Therapists share their views on cannabis legalization

Gage Thompson

With the legalization of cannabis looming across the Mississippi River, some health professionals are considering the implications of a public who may not fully understand what’s to come. Mary Engholm, Director of Operations at the Rock Island County Council on Addiction or RICCA, says it’s not inherently detrimental. “There is such a thing as a functional pot smoker. As long as they abide by the laws and they aren’t getting crispy critter stoned and getting behind the wheel of a car, putting themselves and others in danger. They’re the people this legalization is for.”

While the number of people abusing substances broadly isn’t expected to change drastically following legalization, the concern comes in the form of higher rates of people driving under the influence. According to the National Conference of State Legislature, after the legalization of recreational use in Washington State, the amount of cannabis-positive drivers involved in fatal crashes rose from 8 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2014. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the number of cannabis-positive drivers killed in car crashes had doubled from 2007 to 2015.

Numbers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that nearly 48 percent of people 26 or older have ingested some form of cannabis in their lifetime. The cultural aspects of the prohibition of cannabis are widespread. “A lot of people are coming around to the idea that as far as drugs go it’s fairly non-destructive,” says Dave Bernstrom, ”It’s probably less dangerous physically than alcohol, that’s what the research would tell us. On the other hand there are tons of social implications for its use. It is criminogenic. Whenever someone tells me that cannabis doesn’t hurt anybody I point out that there are people in Mexico dying every day because of drug wars. It’s such a complex question, and I don’t think the average American has thought it through all that much”

Engholm and her staff at RICCA hope that the public perception of cannabis might become more informed in preparation for the new legislature. “Right now people view cannabis as a harmless type of drug. It is mood altering and it does cause impairment. I think we’ll see more DUIs with people under the influence of pot. We’ll see people that don’t understand how no matter what it’s still regulated and you still have to be 21 to use it. You can’t go walking down the street drinking a beer and you can’t walk down the street hitting a pipe either. It’s gonna take some time and some education.”

Engholm goes on to say how this new landscape isn’t without some peril. The dangers of substance abuse, regardless of the substance, are still very alive. As the country struggles in the midst of an opioid epidemic, the distinction must be made between functioning drug user and a victim of drug abuse. “If I smoke pot every day how do I tell if it’s a problem or not? Well, is it impairing my ability to live or to work or to love? Anything like that. I could be a daily pot user or a daily drinker and for whatever reason I need to pass a drug test so I need to quit for 30 days. Can I? And if you can’t we might want to take a look at this.”

A poll taken by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University indicated that two-thirds of voters support the legalization of recreational cannabis if the sales are regulated and taxed like alcohol. The RICCA and other treatment and mental health facilities in Illinois are allegedly forecast to see 20 percent of tax revenue from the new sales, however Engholm remains incredulous. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” She says in reference to the expected incoming funds. The task of projecting revenues can be a tricky business. In Nevada’s first six months of legalization the tax earnings were 40 percent higher than expected. However just to the west in California’s first six months of legal weed the tax revenue was 45 percent less than projected according to a study from the Pew Charitable Trust.

Illinois is now the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis. It is also the closest to home here in Iowa, where legalization extends only to medicinal cannabidiol, or CBD, which is similar to cannabis, though it contains less than three percent of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Though there are currently no regulated legal dispensaries where a person could purchase medicinal CBD in Iowa.