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NAATP: Marijuana legalization could exacerbate addiction problems

November 8, 2012
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Amid the push to legalize pot, addiction treatment providers worry that its dangerous, addictive qualities are overlooked
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Reacting to news that voters in Colorado and Washington approved initiatives calling for the legalization of “recreational” use of marijuana, Michael Walsh, president and CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP), expressed concern that state laws legitimizing pot use could “exacerbate the problems we already have with marijuana addiction.”

Walsh, a certified substance abuse counselor and interventionist with 20 years’ experience in providing substance abuse treatment services, stated that marijuana remains “the first drug of choice” and “the primary addiction” for many adolescents and young adults who are admitted to treatment each year.

He warns that today, advances in the science of growing the plant make the marijuana available today “a whole different animal, much different from what users smoked back in the 1970s.” He added that users of the current product risk “serious health consequences and addictive potential.”

Officially, NAATP, the trade group representing the leading addiction treatment organizations in the US, has not adopted a position, for or against, the legalization of marijuana. “Our stance is, whether addiction involves a legal or illegal substance, addiction demands quality treatment,” he said.  But Walsh expressed personal concern that “if two states want to see it legalized, more states will be taking a look at doing so soon.” 

A step beyond “medical marijuana”

“Medical marijuana has been in Colorado for years,” explains Bob Ferguson, a NAATP member who is CEO of Jaywalker Lodge, an addiction treatment organization located in Carbondale, Colo.  Ferguson explains that the Amendment 64 effort went “a step beyond” medical marijuana, which may be used in Colorado and more than a dozen other states with a doctor’s prescription.  “Amendment 64 is about changing the state constitution to legalize the ‘recreational’ use of marijuana,” he says, noting that despite Colorado’s vote, the substance remains illegal to possess under current federal law. 

“They’ll have to adjudicate this to figure it out legally,” he predicted, suggesting that a test case—likely involving a citizen arrested for smoking pot without a prescription—is bound to test the limits of state and federal laws soon.  The new measure calls for legalizing individual possession of up to 28.5 grams (1 ounce) of marijuana—an amount sufficient to roll an estimated 50 joints—as well as six marijuana plants.

“From the standpoint of being a treatment provider, I don’t care if a substance like marijuana is legal or not, since addiction to a legal substance  like alcohol, opiates, or marijuana can be just as harmful, just as deadly as an addiction to an illegal substance,” Ferguson states.  While he’s no supporter of marijuana use, he does suggest that Tuesday’s vote could “elevate the discussion about non-medical use of marijuana so that everyone can really consider:  Is it addictive? How does it affect the brain? And, does it harm kids?”  This knowledge, he believes, will be important to helping Coloradans who don’t have significant medical needs make much better informed decisions.

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