Marijuana referenda in the West could affect Utah

(Associated Press photo)

(Associated Press photo)

Five states will be voting Tuesday on whether to legalize recreational marijuana use among adults. Three of these — California, Nevada and Arizona — are in the West. Together with Colorado, which already legalized the drug, this could serve to almost surround Utah, which likely would result in more of the drug, and its problems, coming into the state.

Despite how many Americans seem to be buying the argument that marijuana is a safe and harmless drug, there is evidence to suggest its legalization leads to an increase in problems. Those problems come to Utah, as its borders provide quick access to markets where marijuana may be legally purchased.

The Spectrum in St. George quoted Logan Reid, director of Prevention and Education Services at the Southwest Behavioral Health Center, saying the southern part of the state is seeing effects from laws in other states.

“For over a decade, marijuana consumption was dropping in Southern Utah, but around the time neighboring states started to legalize ‘medical marijuana,’ and then especially when they legalized recreational use of the drug, we started seeing sharp spikes in use here in our communities,” he said.

The paper cites a state report this year that said the fatal accidents involving drivers who test positive for marijuana increased from 6 to 15 percent over the last three years. Such accidents doubled in Washington after that state legalized the drug, the AAA Foundation said.

Those figures are hard to interpret, however, since traces of marijuana can remain the blood stream long after a person no longer is impaired. That, along with the fact that the drug impairs people differently based on a variety of factors, makes it difficult for states to set legal consumption limits for operating motor vehicles.

A study published by JAMA Pediatrics this year found that legalization in Colorado has been harmful to children. “The number of children’s hospital visits and RPC case rates for marijuana exposures increased between the two years prior to and the two years after legalization. Almost half of the patients seen in the children’s hospital in the two years after legalization had exposures from recreational marijuana, suggesting that legalization did affect the incidence of exposures,” it said.

When Colorado legalized the drug, the Legislature required studies on its impacts. While cautioning that it’s too early to draw definite conclusions, the latest report listed some startling statistics. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that young Colorado adults 18-25 years of age showed an increase in consumption when asked about marijuana use over the past 30 days. In 2006, the figure was 21 percent. In 2014, a year after legalization, it was 31 percent. Use among those 26 or older went from 5 percent to 12 percent during the same time.

Perhaps most troubling, those needing to be hospitalized with possible marijuana exposure went from 803 per 100,000 before the drug was legal to 2,413 per 100,000 after, the report said. Emergency room visits went from 739 per 100,000 to 956.

A report said polls show California voters are likely to legalize marijuana, while the outcomes in Arizona and Nevada remain unpredictable.

Utah lawmakers have struggled in recent years with whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. A stumbling block has been the federal government’s refusal to remove the drug’s Schedule 1 classification to allow for more thorough research.

But while definitive answers as to its specific medical benefits remain unanswered, marijuana clearly is becoming a bigger factor for Utah law enforcement regardless of what the state does.





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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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