A Yale School of Medicine professor was among several people who testified at a public hearing at the State Capitol against the legalization of recreational marijuana.
Last Wednesday, members of the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard testimony for and against House Bill 5539 and Senate Bill 11, which were proposed in January and would legalize, regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. Psychiatry professor Deepak D’Souza used the hearing to warn against the passing of these bills, answering questions from Connecticut lawmakers for more than two hours about the health and societal implications of legalizing marijuana.
“I’m sure we could try and find a better way to balance our budget than from the taxes generated by selling an addictive drug,” D’Souza said. “I do believe that the risks outweigh the benefits.”
At the hearing, D’Souza explained findings from his own research and other recent studies that demonstrate the detrimental effects of marijuana. Consumption of marijuana may have long-lasting negative consequences, including decreased IQ and trouble with memory and attention, according to D’Souza.
In an interview with the News, D’Souza also emphasized his concern about the possible detrimental effects of marijuana legalization on adolescents and students in particular. He said he hoped his testimony — as a researcher, physician and father — would allow legislators to make a scientifically informed decision.
“Cannabis impairs many cognitive functions that are relevant to being a student: learning, attention and memory. If cannabis became legal, it would be reasonable to predict that cannabis use by students could impair performance,” D’Souza said.
According to research by D’Souza published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in June 2016, daily cannabis users have about a 15 percent reduction in their brain cannabinoid receptors — membrane receptors found throughout the body that are involved in cognition, memory, anxiety and motor behavior. D’Souza also cited the recent study by Yale psychiatry professor Godfrey Pearlson, which found that academic performance was significantly lower in students who consumed both alcohol and marijuana.
Furthermore, states that have legalized recreational cannabis have the highest rates of cannabis use amongst minors, so legalizing cannabis in Connecticut for adults would trickle down to younger teenagers, D’Souza said, citing a September 2016 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
However, sponsors of the bills, including state Senate President pro tempore Martin Looney and 17 state representatives, argue that the legalization of recreational marijuana would halt the illegal market and avoid thousands of arrests for possession as well as bring in more tax revenue and new jobs.
“It is estimated that, in 2015, the legal marijuana industry in Colorado created more than 18,000 new full-time jobs and generated $2.4 billion in economic activity,” Looney said.
State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, a sponsor of HB 5539, added that the potential state revenue from marijuana taxation is about $63 million in the first year and $104 million in the second year.
D’Souza said legalization for the purposes of tax revenue would not solve any economic crises and that any proposed benefits are not worth the legalization of an addictive and harmful drug.
In response to the argument that legalization would reduce incarcerations, D’Souza said cannabis possession was decriminalized in Connecticut in 2010 and that very few people are incarcerated in the state for cannabis-related charges.
He added that one of the greatest concerns stemming from the legalization of marijuana would be its effects on those with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. People suffering from these illnesses are more vulnerable to the drug’s effects, D’Souza said. Cannabis consumption can worsen expression of schizophrenia, resulting in increased hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and increase the risk in adolescents for later psychotic disorders.
D’Souza also explained that with no approved or effective treatments for cannabis dependence, legalization would result in more people in Connecticut addicted to cannabis without effective treatment options, particularly in the context of shrinking mental health and addiction services both in-state and nationally.
According to Looney, however, legalization of cannabis would have positive medical effects. Amid a growing opioid addiction crisis in Connecticut, these bills would be extremely beneficial, he said, as marijuana has been shown to be an effective and safer alternative to heroin and would reduce the number of opiate overdose deaths.
“Marijuana prohibition has lasted 80 years, yet, it has been just as much of a failure as America’s short-lived experiment with alcohol prohibition,” Looney said in his testimony at the public hearing. “It is time we take the rational, common-sense approach to marijuana, as we did with alcohol: regulating and taxing it.”
Eight states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.