Interviews BLOG

Based in Knoxville, TN, the Metropolitan Drug Commission is a non-profit agency specializing in evidence-based substance abuse prevention. Primarily focused on advocacy, awareness, and education, they work with youth, in the workplace, and also sponsor “drug take-back events.” They recently developed a curriculum for their local high schools and middle schools on emerging drug trends, including synthetic cathinones (bath salts, plant food), synthetic cannabinoids (K2, Spice), salvia, and prescription drugs. They have developed a wealth of resources providing information on a wide range of subjects within the topic, including treatment options, packaging descriptions, side effects, street names, and have developed separate sections of their website for teachers, parents, and businesses. We were able to touch base with Heather Sutton and speak with her about all of the conversations in the U.S. recently regarding the legalization of marijuana. We discuss how she believes it would impact the community, mixed messages it could send to our kids, and changes in our legal and justice system.

TestCountry: Heather, it is nice to speak with you again. Thanks for taking the time to discuss marijuana legalization with us, a topic that is becoming increasingly discussed with the recent passing of legislation in Colorado and Washington. The Metropolitan Drug Commission does a lot of educational work in schools. What impacts would the legalization of marijuana have in our schools in terms of prevention and educating our kids? Many people seem to be afraid that if it were legalized, everyone would start using it.

Heather: It’s great talking to you again as well!

There’s no doubt that legalization would negatively impact on our prevention efforts. Marijuana is the most commonly abused illegal drug in the U.S. Approximately 17 million Americans have abused marijuana within the past month alone. Here in Knoxville, a whopping 22 percent of our high school teens have recently used marijuana as reported by the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Should Tennessee legalize marijuana, these already-high rates would rise dramatically and rapidly. Take alcohol and cigarettes as examples. These substances are legal (for adults), readily available and socially acceptable to use. As a result, more Americans abuse alcohol and cigarettes than any other drug. We can surmise that marijuana legalization would have a similar effect on usage rates.

TestCountry: Would legalizing recreational marijuana use be sending a mixed message to kids?

Heather: Yes, it would certainly send a mixed message. For years, we have been educating kids about the harms of marijuana. Recreational use would blur the lines between what’s healthy for their bodies and what’s not. As one researcher put it, the teen brain contains “a well-developed accelerator but only a partly developed brake.” The prefrontal cortex, a portion of the brain responsible for sound decision-making, does not mature until a person’s mid-twenties. For this reason, teens have a hard time understanding that legally doesn’t always mean safe.

TestCountry: Workplaces around the country already have their own alcohol and drug policies. Would the environment in the workplace change if recreational use of marijuana were legalized, or do you think life would continue on as it normally has?

Heather: Obviously, productivity would be affected. Substance abusers are one-third less productive than non-abusing employees, according to National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance. Think about how much time cigarette smokers spend each day on smoke breaks. Not only is that a loss of productivity, that’s a revenue loss for companies. If employees are legally allowed to smoke marijuana at work, you’re going to run into a similar problem. Plus, marijuana impairs a person’s motor skills and slows thinking and reaction time. Professionals must be able to think on their feet and react quickly to be successful. Marijuana will keep employees from being at the top of their game.

It is important to remember that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Businesses should know that even if marijuana is legalized, they can still enact policies restricting or prohibiting marijuana use by its employees.

TestCountry: One argument for why decriminalizing marijuana use would be beneficial is the decreased burden it would play on our communities, primarily on the justice system. Do you think there is any truth to that statement? In what other ways might the community be affected?

Heather: The notion that decriminalization would unburden our legal system and reduce prison populations is one of the biggest myths perpetuated by pro-marijuana groups. The truth is legalization would do very little to affect incarceration rates. Most people whose only crime is marijuana possession do not go to prison. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 0.7 percent of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only.

Another false argument for legalization stems from potential tax revenue. Proponents claim that marijuana taxation would help bolster the lagging economy. However, multiple studies show the costs of marijuana use would greatly outweigh the tax benefit. Once again, alcohol provides a great example. In 2007, $14.5 billion in alcohol taxes was collected. This accounts for a mere 10 percent of $185 billion in healthcare costs, criminal fees, productivity loss and other expenses incurred by alcohol abuse.

TestCountry: An argument for why marijuana use should remain illegal surrounds the idea of the “slippery slope,” that it would be a gateway to the increased use of other drugs or that other “harder” drugs could become legal as well. Do you think this is a valid concern?

Heather: I think we really have to be careful about the path we are heading down. The term “Gateway Drug” may seem old fashioned but there is a link between marijuana use and use of “harder” drugs. Data from the Drug Enforcement Agency shows that the earlier you start using marijuana, the more likely you are to begin using other drugs later in life.

TestCountry: Medical marijuana is currently legal in 18 states, along with Washington, D.C. In terms of building awareness and educating people about the dangers of drug use, do you see any hypocrisy in the notion that using marijuana for medical use is acceptable but using it recreationally is not? It seems related to the conversation surrounding the increasing recreational use of prescription drugs, except marijuana is a well-known mind-altering substance like alcohol.

Heather: Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between scientific facts and public opinion when it comes to medical marijuana. In the last several decades, science has come a long way in understanding marijuana’s impact on the body.

Science shows that THC, the active chemical in marijuana, can provide health benefits. Cancer patients and other chronic pain suffers have greatly benefited from the drug Marinol, an FDA-approved oral medication using synthetic THC. However, smoking raw marijuana is not recommended by the medical community as the best way to reap the benefits of THC. Today, marijuana is much stronger compared to decades past. Modern marijuana is at least 15 percent more potent than marijuana in the 1960s and 70s, according to analyses of seized plants. In addition, marijuana smoke contains 50-70 percent more harmful carcinogens than cigarette smoke, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). This can lead to emphysema-like symptoms among chronic users.

TestCountry: There are many laws regulating alcohol use today. Would you see a need for similar laws to be placed into effect regarding marijuana use?

Heather: Health decisions should be made based on sound scientific research, not popular opinion. Until science definitively backs up the claim that marijuana is “safe,” it should remain illegal.

So far, the evidence is clear. Multiple studies show that smoking marijuana is unhealthy and costly. In addition to respiratory problems, marijuana can cause accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, lower immune system response, distorted vision and diminished cognition. Mental health is affected as well with higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and schizophrenia shown among chronic marijuana smokers. Moreover, it is the number one illicit drug causing young people to enter drug abuse treatment. The costs, not only to individual health but to the healthcare system, are high. Simply regulating marijuana will not negate these huge societal costs.

TestCountry: Do you think anyone (parents, employers, teachers) has reason to worry about the legalization of recreational marijuana use?

Heather: Marijuana can negatively affect a person’s IQ, especially if the user starts young. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows heavy teen marijuana use continuing through adulthood may lead to a drop of eight IQ points. That can place a person of average intelligence into the lowest third of the intelligence range. In addition, marijuana use increases the likelihood a student will drop out of school. I think NIDA’s director, Dr. Nora Volkow, says it best: “We cannot afford to divert our focus from the central point: regular marijuana use stands to jeopardize a young person’s chances of success—in school and in life.”

You can find our previous interview with Heather from Metropolitan Drug Commission here. You can learn more about the organization at