The point is one Ed Shemelya, a former state police officer in Kentucky, makes without reservation.

“Marijuana is the misunderstood drug in America,” said Shemelya Tuesday night during a presentation on marijuana, “Cannabis and Kids: What Do You Need to Know?”

Shemelya, initiative coordinator for the National Marijuana Initiative, an organization whose mission strives to dispel misconceptions about marijuana and raise awareness of issues surrounding the drug, said people are not aware of just how potent marijuana is becoming. The levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana which makes people high, is much higher than it was even a few years ago.

“This is not your grandfather’s weed, or your father’s marijuana or even your (older) brother’s weed. There has been an explosion in potency, it is a completely different substance,” said Shemelya, who lives in London, Kentucky.

He explained THC levels were generally between 2% and 4% when he was a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s — today it is often over 40% and rising. Shemelya said there is no database available to indicate to what impact marijuana with such high THC levels has on people and society.

Shemelya is particularly concerned about what impact they will have on the developing minds of youth, noting one’s brain is not completely developed until about age 27.

“We have no idea what (the more potent marijuana) is doing to today’s young people,” Shemelya said.

Marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes in 33 states and for recreational use in 10 states including Oregon. Shemelya said in many of these states, governments are hoping to bolster state coffers with tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales.

He noted, though, it will be some time before it is known how the revenue gained via taxes matches the cost to society in terms of money spent for extra law enforcement and health services needed because of increased marijuana use.

“We have no data on what the cost is to society and we will not (for) five to seven years,” Shemelya said.

He stressed it is too early to draw conclusions, but Shemelya pointed out in states where marijuana has been legalized, at least for medical use, there has been an increase in traffic accidents.

“There has been an uptick in impaired driving,” Shemelya said.

He also said that according to workman’s compensation records, more people are being injured while working in states where marijuana has been legalized.

Supporters of marijuana often argue the black market will disappear when the drug is legalized. Shemelya said this is not proving to be the case in states which have legalized the drug in part because taxes levied on it are keeping the price high.

“The black market is alive and well,” Shemelya said.

He also said governments are not doing an effective job of regulating marijuana at the state level. This means that underage youths are getting access to it.

“Nobody is doing a good job at the level of regulating it,” Shemelya said.

Dale Quigley, deputy coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative, said it is important to be up front about the dangers of drugs.

“Kids want us to give them truth,” said Quigley, a Denver resident.

He said a case can be made that alcohol can cause more problems than marijuana. Quigley said, though, this is not saying much in light of marijuana’s negative impacts.

“Which is safer? Walking on a tight rope 10 feet off the ground or 100 feet off the ground?” Quigley asked rhetorically.

Jo McGuire, the executive director of the National Drug and Alcohol Screening Association, concluded Tuesday’s presentations by telling a compelling story about how one of her sons became addicted to marijuana without anyone in her family suspecting it for a long time and it led to him becoming homeless. Her son today has beat his addiction and has a promising career but irreparable damage has been done.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer

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