Legalized Pot: a 'scary bag' for U.S. health care

Opinion

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Albert Mensah, MD

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From the Friar Files Blog, FenwickFriars.com, posted on Nov. 14:

My reason for writing today is to share with my Fenwick family some concerns that several members of the mental health care community, including myself, have felt compelled to be outspoken about lately, given the recent direction taken by lawmakers regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Stated simply, marijuana is not the benign substance that many in the media and the legislature have made it out to be. Its effects can be quite devastating, and as it becomes more readily available, we anticipate a significant rise in the medical and social problems that are connected to regular marijuana use. For example, the American Academy of Family Practice recently cited several studies that link marijuana to the development of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a long-term mental disorder involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion and behavior, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.

These studies indicate that regular marijuana users are six times more likely to develop and exhibit schizophrenic symptoms. These same studies also point to decreased motivation, increased lethargy and a lack of focus and mental clarity that persists beyond the time that a user is "high." Other studies point to a correlation between marijuana use and reproductive difficulties, particularly in males. These studies indicate that regular male users of marijuana have an exceptionally high risk of developing erectile dysfunction (ED), and that medications such as Viagra and Cialis are ineffective in treating marijuana-induced ED symptoms.

Even though full recreational marijuana use laws do not go into effect in Illinois until Jan. 1, we are already seeing the results of a more relaxed atmosphere and increased availability in our clinic, Mensah Medical, located in Warrenville. We specialize in the natural treatment of psychological, cognitive, and neurological health disorders. We identify the biochemical imbalances that most frequently contribute to those disorders and prescribe nutrient therapy to overcome those imbalances.

Of late, we are seeing a significant increase in the number patients with schizophrenia, and far too often, those patients indicate that their symptoms started or worsened as they began or increased their use of marijuana. It is important to note that the vast majority of these patients are young males between the ages of 18 and 27.

We certainly recognize that there is another side to this debate. We are aware that many people have used marijuana for years with few obvious or lasting side effects. We acknowledge that there are medical cases, such as cancer and chronic disease, in which controlled, physician-monitored use may make marijuana a viable and effective pain-management option. We also recognize that combatting the illegal distribution of marijuana leads to costly law enforcement efforts and the incarceration of many non-violent offenders, most often from communities of color or economic disadvantage. There are reported state and local income-generation benefits that will come from taxing what is already a robust industry.

However, we must also take into account the social impact and the increased strains on the health-care system that will accompany legalization. We can look to two other "drugs," tobacco and alcohol, as a model for what to expect with marijuana. While I am not calling for a return to prohibition, we must acknowledge the millions of deaths each year that are the direct result of alcohol and tobacco use, and the billions of dollars spent each year on health care to address alcohol- and/or tobacco-related disease or injury. We can anticipate a similar social and financial impact with the increased and more readily accepted availability of marijuana.

We at Mensah Medical have taken a very active and public stand against recreational marijuana legalization. We have included several articles in our monthly newsletter warning our patients, friends and colleagues of the impending dangers ahead. I have spoken at community rallies and testified before state and local legislatures when laws regarding legalization were being considered. During these presentations, I have shared that while this increase in the number of patients who must seek our help will likely be quite profitable for our clinic, it is not the way we want to benefit financially.

I encourage all of you to be aware and be wary of what is to come with expanded availability and legalization of marijuana. Talk to your children and the other young people in your life. Know and look out for the medical and mental health concerns that stem from marijuana use. And, if some of the more dire consequences of marijuana use should touch you or someone close to you, know that medical and mental health support is available.

Excellence has always been the credo at Fenwick High School. This cannot be achieved for future generations if judgment is impaired and drive and determination is subdued by inappropriate substance use.

Dr. Albert Mensah is a graduate of the Fenwick class of 1982.

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