Dana Montevideo, Sydnee Smith and Daniel Pollock, Managing Editor, Reporter and Editor-in-Chief
The future of legalized marijuana became uncertain after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole memo on Jan. 4.
The 2013 memo gave freedom for states to legalize marijuana, which is still prohibited federally.
Sessions called this memo “unnecessary,” saying the government’s original restrictions are sufficient. It is unclear what this means for states with legalized marijuana.
But six years in, how has legalized recreational marijuana impacted Washington state?
Washington first legalized the drug for medical purposes in 1998
Medical marijuana is used to treat illnesses such as Crohn’s Disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and cancer. The National Academy of medicine concluded that the drug relieves pain, nausea and eases post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Washington went a step further in 2012, tying with Colorado as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.
Leshawn Jones, a student at Pierce College Puyallup, sees benefits from smoking cannabis recreationally.
“It’s how I function, it’s part of me. I don’t really smoke any more and get keyed, I don’t do it to be the kid that’s all, ‘Oh look at him,’ I do it because it helps me,” Jones said. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve started to see the benefits.”
Jones also says marijuana motivates him.
“If you have nothing to look forward to throughout a day and (marijuana) is the one thing you got to look forward to, (marijuana) is what’s going to drive you to finish that thing that you’re doing,” Jones said.
Medical cannabis may have positive effects but some studies show that recreational marijuana use can lead to long-lasting health deficiencies.
Weed behind the Wheel
Studies show marijuana use results in motor impairment, which may lead to higher risks of accidents on the road.
“Indeed, federal research has shown that while smoking weed before driving does indeed elevate your risk of crash, it’s nonetheless far less impairing than alcohol, which dramatically increases the likelihood of a crash even at small doses,” Christopher Ingraham reported for The Washington Post in 2017.
The first driving while intoxicated traffic infraction was issued in 1910. DWIs cover only drunk driving, and the law was expanded to all drugs, thus the name change to driving under the influence.
DUIs include driving while under the influence of drugs such as marijuana, any illicit drug and painkillers, such as Advil.
Data from the Washington State Toxicology Laboratory gathered that 1,061 out of 1,773 drivers between 2010 and 2014 were blood-tested positive for marijuana, alcohol and drugs—marijuana being the most commonly found drug among the tested drivers.
In 2014, the rate of drivers tested for active THC jumped from 44 percent in 2010 to 84 percent.
However, the legalization of medical marijuana in 1998 had the opposite effects.
A 2016 study shows no drastic change in fatal traffic accidents following the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana.
Three years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization, The American Public Health Association concluded in 2017.
However, another study found that car accidents are at 3 percent higher rate than predicted without legalization of cannabis.
More drivers admit to using marijuana, and it is showing up more frequently among people involved in crashes, the Highway Loss Data Institute study said. Though there is evidence from simulator and on-road studies that marijuana can degrade some aspects of driving performance, researchers haven’t been able to definitively connect marijuana use with more frequent real-world crashes.
The people most commonly involved in fatal drug-related accidents are young adults, from ages 16 to 25.
Marijuana in the mainstream
Patty Wigington, manager at the Kaiser Permanente medical center near Pierce College Puyallup, has had many experiences with marijuana-related visits.
Wigington usually asks patients who use marijuana excessively, “What are you medicating or not dealing with?”
She says marijuana use is almost always about the medication of pain, whether it be mental or physical.
The stigma that marijuana is a non-addictive drug is highly misleading, Wigington says.
She explains that the difference between a cigarette addiction and marijuana addiction is the addiction to nicotine versus the addiction to a high feeling.
“It’s more about that addictive personality and an addiction to that feeling high,” Wigington said. “As a patient will tell you, you don’t feel euphoric or feel like you’ve hit that nicotine addiction.”
Cigarette companies have admitted their advertising tactics were designed to get users addicted to nicotine. Wigington doesn’t think there is enough evidence to deduce that this is happening with marijuana yet, but it may in the future.
“I’ll challenge you to drive any direction five miles from here and count how many places you can buy marijuana,” Wigington said. “Get on state Route 512 and there’s two great big, honking signs telling you to come buy marijuana. I think all of these things make it pretty mainstream.”
Regulations on Cannabis advertising in Washington read that ads can’t in any way appeal to children.
Jones’ brother introduced him to weed. One student said he was introduced after high school by a coworker. No one cited being peer-pressured or influenced by ads. But Jones says weed’s rising popularity may encourage others to sample the drug.
“A lot of people smoke now that it is 2018,” Jones said. “More people smoke now I believe than ever just because of the fact that it is legal so its like, ‘Hey, I kinda want to try it.’”
Some people find marijuana as a way to connect with others, relieve stress or for medical purposes.
Marijuana is increasingly becoming an everyday drug, which may be due to the legalization.
“It used to be hush hush. All the teenagers were doing it,” Wigington said. “The people who weren’t using it before who were afraid, are going to be able to use it now.”
This includes minors.
Wigington says the age group where she sees the most trouble and need for help is 13- to 15-year-olds. At that age, she says the brain is not fully developed, and the drug can slow brain development, possibly leading to a lower IQ.
“Studies are showing that if you begin smoking marijuana at a young age it can impair your executive function—young boys especially,” said Cyndy Jacobsen, a Puyallup City Council member and math professor at Pierce.
Pot in Puyallup
Pot shops are currently not allowed in Puyallup city limits but the City Council began reviewing this regulation at the end of 2017. The council is projected to vote after new council members are seated.
Jacobsen doesn’t have problems with adults smoking marijuana, but she doesn’t believe dispensaries should be permitted to retail in the city.
“Marijuana is still a federally illegal substance, and I like having respect for the law, so I think having a marijuana shop in Puyallup wouldn’t be the right direction for us,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen believes the regulations will remain unchanged.
“I think that (Puyallup residents) are discouraged about the direction our city is going in terms of handling problems like homelessness, which is sometimes thought of as a problem of drug abuse,” Jacobsen said. “So until we regain the public’s trust that we can enforce laws and tackle this homeless problem head on, I don’t think we need to be putting marijuana shops in our city limits.”
Jacobsen added Puyallup residents wanting marijuana still have easy access to the substance.
“You can go straight out 112th (Street) and find a shop, you can go straight out River Road and find a shop—they’re not needed (in the city),” Jacobsen said.
Puyallup voters are almost equally split on marijuana legalization: 50.5 percent of residents voted in favor of initiative 502 in 2012. I-502 took 55 percent of the vote statewide.
States respond to Sessions
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee responded to Sessions’ action in January, expressing frustration that Sessions wouldn’t meet with him to discuss the benefits of legalization. He also called the rescindment “the wrong decision for (Washington).”
“It disrespects Washington voters who have chosen a different path for our state,” Inslee’s statement said, referencing I-502.
The purposes of Sessions’ decision remain unclear but state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has been waiting for the federal government to step in like this, according to The Seattle Times.
“Our legal arguments have been crafted; we are prepared,” Ferguson said, regarding his legal team.
Inslee, along with the governors of Oregon, Colorado and Alaska, sent a letter to Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin last year asking for the Cole memo to stay in place.
Sessions responded to Inslee’s and Ferguson’s third letter.
“Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a crime,” the letter stated. “The Department (of Justice) remains committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in a manner that efficiently applies our resources to address the most significant threats to public health and safety. I look forward to working with you on these issues.”
Sessions also called out Washington’s marijuana regulations and cited a Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report from 2016.
This report found weak regulation of medical marijuana led to black market practices and 90 percent of regulation violations committed by recreational shops involved minors, such as selling to and employing minors.
“Please advise as to how Washington plans to address the findings in the Northwest HIDTA report, including efforts to ensure that all marijuana activity is compliant with state marijuana laws,” Sessions said in the letter.
Still, Inslee remains committed to legal weed.
“Make no mistake: As we have told the Department of Justice ever since I-502 was passed in 2012, we will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement,” Inslee said in his response to the rescindment.
Some support the legalization for the fiscal boost it gives the economy.
Marijuana sales are projected to bring $730 million into the state budget between 2017 and 2019. The sum is allocated to several programs, with Medicaid currently taking about half. Social programs also benefit from the revenue, such as abuse programs and services for children and pregnant women.
Some state lawmakers in January 2017 suggested to direct the funds to public education, thinking this would appease the state Supreme Court McCleary decision.
Inslee was open to pursue the idea, but the funds weren’t ample enough and the idea has been pushed aside for now.
Jacobsen says the tax revenues aren’t as high as projected, which she heard from a fellow council member.
Similar to cigarette usage, smoking marijuana may cause lung cancer.
“You are still pulling a chemical into your lungs,” Wigington said. “You are pulling a hot substance into it, you are burning it, and you are doing damage.”
Alternatives to smoking marijuana include edibles, which are foods that have a high concentration of marinol oil. Edibles are an unpredictable way of consuming marijuana because the concentration of the drug is unknown.
“We are seeing more people that have consumed edibles by accident,” Wigington said. “Pets that have consumed edibles by accident. There was a piece on the news not too long ago about how someone left a cookie out and the dog ate it, and the dog died.”
Pierce student James Joy hasn’t used marijuana in almost a year. He believes weed had become his coping mechanism.
“I felt like I was becoming emotionally—not attached, that’s a weird thing to say about a substance—but emotionally reliant perhaps because it got to the point where I felt like I was only sociable, I was only funny, I was only happy when I was high,” Joy said. “I kind of used it as a crutch.”
Joy’s decision to stop came when he thought about returning to school. He says it wasn’t a decision to never use marijuana again, but a decision to not use it as much.
”One thing I wanted to promise to myself is I wasn’t going to get into a situation where I was going to be doing it by myself,” Joy said. “It’s a social thing. I don’t drink by myself, why would I smoke by myself?”
Like Joy, some known celebrities have made the same decision to slow down or stop using marijuana. Last summer Miley Cyrus came out stating she had stopped smoking marijuana. Previously Cyrus had been vocal on social media about her use and support of the legalizations.
While there is a lack of evidence of marijuana long-term health effects, short-term effects are common and easier to identify.
Along with the risk of addiction, marijuana use can lead to bronchitis, cognitive impairment, impaired short-term memory and association with mental illnesses with long-term abuse, according to a 2017 University of Michigan law school study.
Cyclic vomiting is another side effect, which causes people to have fits of vomiting and guttural pain, lasting from a few hours to multiple days and sometimes continues daily.
Wigington says 95 percent of the patients who come into the medical center concerned with excessive vomiting are marijuana users.
Some believe cannabis does more good than harm.
Pierce student James Wilson works as a budtender at a local dispensary and praises marijuana for its health benefits.
“Cannabis, in its whole sense, is probably one of the safest substances therapeutically and just overall in general known to man,” Wilson said. “One of the things is that it’s not gonna kill me.”
Wilson speaks from a medical point of view; he suffered from chronic pain after a shoulder injury playing football in middle school.
“I just recently had the surgery for that and was prescribed a whole bunch of narcotics like vicodin and oxycodone and after that it was right in the middle of the medical marijuana days, so I had a friend of mine that allowed me to be his caretaker, so I was able to have access as well (to medical marijuana),” Wilson said. “I didn’t feel right using vicodins and oxycodones because it just made me feel tired, I couldn’t eat. I found out CBD helped a lot more for my pain in my shoulder and it overall relaxed it without getting high.”
Wilson’s mom also uses cannabis products for health issues.
“My mom is anti-weed, anti-everything, same as my father, they’re anti-all that, but my mom really loves to use (cannabis-infused) lotion because she has arthritis,” Wilson said. “She doesn’t get high or anything.”
Joy says marijuana boosted his creativity. He started playing guitar when he was 16 but later dropped his passion. When he began to smoke, it reignited his creativity, and he would sit in his car and play guitar. It was a way for him to be alone and experiment.
When Joy was high, he felt like the ‘logical side’ of his brain was shut down while his emotional side was stimulated—there was so much emotion he found it hard to complete logical tasks.
Even though he stopped using, Joy doesn’t view marijuana negatively, he sees the benefits as well as the downfalls.
The evidence surrounding the effects of marijuana are limited. Professionals warn that with little knowledge of the drug, users should be cautious.
“We just really don’t know what marijuana does,” Wigington said.
The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost