Provocations: Suppressed marijuana story (DAVID NEESE COLUMN)

Posted on December 31, 2020 View all news

By David Neese For The Trentonian [email protected] Dec 27, 2020

New Jersey’s state government routinely ignores its complaining citizens. But can it ignore itself?

A lawsuit challenging the legality of the recent state ballot question legalizing marijuana may answer that question.

The lawsuit declares that the state misled the public with the wording of the ballot question and ignored scientific evidence on the harmfulness of marijuana. It seeks to have the legalization declared “null and void.”

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, this much is clear beyond any dispute: New Jersey’s state government takes flagrantly contradictory positions on marijuana.

While the state aggressively presses on for legalization of marijuana, it continues to warn on its own drug-abuse website of marijuana’s serious health hazards.

The state’s drug-abuse website highlights studies raising doubts about marijuana by the Surgeon General, the Federal Drug Administration, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Academy of Sciences and others.

The lawsuit is pending before Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson in Trenton. It was filed by Flemington attorney David Evans, a national adversary of marijuana legalization.

Among the lawsuit’s complainants are conservative gadfly Richard W. Smith of Ewing, an attorney and former N.J. Health Department official, and unnamed “victims” of marijuana use.

What are the lawsuit’s legal prospects?

New Jersey’s judiciary is widely regarded as inclined toward liberal jurisprudence when addressing controversies that have become major public issues. The judiciary’s defenders as well as its detractors say so.

Accordingly, the lawsuit may seem to be a long shot, especially taking into account the acceptance marijuana has attained in widening social and political circles and considering the trend of expanding legalization across the country, state by state.

While pressing onward for legalization, however, New Jersey’s own official state website continues to highlight studies linking marijuana use to mental problems, including depression, anxiety disorders and potential triggering or aggravation of schizophrenia.

And the state’s website continues to describe marijuana as often a precursor to harder drug use.

A National Institute of Drug Abuse report cited by the state says research indicates that 17 percent of marijuana users who start young “become addicted,” and that among those who use daily the percentage rises to as high as 50 percent.

In addition to citing such studies, the N.J. Department of Human Services’ Division of Drug Abuse and Addiction Services says the state struggles to cope with some 11,000 marijuana “treatment admissions” annually.

These cases occur on top of 65,000 alcohol and heroin cases and are often intermingled with them, i.e., alcoholics and heroin addicts also frequently use marijuana, the state’s Substance Abuse Monitoring System (SAMS) database indicates.

According to that database, the troublesome and baffling dynamics of addictive behavior are such that only half of those admitted for drug treatment complete the programs, and even completed programs are not always successful.

The SAMS database further indicates that the state has more than 80,000 “unmet treatment needs” annually for all drug-abuse cases, meaning that 37 percent of total needs go unaddressed.

An extensive study in New Zealand, the state’s website further notes, found that marijuana use “reduces connectivity” in brain areas governing learning and memory.

The state’s drug abuse website also singles out a National Institutes of Health report questioning the medicinal use of marijuana, previously legalized in New Jersey.

Marijuana’s supposed medicinal effectiveness “is difficult to evaluate,” says NIH, due to its hundreds of chemical substances and the varying strength of marijuana plants, plus individual differences in how the chemical components of marijuana are absorbed via smoking.

Other studies highlighted on the state’s website note that marijuana contains many of the same harmful respiratory substances tobacco does.

But such information failed to penetrate the ballot question debate, to the extent there was any debate at all. The ballot question won approval with wide media endorsement and a resounding 67 percent public margin.

The lawsuit argues that legislators behind the ballot question misleadingly promoted legalization as an economic windfall while minimizing health concerns.

And, the suit adds, Gov. Murphy contributed his own “negligent and deficient public messaging” to the issue.

Murphy and state Attorney Gen. Gurbir S. Grewal are named defendants in the case, as are Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Nick Scutari of Linden. The two legislators played lead roles in New Jersey’s legalization effort.

The lawsuit contends that an explanatory statement accompanying the ballot question only further obscured the far-reaching public health and other harmful implications of legalizing marijuana.

“Unlike heroin and other opiates, whose risks are widely disseminated and known by the public,” says Evans, “the hazards of today’s marijuana are both insidious and minimized.”

Although the ballot question stipulated that sales are to be limited to adults, the lawsuit contends that the very act of legalization suggests to minors that marijuana, contrary to scientific evidence, must not be harmful after all.

The lawsuit notes research on the harmful effects of heavy marijuana use especially among young people, these effects reportedly including loss of motivation and damage to memory, possibly permanently.

Evans says the lawsuit seeks to remind state officials of their “duty to safeguard public health and safety and especially that of children” — a responsibility that seems to have been abandoned in the legalization campaign.

The courts ultimately will decide whether the ballot question lawsuit raises what lawyers call a legal cause of action. Evans says the lawsuit has science and “good legal theory” on its side.

Meanwhile, whatever the ultimate outcome of the litigation, the case raises nagging questions beyond the strictly legal issues.

Why didn’t New Jersey’s state government make a greater effort during the legalization campaign to draw attention to the dire warnings on its own website?

Why did the state government all but remain silent on research it says, itself, raises grave doubts about marijuana use?

Is the next step to remove that information from the state’s website?

In effect, to suppress it?

If the website information is not worthy of even considering, much less heeding, why was it posted by leading state and federal governmental agencies in the first place?

If scientifically baseless, as legalization advocates insist, how is it that such worrisome findings on marijuana came to be reported by reputable individual scientists and leading research institutes around the world?

Will appropriations for the N.J. Division of Drug Abuse and Addiction Services,’ along with appropriations for the N.J. Substance Abuse Monitoring System, now be defunded to reflect the new, politically anointed status of marijuana?

Will the Division of Drug Abuse and Addiction Services and the Substance Abuse Monitoring System now “get with the program”?

Will they begin to evince a more positive attitude toward marijuana, or at least a less negative one?

Can state agencies realistically be expected to have any objectivity regarding marijuana once the marijuana market is tapped into as a source of revenue for the state government?

Yes, nagging questions. Or they should be.

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