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Panel weighs pros and cons of marijuana legalization

BOYLE HEIGHTS — Retail shops on every corner and advertising targeted towards kids and teens were some concerns addressed by a panel discussing Proposition 64, a measure on the Nov. 8 state ballot that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

The group Rethinking Access to Marijuana (RAM) collaborated with the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar to host a town hall meeting Oct. 4. The session, “Marijuana: What’s Next?” addressed the dangers that increased exposure could pose to young people.

RAM is composed of nonprofit agencies and clarifies that it does not take a stand either for or against legalization but seeks to educate the public and limit youth access to the drug.

Proposition 64 would allow adults 21 and over to possess, transport, purchase, consume and share up to one ounce of marijuana and eight grams of marijuana concentrates across the state.

But, local governments would have the right to completely ban the sale of the drug from their jurisdictions or establish their own regulations, which could lead to confusion.

According to Catherine Branson, a member of the Prevention Fellowship Program run by the Department of Public Health, many California cities are still “vague” about the guidelines they would set.

She did say that if Proposition 64 passes, marijuana should be “strictly regulated up front, because then it’s impossible to go back.”

“We should start out with strict regulations on factors such as density, so there’s not a concentration of marijuana retail outlets in troubled neighborhoods,” she said. Current state law already bans the establishment of medicinal marijuana dispensaries within 600 feet of a school.

Branson, who is focusing on the field of addiction-related behavioral health care, said one path is to establish a state monopoly on production and sales, as opposed to opening it up to business interests whose sole concern is making a profit.

If market forces guided marijuana distribution, then “of course businesses would fight regulations that would control their sales,” she said.

If the state had sole power over distribution, sales tactics such as “buy one get one free” and the use of packaging that’s attractive to children would not become an issue. Those practices have provoked controversy in the tobacco and alcohol industries in the past, she said.

“Legalizing pot is not revolutionary,” said Charles Porter of RAM. “Kids need to see that a lot of corporations are behind Prop. 64.”

The panel explained the different ways of ingesting marijuana and said that the drug is much stronger now than in the 1960s and even the 1990s. Edibles provide the most potent high since THC, the chemical responsible for the drug’s psychological affects, turns into a more powerful form when digested and has an easier time entering the brain.

Marijuana in plant or oil form has been added to brownies, candy, soda and even Takis chips.

According to Branson, few studies have explored the long-term affects of the current, more potent, marijuana because it hasn’t been around long enough.

But one 2012 study shows that there is an eight-point difference in IQ between people who started using the drug regularly at age 15 versus those who started at 25.

Early users are also more likely to form other addictions.

“In the African-American community, I’ve noticed a trend of young people smoking blunts, marijuana wrapped in a tobacco leaf, so then they get addicted to tobacco,” Porter said.

Austin Fernald, a Los Angeles police officer on the panel, said that when he has asked heroin and meth addicts what was the first substance they abused, 90 percent of them said marijuana.

“I think we may be opening a Pandora’s box by legalizing it,” he said.

The panel said that since the drug is used medicinally, its perception of harm is falling; while at the same time, advanced technology is allowing for a detailed picture of its damaging affects on the brain.

“It makes me concerned that we’re rushing into something without a full understanding of the implications,” Branson said.