Every morning I walk down Santa Monica Blvd. by the Shake Shack past the vacant house the legendary rock band The Doors made famous and cross over to La Cienega Blvd. On the other side is the infamous Alta Motel, a seedy joint where cheap escorts make their way out of motel rooms singing the tunes of bygone rockers. Next door is a large broken window pane that announces psychic readings. And this is next to two head shops and three marijuana dispensaries. The air above this little slice of La Cienega is always filled with the acrid fumes of marijuana, a repository where loners, yocals and destitute people puff on buds of reefer, or so it was called in my day.

Perhaps Kenny Chesney and Pink say it best in the lyrics to their hit song Setting the World on Fire: “Yeah, we got a little higher than we probably should, we were in a hotel singin’ in the hallway lights, we were strikin’ the matches right down to the ashes, setting the world on fire…”

Here at the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica, though, it’s not unique. It represents a microcosm of the rest of the country which appears to be embracing cannabis as the new norm. As such, here are some important facts regarding marijuana’s rise to legal status in America:

  1. Marijuana is a mind-altering drug. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana—also called weed, herb, pot, grass, bud, ganja, Mary Jane, and a vast number of other slang terms—is a mixture of the dried leaves and flowers of cannabis sativa, or hemp plant. There are many ways for people to smoke marijuana. The main psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical in marijuana, responsible for most of the intoxicating effects that people seek, is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The chemical is found in resin produced by the leaves and buds primarily of the female cannabis plant. Evidence demonstrates that marijuana – which has skyrocketed in average potency over the past decades – is addictive and harmful to the human brain, especially when used by adolescents. Moreover, in states that have already legalized the drug, there has been an increase in drugged driving crashes and youth marijuana use. States that have legalized marijuana have also failed to shore up state budget shortfalls with marijuana taxes, continue to see a thriving black market, and are experiencing a continued rise in alcohol sales.
  2. Drugged drivers killed more folks than alcohol last year. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, data gathered across the U.S. shows for the first time that drivers killed in crashes were more likely to be on drugs than drunk, with marijuana involved in more than a third of fatal accidents in 2015. In fact, the report found that forty-three percent of drivers tested in fatal crashes around the country in 2015 had used a legal or illegal drug (i.e. any substance that can impair driving, including illegal drugs, prescription medications, legal non-medicinal drugs and over-the-counter medicines), which was over the 37 percent who showed alcohol levels above a legal limit. Among drivers killed in crashes who tested positive for drugs, 36.5 percent had used marijuana, followed by amphetamines at 9.3 percent, the study showed. It was based on the most recent available U.S. state data reported to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). The increase in drug related driving deaths also coincided with more marijuana legalization with 29 states and the District of Columbia allowing medical or recreational use.
  3. Adolescence & marijuana use. Researchers at Tel Aviv University recently published a study in Human Molecular Genetics which now points to cannabis being a trigger for schizophrenia (a disorder caused by an imbalance in the brain’s chemical reactions) in adolescent youth. Their findings report that “smoking pot or using cannabis in other ways may serve as a catalyst for schizophrenia in individuals already susceptible to this disorder.” In other words, young people with a genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia – and those who have psychiatric disorders in their families— should bear in mind that they’re playing with fire if they smoke pot during adolescence.
  4. Synthetic cannabinoid abuse is a growing problem in the US. With new versions of the drugs coming to the market every year, new research is examining how the body processes these human-made (in a lab) drugs and the role that genetics might play in their metabolism. The work could reveal genetic factors that increase a person’s risk for experiencing the most dangerous effects of these drugs and lead to new treatments to counteract those effects. In fact, according to Time Magazine, synthetic marijuana is causing health emergencies in youth who don’t know how to differentiate between synthetic and natural marijuana.
  5. Suicide ideation and cannibis use. According to a study published at Louisiana State University, researchers found that daily marijuana users had more suicide ideation due to the psychological feelings of “a more thwarted belongingness and a perceived burdensomeness.” In sum, marijuana caused users to feel negative feelings about their life and the ways they relate to others.
  6. First time college use of pot highest level in three decades. These results come from the annual Monitoring the Future study, which has been tracking substance use among young adults for the past 36 years. It is conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan and is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Results are based on young adults ages 19-22. The report shows that increasing levels of first-time marijuana use among young adults have been concentrated among college students. Increases show by about 51 percent in 2015, 41 percent in 2014, 31 percent in 2013 and 20 percent from 1977 to 2012. College students are less likely than older adults and noncollege students to have entered the social roles of spouse, parent and employee, all of which reduce marijuana use, researchers for the study report. Many factors unique to college also promote substance use, such as lack of parental supervision, plenty of free time and a party culture, researchers add.
  7. Usage up in the state of Colorado. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health data found that Colorado teens and adults use marijuana at a higher rate than the rest of the country. Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012 and implemented legal marijuana stores in 2014. Colorado’s past-month marijuana use among 12-to-17 year-olds saw a significant increase, from 9.82% to 12.56%. The report also shows in Colorado that marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 48% in the three-year average (2013-2015) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the three-year average (2010-2012) prior to legalization. During the same time, all traffic deaths increased 11%. In 2009, 10% of traffic fatalities involved drivers who tested positive for marijuana. By 2015, that number doubled to 21%, the report finds. Moreover, in a survey of drivers in Colorado and Washington who reported any marijuana use in the past month, 43.6% reported driving under the influence of marijuana in the past year and 23.9% had driven within 1 hour of using marijuana at least 5 times in the past month.
  8. The effects of marijuana use on driving. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association report on drug-impaired driving, “marijuana impairs psychomotor skills and cognitive functions associated with driving, including vigilance, time and distance perception, lane tracking, motor coordination, divided attention tasks, and reaction time.” Drivers may attempt to compensate by driving more slowly and increasing their following distance. Moreover, the report found 44% of drivers said they had driven within two hours of having used marijuana.
  9. Changes in the law concerning marijuana. According to a research study in JAMA Psychiatry, an online peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, the research found that a medical marijuana law was associated with increased marijuana presence in fatally-injured drivers in 3 of the 14 states that implemented a law before 2010. The study also found that in Colorado, the proportion of drivers in a fatal motor vehicle crash who were marijuana-positive was “4.5% in the first 6 months of 1994, 5.9% in the first 6 months of 2009, and 10% at the end of 2011.” In California where marijuana has been decriminalized since January 2011, the research shows that there was no change in THC-positive driving among weekend nighttime drivers, but there was a significant increase in crash fatalities involving cannabinoids. The researchers suspect this was due to an increased attention to marijuana in fatal crashes after the law change. Washington voters approved recreational marijuana use in November 2012 and legal sales began in July 2014. Several studies published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration examined how marijuana measures changed for drivers on the road, in crashes or arrests, and in fatal crashes. Roadside surveys conducted in Washington found the proportion of THC-positive drivers increased from 14.6% to 19.4% and then to 21.4%, though the increases were not statistically significant. Increases were observed both in the daytime and at night. Nationwide, the proportion of suspected impaired driving cases that tested positive for THC averaged 19.1% from 2009-2012, then rose to 24.9% in 2013 and to 28.0% in 2014 and 33% in preliminary data from the first four months of 2015.
  10. Drug interactions and synergistic effects or 1+1=3. Impairment can increase if drugs are used in combination or together with alcohol. Alcohol and marijuana used together are particularly risky. Research gathered by the Governors Highway Safety Association showed that the combined use of alcohol and marijuana “dramatically impaired driving performance” and that use of alcohol and marijuana together produces significantly higher blood concentrations of THC than just marijuana use.
  11. Laws regarding driving under the influence of drugs. There are three types of state laws regarding driving under the influence of drugs:

A cautionary tale. So next time you choose to get high on La Cienega or anywhere else, make smart decisions about not driving and keeping it to safe locations. Also, when driving sober, think about the potentially impaired driver next to you and how to be a defensive driver so as to avoid traffic accidents. Likewise, parents should reconsider getting their adolescent child a medical marijuana card as the above evidence shows it can have negative effects on the development of growing youth.

Louise Stanger Ed.d, LCSW, CDWF, CIP & Roger Porter, Contributor Writer, Speaker, Clinician, Interventionist