In Colorado and Washington particularly, polls indicate strong public support for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. But pro-family leaders and drug enforcement officials alike have warned of the dire consequences of expanding availability and acceptance.
Already 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, including Colorado, where a study found that among teenagers receiving treatment for substance abuse, nearly 75 percent had used medical marijuana that was recommended for someone else -- something now called "diverted" medical marijuana. Oregon and Washington also have medicinal marijuana laws.
"Many high-risk adolescent patients in substance abuse treatment have used diverted medical marijuana on multiple occasions, which implies that substantial diversion is occurring from registered users," lead author Stacy Salomonsen-Sautel said of the study, which appeared in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
"Our results support the need for policy changes that protect against diversion of medical marijuana to adolescents."
Steve Schenewerk, pastor of Community Baptist Church in Winston, Ore., where medical marijuana is legal, told Baptist Press the sheriff's association in Oregon reported that one in five traffic stops in 2011 was linked to marijuana.
"My local police chief tells me that the number one drug problem in our town of about 6,000 people is medical marijuana," said Schenewerk, who described his community as rural and conservative. He added that children in Winston have access to marijuana when it is prescribed as medicine for a family member, and children are experimenting with it.
"The problem is the crime that's associated with it -- the selling, the violence, the addictions, the leading up to heroin," Schenewerk said of marijuana. "Heroin addiction is on the rise in our county, and it's because people are starting with marijuana and moving up to heroin and from there to methamphetamines.
"So it's very much a gateway drug, and if we allow more people to possess it, it's just going to open the floodgates for more and more damaging behaviors," Schenewerk said.
The pastor laments that his state already has gone too far in its acceptance of marijuana, even without voting to legalize its recreational use this November.
"Frankly, I've talked to legislators, and if I thought it were possible from a legislative point of view, we would seek to overturn the medical marijuana laws," he said. "But that doesn't look very promising right now in our culture. So at least we can put a stop to further ease of access to marijuana."
In September, nine former heads of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to take a stand against the possible legalization of recreational marijuana.
"To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives," the group wrote, according to Reuters.
Holder opposed an effort in California in 2010 to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, and the ballot measure failed with 53.5 percent of voters rejecting it.
A campaign spokesperson for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Oct. 2 the former governor "has a long record of opposing the use of marijuana for any reason. He opposes legalizing drugs, including marijuana for medicinal purposes. He will fully enforce the nation's drug laws, and he will oppose any attempts at legalization."
Political experts predict strong support for recreational marijuana will bring voters to the polls for President Obama in the swing state of Colorado Nov. 6.
Paul Chabot, who advised Presidents Clinton and Bush on drug policy, said, according to Fox News, "We need to understand that drugs and gangs go hand in hand. They destroy communities. What we have to do is work keeping people off this stuff, not liberalizing policies."
Supporters of recreational marijuana are touting the potential tax revenue available to states if the drug is legalized and regulated. Analysts in Colorado say the state could expect as much as $22 million per year in tax revenue from recreational marijuana, CBS News reported.
Advocates of marijuana legalization compare laws against marijuana to the prohibition of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933, Reuters noted, and they argue that society would benefit from the drug's regulation.
But opponents of legalization say no amount of revenue is worth its legalization. They warn passage of the initiatives would endanger the public by leading to an increase in drugged drivers and marijuana users, especially among teens and young adults. Most studies -- including one in the journal Nueropsychopharmacology in 2001 -- show that marijuana usage significantly slows reaction time.
Marijuana has been illegal on the federal level since 1937, and states that allow its use even for medical purposes are in violation of federal law.
Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said God didn't intend for humans to use their freedom in destructive ways.
"He made us free so that we could choose to make the right decisions, glorify Him and realize our personal and societal potential on our own," Duke wrote in a Baptist Press column.
"Those who use their freedom to engage in self-destructive behaviors are letting themselves down, depriving society of their very best contribution to its well-being and dishonoring the God who made them," Duke wrote. "Rather than encouraging such negative consequences by legalizing marijuana, we should be helping people to focus on the best of what they can be."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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