Marijuana dispensaries increase youth access

While teenagers may look like mini-adults, capable of making wise decisions and taking care of themselves, their brains are more like those of a 3-year-old — so explained Dr. Mary Boyle, a neuroscientist in the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD at a recent meeting of the North Coastal Prevention Coalition.

Similar to in-utero and early childhood years of ages zero to 5, adolescence marks a particularly vulnerable stage in human brain development. Tremendous changes are taking place, which can be dramatically and permanently affected by outside substances.

These findings are of particular concern for members of NCPC, who have worked for over 20 years to reduce the harm of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs in the cities of Carlsbad, Oceanside and Vista through community action, education, support and collaboration, and why NCPC is so troubled by the recent actions of Oceanside’s Planning Commission, who narrowly approved (3-2) a zoning change amendment to allow dispensaries.

Marijuana can damage the teen brain in specific ways that researchers are still discovering. The risks are particularly great for those who begin marijuana use before age 15, and can lead to long-term consequences including mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia.

The public health impacts of today’s ‘acceptance’ of marijuana, its increasing availability, more potent levels of THC, and decreasing perceptions of risk won’t be known for decades. What public health research does tell us, is that with greater access, advertising and promotion, the number of new users will continue to grow, and many will start using in their teens.

The most recent Monitoring the Future study showed that 34 percent of 12th graders who self-reported using marijuana and lived in medical marijuana states received marijuana from someone else’s medical marijuana card.  And a recent RAND study (Pacula et al, 2013) found that states with medical marijuana laws implemented to include home cultivation and legal dispensaries are associated with increased youth marijuana use.

More than 200 cities in California, including Oceanside, do not permit marijuana dispensary operations within their respective jurisdictions.

Even in “pro-marijuana” Colorado, eight of the 10 largest cities in Colorado have either a ban or a moratorium on the sale of marijuana.

The courts have upheld cities’ rights to prohibit dispensaries on numerous occasions, and the California legislature cemented this by enacting Health and Safety Code (11362.768) in January 2011 regarding the proximity of marijuana dispensaries to schools. It states: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit a city… from adopting ordinances or policies that further restrict the location or establishment of a medical marijuana cooperative, collective, dispensary, operator, establishment or provider.”

Despite these restrictions, dispensaries often open at will and operate as long as they can before law enforcement, city attorneys, and the courts invest the time and resources to close them down.  These cases often involve investigations revealing large quantities of marijuana, weapons, cash and questionable records.

If the Oceanside City Council fails to reverse course quickly, the city may find itself with numerous dispensaries opening before any regulations are even drafted. This was the fate of San Diego. When former Mayor Bob Filner took office, he pledged to cease enforcement against dispensaries and pave the way for regulations. During his brief time in office, the number of dispensaries more than doubled to over 50 without any regulations in place.

In an attempt to regulate dispensaries, the City of San Diego is now facing its second challenge from pro-marijuana advocates — claiming that the regulations are too restrictive. After regulations were adopted in 2011, pro-pot advocates collected enough petition signatures to challenge the law, leading the council to rescind it, and effectively making dispensaries illegal. The current council recently adopted a new set of regulations in March, but a pro-pot group from Los Angeles has filed suit in superior court claiming the number of dispensaries permitted — 36 total — is too restrictive.

Rather than deal with such costly legal snarls, which put our young people at risk, Oceanside officials would be wise to follow the recommendations of its police department, city attorney, and planning staff to maintain its current ban on marijuana dispensaries and join the hundreds of other California cities supported by the courts.

Ray Pearson is vice-president of the North Coastal Prevention Coalition.

Learn more about NCPC at www.northcoastalpreventioncoalition.org.

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