A week prior to the 2014 State of the Union Address, The New Yorker published Editor David Remnick’s profile, “Going the Distance: On and off the road with Barack Obama.” The following morning, the headlines or lower third of every major news institute read, “Obama: Marijuana not ‘more dangerous’ than alcohol.”

Lauren McCarthy

Though Remnick’s profile consists of 10 segments and totals more than 16,500 words — these six were the only ones the American people heard, and continue to repeat. Obama’s comment rapidly became re-tweeted, posted and commented on just as quickly as it became skewed, reworded and misinterpreted as indicative of active change in policy. From millennials to baby boomers, social media was littered with the belief that the President advocates for the legalization of marijuana.

During the Feb. 4 U.S. Congressional hearing on marijuana policy, Rep. John Mica (R–Fl.), chairman of the subcommittee on government operations — under the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform — accused the administration of having “the most schizophrenic policy (he) has ever seen.” Despite these accusations and Obama’s recent comments, Michael Botticelli, the deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control and Policy, maintained that the administration remains opposed to state-based efforts to legalize marijuana. The White House website states that, “The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs” — and rightfully so — “because legalization of marijuana would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.”

This commitment, however, seems unbeknownst to both the American public, as well as state governments. Both Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational use of the drug for adults. Similarly, 20 states and the District of Columbia have approved the use of medical marijuana, and 28 states have decriminalized marijuana use in at least one region — despite the fact that cannabis is illegal under federal law.

While it was perhaps unwise of the President to share his thoughts on the strength or danger of marijuana, he made several other pertinent remarks on the subject. He expressed his concern of the disproportionate adolescent arrests, claiming, “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do … and African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” He stated that the “experiments” taking place in Washington and Colorado are important in eliminating a situation in which a large portion of people break the law, yet only a select few get punished.

Disproportionate adolescent arrests and incerations are a valid concern, but not one that should be aided at the expense of national health standards. Though I do not disagree that America’s youth can be hindered by the harsh legal ramifications for marijuana possession — the legalization of cannabis for adult recreational use provides neither a remedy nor positive solution. Instead, youth may be further exposed to marijuana by family members, older siblings, friends or parents who choose to consume the drug, validating its use in the minds of their children. Exposure and desensitization to the drug continues to lessen the stigmatization surrounding its negative effects.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, pot among adolescents is again on the rise, and the serious consequences of the drug have gotten both lost and vehemently denied in the national, pro-legalization discourse taking place online and on college campuses. However, if teens and young adults begin abusing marijuana before the age of at least 25, it can dramatically affect their ability to problem-solve, retain memory and engage in critical thinking. Studies have also found long-term use of the drug to be linked to a lower IQ — as much as an 8-point drop — later in life.

Hans Breiter, a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the senior author of a study focused on heavy marijuana users found the earlier the drug was taken up, the worse the effects on the brain.

“Marijuana is the ideal compound to screw up everything for a kid,” Breiter explained in an interview with Time Magazine. He concluded, “The more I study marijuana, the more I wonder if we should have legislation banning the use of it for everyone under 30.”

The study also found that abusing marijuana may have dangerous implications for young people who are developing or have developed mental illnesses. Abuse of the drug has been linked to developing schizophrenia in prior research, and Northwestern Medicine’s paper reveals that the use of marijuana may contribute to the changes in brain structure that have been associated with having schizophrenia. Matthew Smith, the study’s lead author and an assistant research professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told Time, “Chronic marijuana use could augment the underlying disease process associated with schizophrenia … If someone has a family history of schizophrenia, they are increasing their risk of developing schizophrenia if they abuse marijuana.”

Regardless, by no means is marijuana as benign as many Americans tweet, post, comment and claim. In a country that continues to intellectually fall behind our counterparts overseas, there is no justification in legalizing a Schedule I drug — proven to erode brain function, lower IQs and hinder critical processing skills — for recreational abuse.

Lauren McCarthy can be reached at laurmc@umich.edu.

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