Marijuana: A life-altering gateway | DAC Allen County Drug & Alcohol Consortium

Marijuana: A life-altering gateway

Jerri Lerch

Based on other states' experience, Indiana should tread carefully on recreational marijuana.

The bad news is that nearly every day we are all bombarded by headlines on automobile accidents, street violence, childhood trauma, neglect, and medical emergencies related to alcohol and drug abuse. Drug overdoses or poisonings are now the leading cause of premature death in our neighborhoods and country – even more than traffic fatalities.

The good news is that there is a loud and repetitive call to action on the opioid epidemic, which often leads to heroin use, that is being heeded by our law enforcement, public health, mental health, political and community leaders. Northeast Indiana leaders are working hard to provide education, install protective changes and work to prevent further tragedies. We are all working to save lives and to save the quality of vulnerable lives earlier rather than later. Everyone is being conscientious about using resources well for early prevention, early intervention and efficientl cooperation.

I am fortunate to be attending a national meeting on how communities are coming together to identify, address and positively impact local drug and alcohol problems to protect our citizens, especially our youth. It is good to learn from others and to be proud of the good work that is happening here in our own community.

Dr. Roneet Lev, from Scripps Health, who chairs the San Diego Prescription Drug Abuse Medical Task Force, spoke about deadly opioid statistics as well as innovative and collaborative strategies that mirror many of our local efforts. Dr. Lev encourages us to address the problem from the “top of the faucet” rather than dealing with a continually blasting flow of crises after the fact. Who could disagree?

What was striking about the second half of Dr. Lev's presentation was that her work on opioid deaths led her to look at marijuana cases in the emergency room in the months since California approved recreational marijuana use.

She said that on any given day, when she walks into her emergency department at 6 a.m., 30 of of her 60 available beds will contain marijuana-overdose patients. She described many patients suffering from anxiety attacks, respiratory illnesses, coronary threats, accidental poisonings from edible products with high THC levels, and a few cases involving life support or death. She actively treats the 9 percent of the adult population and 17 percent among youth who become addicted to what some would falsely say is a “harmless” substance: marijuana. Despite protective laws and good effort, we have not succeeded in our state in preventing our youth from using alcohol. States that have allowed marijuana for adults see significantly higher youth use and addiction rates than the rest of the country.

Children younger than 15 who use substances are five times more likely to become addicted as adults. Despite our best efforts to educate, develop and achieve adult success, youth younger than 15 who use marijuana are 3.6 times less likely to graduate from high school, 2.3 times less likely to enroll in college and 3.7 times less likely to get a college degree. Adults who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to become addicted to heroin. Adults who are addicted to prescription pain medications are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin.

We need to protect our youth. We need to “turn the faucet of substance abuse off at the top,” while people are young, before the problem gets worse and before we introduce new substance problems to tackle.

We are all working hard to prevent drug poisonings and drug trafficking. Alcohol, tobacco, and prescription medication abuse, the health and safety of our adults, and ensuring the future of our children are expensive propositions. According to many studies, a dollar spent on drug abuse prevention saves $18 in treatment. Dollars spent on treatment save money on law enforcement, incarceration and the personal costs to family members.

With a strong Indiana economy and strong Midwest values, we need to take our time, look at the validity of the claims and truly evaluate the costs versus the benefits of introducing the business of marijuana distribution in our state. Please protect our youth.

Jerri Lerch is the Executive Director of the Allen County Drug & Alcohol Consortium, working with more than 130 agencies and organizations to reduce the negative impact of drugs and alcohol in our community, with a focus on protecting our youth.