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Study: Medical pot laws guiltless

Analysis by a UO professor says there’s no proof that legal uses of marijuana boost use by high school students

The Register-Guard

Medical marijuana laws in Oregon and other states cannot be blamed for an increase in teen marijuana use since 2005, according to a new study by a University of Oregon economics professor and two collaborators.

Despite anecdotal reports that teens are obtaining medical marijuana, the analysis of national data found no evidence that a state’s legalization of pot for medical uses increases the probability that its high school students will use it recreationally, UO professor Benjamin Hansen said this week.

Hansen worked with fellow economics professors in Montana and Colorado to analyze national data on teen marijuana use from 1993 to 2009. Their findings are reported in a nonpeer-­reviewed working paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor.

They reached their conclusion by comparing such use before and after the legalization of medical marijuana in 13 states, including Oregon, he said.

They then compared that data with teen pot use in adjoining states without medical marijuana laws as a control group, Hansen said, and found no signs that such laws made a difference. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have such a law, and legislation is pending in seven other states.

“This result is important given that the federal government has recently intensified its efforts to close medical marijuana dispensaries,” said Hansen, whose primary research area is risky behaviors. “In fact, the data often showed a negative relationship between legalization and marijuana use.”

Federal officials, including the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and some law enforcement agencies argue that the legalization of medical marijuana has contributed to the recent increase in marijuana use among U.S. teens and have targeted dispensaries operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and playgrounds.

Law enforcement reaction to the law became a major campaign issue in last month’s Democratic primary race for Oregon Attorney General.

The state’s former interim U.S. Attorney, Dwight Holton, had called Oregon’s medical marijuana program a “train wreck,” prompting marijuana advocates to support retired state appeals court judge Ellen Rosenblum.

She defeated Holton 64 percent to 35 percent, and was appointed this month to serve out the remaining year of John Kroger’s term after he resigned to become president of Reed College.

Rosenblum faces Republican James Buchal in the November general election.

Amanda Marshall, Oregon’s U.S. Attorney since January, has expressed concern about dispensary-style medical marijuana operations and large quantities of ostensibly medical pot being shipped to out-of-state drug dealers.

She said she is taking no position on the law itself, but believes the state should have provided funding for enforcement of the law’s stated goal of allowing patients with prescriptions to possess 24 ounces of marijuana.

Marshall is unconvinced that the new study shows that legalization of pot for medical purposes doesn’t lead to additional use by teens. She noted, for example, that it contains data showing that overall marijuana use is increasing.

“It’s very difficult to look at causality,” she said. “In Oregon, maybe because of our climate and growing ability, we in the law enforcement community have seen evidence of increased commercial marijuana distribution since passage of the law. It’s enabled drug dealers to assert the defense that they’re just growing for sick people. Law enforcement isn’t concerned about cancer patients smoking pot, but we’re concerned about drug dealers using this law to deal more drugs and bring more of a criminal element into Oregon.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” Marshall said, urging people to read the entire position paper, as she did. “This study is certainly a piece of it, but a lot more research is needed.”

Hansen agreed there are more questions to be answered. He noted that one survey he and his colleagues analyzed suggests that researchers could dig further into teens’ perceptions of risk regarding marijuana use.

“Marijuana isn’t without its risks, but the overall perception of risk is going down,” he noted, adding that the decline could be tied to awareness that more and more states are allowing medical marijuana use.

“It’s hard to bear that out, because perceptions change for so many different reasons.”

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