The legalization of marijuana became a hot topic in the past week. First, recreational use of the drug became legal in California at the start of 2018. Next, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would allow U.S. attorneys to decide whether to enforce federal laws outlawing the use and sale of pot in states that have legalized the drug.

Sessions ended an Obama administration policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that allow the drug’s medical or recreational use. It’s not clear yet what impact the attorney general’s action will have.

As a physician, my doctoring knowledge tells me that making marijuana legally available is a bad idea, except perhaps for certain medical conditions. Marijuana is a potent mind-altering drug that can cause serious harm, as I explain below. It will be just one more substance we have to warn our children to stay away from.

As we all know, many people use marijuana even where it remains illegal. But legalization will lead to increased use and make many people believe it is not all that dangerous.

The growing acceptance of legalized pot is an alarming trend. It has quickly spread in the past few years and today seven states and Washington, D.C., allow recreational marijuana. A total of 29 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of medical marijuana.

Sadly, it’s very likely that the American people will become more and more acclimated to marijuana use in the years ahead, acknowledging it as just another way to “feel good.”

It sure looked like CNN was doing its best to indoctrinate the public on the normalization and acceptance of marijuana. As a medical doctor, I found this encouragement and joking to be both irresponsible and disappointing.

How do we as a society benefit from legalizing marijuana?  Maybe it makes sense from a financial standpoint – perhaps it will cut illegal sales and it will certainly generate tax revenue and create jobs. But what about the overall health of our citizens?  Shouldn’t that take precedence? Can there not be other creative ideas for generating money and reigning in crime?

From a health standpoint, why is legalization of another mind-altering drug the right thing to do?  The U.S. is already in the midst of a devastating prescription opioid and heroin crisis.  And individuals from all walks of life struggle with the abuse of alcohol and drugs.

It may be too late, but taking an illegal drug and making it legal needs to be well-thought out, to determine what impact this major step will have on future generations.

Too often, marijuana is treated as a harmless substance – something to joke and giggle about, and something that we see the people we admire on TV, in movies and elsewhere enjoying as a break from the workaday world. The message? Treat yourself to an ice cream cone, a piece of cake, a beer or some pot.  It’s OK to enjoy yourself.

There was no better illustration of this then when the cool guys and gals at CNN celebrated the arrival of the 2018 on New Year’s Eve with what turned into a nationally televised pot party.

“The most trusted name in news” televised a haze of marijuana smoke enveloping party-goers at a Denver New Year’s Eve celebration. The “puff, pass and paint” party was spotlighted by CNN reporter Randi Kaye, featuring revelers partaking of “hits,” and using bongs and even a special gas mask while getting high in the mile-high city.

It sure looked like CNN was doing its best to indoctrinate the public on the normalization and acceptance of marijuana. As a medical doctor, I found this encouragement and joking to be both irresponsible and disappointing.

What is marijuana?

Let me give you some facts about marijuana that every American should know.

Similar to hemp, marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, stems and seeds from the cannabis plant. The plant’s primary mind-altering chemical comes from delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.  It can be smoked; vaped (inhaling the vapor); eaten when mixed in foods such as brownies, cookies or candy; or brewed as tea.

What is especially concerning is the fact that the marijuana of today is not the same as it was back in the 1960s or 1970s. Over the past few decades, the concentration of THC in the cannabis plant has been increasing, making it more potent than ever.

A fairly recent popular method of getting high is smoking THC-rich resins extracted from the plant. Extracts are quite powerful, delivering very large amounts of THC to the body. This has sent many users to the emergency room.

How does pot affect the body?

Marijuana has both short- and long-term effects on the body.

Within a few minutes of smoking marijuana, a person feels the effects of pot, as THC is rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, making its way to the brain and other organs.

What causes the “high” people experience is marijuana’s effect on over-activating parts of the brain containing specific brain cell receptors. This leads to feelings of an altered sense of time, other altered senses, changes in mood, impaired body movement, impaired memory and difficulty in thinking and problem-solving.

Researchers are still studying the long-term effects of marijuana. But what is known is that the younger a person begins using pot, such as in the teen years, the greater the declines in general knowledge, impaired thinking, learning difficulties and lowered IQ.

Other health effects from marijuana usage both physically and mentally can include the following:

?         Breathing problems – Marijuana smoke irritates the lungs, causing damage with an increased risk of both chronic bronchitis and lung infections.

?         Increased heart rate – Pot can raise a person’s heart rate for up to three hours after smoking, increasing the risk for a heart attack, especially in anyone with a heart condition.

?         Harm to unborn babies – Women using marijuana during pregnancy can have children with a lower birth weight and an increased risk of both brain and behavioral problems as infants. Children exposed to marijuana in the womb have problems of attention, memory, and problem-solving compared to unexposed children.

?         Intense nausea and vomiting – Those who are long-term, regular users of marijuana may develop cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, where they experience cycles of severe nausea, vomiting and dehydration.

?         Temporary hallucinations and paranoia.

?         Other mental health and behavioral problems – People with schizophrenia can develop worsening symptoms. Marijuana users – particularly heavy users – can have lower satisfaction with life, relationship problems, and less academic and career success. For young adults it can lead to a greater likelihood of dropping out of school, along with more job absences, accidents, and injuries.

Anyone using marijuana products should not do so before driving or operating heavy or dangerous equipment. And any woman using it who is pregnant should do the right thing and stop. Individuals with heart or lung problems would be smart to avoid it and it should never be used in any form around children or teens.

And no matter what proponents of marijuana use will tell you, marijuana use can lead to the development of a substance use disorder. Between 9 and 30 percent of users may develop some degree of this disorder. Those who start using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana use disorder.

What about medical marijuana?

As controversial as it is, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has  approved medications containing synthetic THC drugs dronabinol and nabilone, both man-made forms of cannabis. These are used as appetite stimulants in AIDS patients and for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.

At this time, treating medical conditions using marijuana is still illegal on a federal level. There is still insufficient data from large, long-term, well-designed studies on the potential risks versus benefits of using marijuana to relieve symptoms of certain medical conditions.

There are however, ongoing studies on cannabidiol, a component of marijuana that does not have the mind-altering effects of THC. That may hold potential promise in helping conditions like drug-resistant epilepsy and some psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, substance use disorders, schizophrenia and psychosis.

Where do we go from here?

Here’s a better idea – how about encouraging people to get “high” on taking good care of themselves? It’s the little things, such as making every bite of food count, using physical activity every day to naturally release an endorphin high, relieving stress by watching a sunrise or sunset, or getting good feelings by helping others.

Those are the kinds of “highs” that are positive, life-affirming and with few risks to our health. Smoking marijuana and slipping into a THC-induced mind-altered state has been shown time and again to have more negatives associated with it than positives.

No matter how much fun using marijuana looks like on TV or in the movies, no matter what your friends say about it, no matter how many people tell you it’s harmless, and no matter what laws politicians pass to get votes or raise tax revenue, remember one thing: unless you have certain medical conditions where the drug may be beneficial, you are better off without it.