Our country is being ravaged by an addiction epidemic that is tearing families apart. This preventable disease affects more people than cancer, heart disease or diabetes. And now New Jersey politicians are pushing to legalize another addictive drug — marijuana.
I’m proud of my New Jersey roots. Not only was I born and raised in Trenton, but I also chose to raise my children in this great state. I even built a ballpark in my hometown so other families can build precious memories like my dad and I did. Now I go to games with my grandkids, since my children decided to raise their kids in New Jersey too. But the state I love so dearly is disappointing us. The officials we elected are gambling with our children’s health and futures. This blatant disregard for generations to come is alarming.
Marijuana is addictive and dangerous for kids. Their brains are still developing, so when teens use marijuana, it has a much stronger negative effect in terms of the likelihood of addiction and cognitive impact. But people are looking the other way. They see dollar signs. Entrepreneurs want to sell it and politicians want to tax it, so they dismiss the danger.
If we legalize marijuana, kids will have more access to the drug — in turn, increasing the volume of teens that are using, and boosting the prevalence of addiction. Colorado and Alaska have the highest rates in the country of first-time marijuana use among kids between the ages of 12 and 17, and are significantly above the national average for past-year marijuana use among adolescents. In contrast, New Jersey is well below the national average when it comes to first-time and past-year teen use. Legalizing marijuana in New Jersey will, almost certainly, drive these numbers up.
This matters because teens who smoke marijuana are twice as likely as adults to be addicted to the drug. In fact, a quarter of current marijuana users between the ages of 12 and 20 are addicted.
The risk of addiction is not limited to marijuana. Early use of any drug hikes the risk of addiction to all drugs. Kids who start using marijuana during adolescence are more likely to develop other drug or alcohol problems later in life. Research suggests that early marijuana use even increases the future risk of opioid use disorder. Instead of serving as the cure to the opioid epidemic, as many claim, legalizing recreational marijuana could very well make it worse!
We need to learn from our mistakes of the past. Just look at alcohol, tobacco and even prescription opioids. What happens when companies stand to profit from selling addictive drugs? They target kids. And customers that start young are more likely to become heavy and loyal lifetime users.
Short-sighted politicians also fail to consider the economic burden to society caused by the prevalence of addiction and substance use, which dwarfs the funds generated by taxing these substances.
Before we jump to legalize marijuana, let’s consider alternatives, like the proposal from Sens. Ronald Rice and Robert Singer. Their common sense approach treats marijuana like the public health threat that it is. People who are caught using marijuana would receive a fine — but not be sent to jail. This is how we manage other public health risks, like texting while driving or not wearing a seat belt. People with multiple fines, or who are addicted to the drug, would be given treatment instead of criminal records.
Let’s take a good, hard look at the facts before we legalize marijuana. I have. What’s clear is that marijuana is dangerous for kids. We cannot let politics or profits take priority over our children’s health. To the senators, representatives and governor of the great state of New Jersey: Please think of our kids and grandkids.
Joseph J. Plumeri is executive chair of Center on Addiction. He also serves as vice chairman of First Data.
Appeared in Asbury Park Press on June 20, 2018