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Legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, says doctor

As a family doctor, in addition to treating and preventing illness in my patients, I am committed to promoting public health. When it comes to marijuana, I believe the best way to do this is to fully legalize its use and closely regulate who can grow and sell it. That is why I speak out as a member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, a national organization of physicians dedicated to the legalization and regulation of cannabis in the United States.

Much like Prohibition in the 1920s, our criminal penalties for marijuana have been a total failure: they have destroyed countless lives, ripped families apart, fueled violence and organized crime, and consumed precious taxpayer dollars. And yet, despite decades of criminalization, marijuana is still widely available. In fact, nearly half a million Connecticut residents — that’s about one in seven people — admit they have used marijuana in the past year. Even more startling, 80 to 90 percent of 18-year-olds have consistently reported “easy” access to marijuana since the 1970s.

Clearly, prohibition doesn’t work.

Doctors and scientists generally agree that marijuana is far less toxic and dangerous than many legal substances, including alcohol, tobacco, and prescription opioid medications, which together kill over 400,000 Americans each year. Unlike all these drugs, marijuana is not physically addictive. No one has ever died from an overdose, and — unlike alcohol — it is not linked to sexual assault or other forms of violence.

It is true that marijuana is a bad idea for young people, which is why I support legalization only for adults 21 and older, as in Colorado and Washington. In these states we have not seen an increase in underage use of marijuana and other illegal drugs. How can this be? Unlike state-licensed alcohol or tobacco retailers, marijuana dealers don’t check ID. Some of them sell more dangerous drugs, like cocaine or heroin — something you’d never be offered at a liquor store.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that legalization is more effective than criminalization: the very same approach worked for tobacco. In 1965, 42 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes; in 2014, that number had dropped to 15 percent. The drop was even more significant for young people: 29 percent of high school seniors smoked cigarettes in 1977, with less than 6 percent smoking today. Strict enforcement of age limits made it harder for youth to buy cigarettes, and tobacco taxes paid for effective education programs about the harms of smoking. Let’s do the same with cannabis.

Far from promoting drug use, regulating the marijuana industry will protect public health. In regulated markets, cannabis is tested for potency, checked for contaminants, clearly labeled, and sold in childproof packaging. By taxing the legal sale of cannabis, moreover, the state can generate revenue to fund programs that help prevent teen use and provide treatment to those who struggle with substance misuse.

I do not encourage anyone to use marijuana recreationally, but if an adult chooses to do so, I believe it can be done responsibly. I stand with the 63 percent of Connecticut residents — and a growing number of physicians — who think our state’s legislators should promote public health by legalizing marijuana.

Dr. Hugh Blumenfeld of Andover is also a member of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana.

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