New Jersey Prevention Network Against Legalizing Recreational Pot

Mar 28, 2018

For many people, talking about legalizing marijuana conjures up images of a youthful ritual of smoking a joint, a doobie – a sort of rite of passage for people of a certain age. For Diane Litterer, the images are scary.

“We don’t have an opiate epidemic,” said Litterer, CEO and executive director of New Jersey Prevention Network, a public health agency whose goal is to create healthier communities by reducing the burden of substance abuse, addiction and other chronic diseases. “We have an addiction epidemic. We have to look at all the mind-alerting drugs (not just opiates).”

And marijuana is one of them, she said earlier this week, noting that in all the states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, there has been an increase in addiction among children and adults.

“We are not taking it out of anyone’s hands,” Litterer said. “It’s much more available to youth. A lot of people have this impression of marijuana as a joint. That’s not the reality of it.”

In Colorado, for example, she said, 47 percent of marijuana products are edible in form. Vaping, the heating of cannabis to release the active ingredients into the air in a fine mist created by a vapor device, is the equivalent of smoking 20 joints at once, Litterer said. Today’s marijuana isn’t the same cannabis making the rounds in the 1960s and ’70s, even 30 years ago. Marijuana includes more than 400 chemicals, including THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). As the main ingredient in pot, THC determines potency and effect of the drug. The amount of THC has steadily increased to nearly 90 percent in some products.

“And they are marketing to kids,” she said. “We are creating a culture where smoking pot is acceptable” without talking about all of the negative impacts to the same generation. The statistics show high school graduation rates have decreased in areas where pot has been legalized, she said.

“College campuses are very concerned,” Litterer said, noting unemployment rates have surged in areas with legalized marijuana because the number of people not able to pass a drug test has increased as a result of recreational pot. “There are so many challenges growing up already.”

The idea legalizing marijuana in the New Jersey will somehow level the playing field for communities with a high number of pot-related arrests and incarcerations doesn’t add up for Litterer.

“It’s not legal for anyone under 21,” she said, adding several of the communities in Colorado that legalized marijuana because of social injustice have found it didn’t work as planned and arrest rates actually increased. “Some of the worst statistics coming out of Colorado is Denver, one of the only urban areas. Consolidate those numbers into New Jersey (with all of its urban areas).”

Still, Litterer said there is definitely something wrong with how things are currently being handled and something needs to change. She is in favor of a bill to decriminalize marijuana introduced last month by Sens. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex), Joseph Cryan (D-Union) and Robert Singer (R-Ocean). Under the proposal, an individual with less than 10 grams of pot would be fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and $500 for additional violations.

Decriminalizing weed means an individual in possession of a small amount of cannabis would face a fine instead of a criminal record and jail time. Legalizing marijuana would effectively allow consumers to purchase the drug in a manner similar to how alcohol is purchased – regulated by age, but legal without a penalty (unless purchased by someone who is underage). It also means growing, transporting and selling pot would be legal, increasing supply and demand of the mind-altering drug.

“We are creating an industry that will market to youth, is already marketing to them; introducing a product that will result in a pathway to addiction and that doesn’t solve any of the problems in urban communities,” she said. “Marijuana is an addictive product.”

Litterer, who has spent 30 years working to hold the tobacco and alcohol industries accountable and educate people against the dangers of addictive substances, noted marijuana metabolizes in the body differently than alcohol, making driving under the influence trickier to prove.

“It’s all about the money,” she said of the push to legalize pot in New Jersey, noting some of the Colorado communities where voters agreed to legalize marijuana wish they could go back and undo it. They can’t, she explained, because businesses have opened and they have a right to exist under the current law. “It was on ‘60 Minutes.’ It’s very scary.”

— Gina G. Scala

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