The following article is part of a continuing series of articles examining the effects of illegal drugs in Fayette County.

For those who are witness to the effects of drug and alcohol addiction on a daily basis, the idea of marijuana legalization is a scary thought.

“We’re not very informed consumers, and knowing that about our society concerns me greatly when now we’re talking about marijuana, because we have never in our lifetime dealt with the possibility of an illegal substance moving to some form of legality — never,” said Erica Usher, prevention supervisor for the Fayette County Drug & Alcohol Commission. “And so I would be concerned that that’s a Pandora’s box that we are not really sure what’s going to come out of that, and then, once it’s out, it’s out.”

Colorado and Washington have already legalized marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes, while numerous other states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for only medical purposes and/or have decriminalized it.

Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1182 — a bill that would permit people with medical needs and a doctor’s approval to obtain an identification card that would enable them to buy pot legally — is being considered by the legislature.

Usher believes that, if the state were to take the route of other states and legalize it for medical reasons, it would lead down a “slippery slope.”

“That desensitizes people to the harm of this as a substance, and, when people are desensitized to that, you would increase the likelihood of them being more willing for legalization for recreational use and you increase the likelihood for them to perceive it’s something that’s OK,” Usher said.

As an example, she points to prescription drug abuse among adolescents, which she said is a “huge problem” in Fayette County.

Although prescription drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as legal substances, they are given to people at a specific dosage for a specific ailment and are not supposed to be taken by people whom they are not prescribed to.

“I don’t want to say that prescription medication isn’t safe, but they all have side effects, and they’re in that lengthy print out that you get from the pharmacy that nobody reads, and some of them are incredibly harmful,” she said.

They also can still end up on the street, she said. And she argues that the same could happen if medical marijuana was legalized.

A schedule 1 narcotic

Usher stressed that the federal government does not yet have marijuana legalization on the table.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers marijuana to be a schedule 1 narcotic. Schedule I drugs, substances or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

While the FDA has approved Marinol, a synthetic form of THC that comes in pill form and is available through a prescription to relieve nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy for cancer patients, the federal agency has thus far declined to approve smoked marijuana for any condition or disease.

“Anything foreign that you’re putting in your lungs is doing some type of damage — causing some type of change,” Usher said. “I have yet to see a real strong case that this is why marijuana is a better substance than maybe some other things we have on the market. Once you open those flood gates, who knows what’s going to come out of them.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana tar contains about 50 percent higher concentration of chemicals linked to lung cancer, compared with tobacco tar, and that smoking marijuana deposits four times more tar in the lungs than smoking an equivalent amount of tobacco.

When she hears people talking about the legalization of marijuana for medical value, she sees the model states like California have put out there.

“People view it as, ‘Here’s my bag of marijuana that I’m now going to smoke, or bake into brownies’ — that’s what people view that to be — that that’s the illicit use of marijuana that we’re familiar with,” she said. “Everyone’s perception of its harm has been edited, and that’s of concern to me.”

She said it’s also concerning that marijuana is not regulated, as it does not fall under the purview of the FDA.

“A prescription is very specific,” Usher said. “It says what I’m to take, the dosage that’s required, the duration I’m supposed to take it for. How do you do that with marijuana? Is every marijuana plant of the same strength?”

With a plant, she said there are so many things that are out of the grower’s control.

“I cannot replicate this every single time in the same way. When things aren’t regulated … it’s kind of frightening when we’re talking about the care of very sick people,” she said.

Marijuana vs. alcohol

The argument has been made before — that marijuana is safer than alcohol.

And many ask that because marijuana is “safer” than alcohol, why shouldn’t it be legalized?

“I feel like that’s such a skewed argument,” Usher said. “We invest all of this money in the treatment of the ills of society — the trouble that alcohol causes in our society, and that’s the model we want to replicate with marijuana? To what end? So that a state could tax it? And have some dollars to spend? We’re going to end up spending a lot of money in the long run to combat all of the ills related to it.”

According to Usher, if tobacco was illegal, it would be considered the No. 1 drug of abuse in Fayette County, but because it’s not, alcohol is.

“We as a society aren’t very good self-regulators — and then I can trot out the example of alcohol as an example why,” she said. “… Look at all of the trouble we have with alcohol — there are people who die from alcohol, so is that the argument you want to use?”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 88,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use each year in the United States. In addition, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, every hour, one person is killed and 20 people are injured in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. That adds up to nearly 10,000 deaths and more than 173,000 injuries each year.

Brian Reese, treatment supervisor for the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission, said that while a person won’t die from an overdose of marijuana, he believes someone who is under the influence of marijuana could crash their car.

“In most cases those aren’t reported, but people still die,” he said.

A recent study review published in the British Medical Journal found that driving under the influence of cannabis was associated with a significantly increased risk of motor vehicle collisions compared with unimpaired driving.

In addition, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, studies show that 10 percent to 22 percent of drivers involved in vehicle crashes used drugs often in combination with alcohol.

Reese said it’s also concerning because marijuana can stay in a person’s system much longer than alcohol can.

“If you smoke a joint right now, I’m going to find it in a urine sample 20 days from now — the fact that it’s still in your system — it’s still affecting you’re brain,” he said. “If it’s holding up on your brain cells, it’s holding your brain hostage, so you can’t learn new stuff.”

Is it a gateway drug?

Usher believes a person who engages in illicit drug use is more likely to be OK with using something else.

However, she doesn’t believe everyone who smokes marijuana is going to become a crack or heroin addict.

“I would never say that to kids ... because that’s not a true statement,” Usher said. “Is there a disproportionate amount of people who are addicted to heroin who have also used marijuana at some point in their path to where they are? Yes. We can’t say it’s causation. It’s more correlation.”

If marijuana were to be legalized in Pennsylvania, Usher said the outcome of such an action would not be realized for several years.

“No matter what, even if I never choose to engage in that myself, that’s something that I have to know about and consider as I live my life, and that’s frightening to me,” she said. “I feel a little more insulated from that now because it’s illegal — because you can’t go down the street and find three shops that sell pot brownies.”

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