In Our View: Perplexed About Pot

Even now that marijuana use is legalized, national level of ignorance is dangerous

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Unfortunately, confusion — rather than enlightment — continues to hover like a cloud over the issue of marijuana in America. All the more reason for both proponents and adversaries of legalized recreational use of pot to abstain from jumping to conclusions. Americans simply need to learn more.

Yes, adult use of marijuana has been decriminalized in Washington and Colorado. But precisely how and when our state will regulate the distribution and sale of pot — and enforce strict new laws prohibiting its use while driving — remains a work in progress.

Adding to national apprehensions was a Monday New York Times story that reported many dangers from marijuana use. Most of those hazards are hinged to the fact that, as the story noted, "today's pot is much more potent: The mean concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient, in confiscated cannabis more than doubled between 1993 and 2008." That's something state officials and legislators should understand as they set about regulating marijuana use in Washington.

Dr. Nora D. Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who was quoted in the Times story, said today's stronger pot has produced "a pretty dramatic increase in admission to emergency rooms and treatment programs for marijuana. … We need to think about the context of when these people started to take (marijuana), how frequently they used and how active the marijuana was."

More confusion: Some scientists say less than 10 percent of marijuana smokers become addicted, and the Times reports this habit-forming percentage is lower than it is among users of alcohol. But we also know that marijuana addicts who attempt to withdraw often suffer from anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, mood swings, irritability and depression.

Also, national studies show significant reduction in thinking capacity among students who smoke marijuana, leading Dr. A. Eden Evins of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to tell the Times: "If parents who are spending thousands of dollars on SAT prep courses knew about the cognitive effects marijuana has on their kids' brains, they would be up in arms."

But they don't know. And the uncertainty is shared by all Americans, including President Obama. Last month he told ABC News, "We've got bigger fish to fry" than to send federal authorities after people who legally (but not according to federal law) smoke pot in Washington and Colorado. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal," Obama said.

His reluctance is understandable as the American consensus about marijuana continues to evolve. Illustrative of that evolution: 18 states have now legalized medicinal marijuana.

Although Americans know more about marijuana than in previous years, our level of ignorance about the science of it all remains staggering, not to mention dangerous. So now is not the time to rush to judgment. Now is the time to learn. Public health hangs in the balance.