heroin or opioid abuse than the marijuana lobby. By comparison, marijuana seems relatively benign compared to the effects of a needle in an arm or an overdose from heroin, fentanyl or methamphetamine. But make no mistake, the ultra-potent marijuana of today is not the marijuana of 50, 20 or even five years ago.

The marijuana lobby and its power brokers want us to believe that marijuana is the solution to our opiate crisis. They are capitalizing on our grief by offering modern day snake oil as the solution to all our ills. Legalization of marijuana does not decrease opiate use. Studies show that heavy marijuana use leads to higher pain thresholds requiring more and more pain killers.

Many people are unaware of marijuana addiction. Yes — marijuana addiction. But in the public health and medical communities, it is a well-defined disorder that includes physical withdrawal symptoms, cravings and psychological dependence. Marijuana addiction is on the rise. Increasing potency of genetically engineered marijuana, the use of concentrated products, and more users partaking multiple times a day mean addiction and the effects of addiction.

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And how about our youth? The industry sees them as pure profit. Marijuana is marketed to kids and every possible device has been created to avoid detection in schools. Flavored marijuana, gummi bears, lollipops, candy, colas, and even Keurig cups — edibles of every imaginable variety are available.

Colorado’s young people use marijuana at a rate 85 percent higher than the national average. According to a study released in September, the CDC indicates that more than 2.6 million teenagers regularly vape marijuana through e-cigarette-type devices. It all sounds strikingly similar to the cigarette industry from decades ago.

The marijuana of today is far more powerful and potent than the marijuana in popular movies like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or from legendary events like Woodstock where it seemed all the cool people were getting harmlessly high. Heck, the only real risk seemed to be overeating due to the munchies and maybe an overdose on Doritos.

While there were risks to marijuana back then, there are very real risks today. During Woodstock and the summer of 1969, the THC level of marijuana was .5 to 2 percent. During the summer of 2018, the THC of the average marijuana being sold in Colorado is in excess of 20 percent and can exceed 80 percent. Research clearly indicates the relationship between high levels of THC and psychosis.

According to Rachel O’Brien, co-founder of SMART Colorado, over one-third of Colorado high school marijuana users consumed highly potent, distilled THC concentrates in a given month and significantly more teens are using concentrated forms of marijuana that have unprecedented levels of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient. This should be concerning to all of us.

Today’s peddlers of “the amazing benefits” of marijuana are not the tie-dye-laden hippies of generations past but, rather, well-funded, deep-pocketed, powerful interests with a very simple motive — revenues. Some who advance the miracle of marijuana have become irrational in their support. In their eyes, there is literally no downside whatsoever.

Legalization should not be made on the basis of revenues alone. We need to consider the entire package. Before policy makers legalize, the public should be made aware of the facts, the risks, the costs and the potential impact to our communities and West Virginia.

No one should be under any illusion that the forces for marijuana legalization are doing so for the benefit of the people of West Virginia. Whatever path we choose, the people should know the facts because those promising the “marijuana miracle” won’t be here to pick up the tab later. It is up to you to honestly evaluate the benefits, risks and potential unintended consequences of marijuana legalization for the Mountain State.

Mike Stuart is U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.

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