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EDITORIAL: Legal pot and the most vulnerable

Residents in Nevada and four other states — California, Massachusetts, Maine and Arizona — will learn sometime Tuesday night whether voters have approved ballot measures to legalize marijuana. And as multiple recent reports have noted, states that take this leap will almost assuredly experience unintended trickle-down consequences, particularly for young people.

For instance, David Kroll, writing for Forbes.com on California’s Proposition 64, reported this past week on the work of Michael Taffe, a drug abuse researcher at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. In an informative Facebook post addressing many of his concerns with Prop 64 and similar initiatives in other states, Dr. Taffe notes that 5 to 6 percent of high school seniors in America already use marijuana daily. Further, Dr. Taffe points out that marijuana has a conditional probability of dependence — an addiction rate — of 9 percent, more than twice that of alcohol, which is at 4 percent.

Dr. Taffe also rightly notes that the scope of the addiction depends on how many people are using it — a number certain to increase with marijuana legalization.

But this issue encompasses more than just teenagers. In a report last Sunday for “60 Minutes,” CBS correspondent Dr. Jonathan LaPook talked to a pediatrician in Colorado, which approved a recreational marijuana measure in 2014. Dr. Steven Simerville told Dr. LaPook, “It’s affecting the emergency room, it’s affecting the operating room, it’s affecting just about every aspect of medicine that you could think of.”

Dr. Simerville is the medical director of the newborn intensive care unit at Pueblo’s Saint Mary Corwin Medical Center. He said that in the first nine months of 2016, 27 babies born at his hospital tested positive for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. That’s on track to be about 15 percent higher than last year. Included in the 2016 total were multiple infants in his unit at the time of his interview with Dr. LaPook.

Dr. Simerville noted that the mothers are not surprised by the positive THC test, but they’re in disbelief that marijuana is harmful. “They frequently say, ‘How can it be harmful? It’s a legal drug.’ ” Dr. Simerville noted that today’s marijuana is four to five times stronger than in the 1980s, and can also get passed on to infants in high concentrations in breast milk.

Dr. LaPook pointed to research suggesting babies exposed to marijuana in utero may develop verbal, memory and behavioral problems during early childhood. Dr. Simerville also said his hospital is on pace for a 70 percent increase over last year in teenagers coming to the emergency room with marijuana in their system.

As you head to the ballot box Tuesday, there’s clearly more to consider on Question 2 than just the regulatory and tax matters surrounding this initiative. The results of this vote could have serious consequences for those most vulnerable.

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