Legalization of Marijuana: It's Health and Safety First

Legalization of Marijuana: It's Health and Safety First

As January 1, 2020 approaches, JCFS Chicago’s addiction services has been receiving  requests to provide information about marijuana in anticipation of the legalization of recreational use in Illinois.  As with all substance use issues, marijuana legalization is expected to impact the Jewish community along with the general population.

Here’s what we know:  Because of factors such as genetic predisposition, trauma history, and co-occurring disorders including anxiety and depression, nine percent (9%) of adults who use marijuana will ultimately misuse it. The rates of addiction increase significantly when marijuana use begins in adolescence.

What can we expect?  The data from use of the other legal psychoactive substance, alcohol, gives us useful data for what to expect when recreational use of marijuana is legalized.  Studies of alcohol use also offer excellent guidance on what to do to protect our youth and how to use psychoactive substances safely and responsibly as adults. When the new law takes effect on January 1, the State of Illinois will move from a largely abstinence-based community to what we in the addiction field would call a harm reduction community for adults, and what we could call an open-eyed abstinence community for our young people. What does harm reduction mean? It means putting policies, processes, and education in place to reduce potential negative consequences of using alcohol and other drugs. Designated drivers is an example of a harm reduction strategy that can be directly applied to adult use of marijuana.  In this case, the message of harm reduction is not to never drink if you are of age, but rather to drink responsibly by not getting behind the wheel.

Open-eyed abstinence for youth means that the message should always be that we expect young people to abide by the law and not drink or use marijuana.  Experience tells us, however, that some youth will drink, and some will use marijuana.  In the open-eyed abstinence model, a responsible community would give them the education, skills, and tools to be as safe as possible if they do make that unfortunate choice. Skills can include how to say no to offers to use drugs; healthy decision making based in Jewish values as well as  marijuana’s impact on the adolescent and young adult brain can be taught. 

It truly is an unfortunate choice for young people under age 26 to use marijuana because brain science shows that the adolescent and emerging adult brain is developing rapidly, so introducing psychoactive substances at this time of development changes neurobiology and interferes with the acquisition of critical life skills.  A responsible community message to young people might be to choose not to use any psychoactive substances, and to be as safe as possible in all circumstances.

What can we as a Jewish community do to support harm reduction among adults and open-eyed abstinence for underage individuals? We can support programming within the Jewish community such as the JCFS Chicago Partners in Prevention youth drug prevention program which serves 6th and 7th graders at Jewish day schools and synagogue Sunday schools.

Additionally, we can support community wide education, so everyone knows what marijuana misuse is and what it isn’t, allowing us to follow the Talmudic dictum to Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, to look out for and be responsible for one another.  The Safer Synagogues program at JCFS Chicago supports synagogue leadership in creating safe sacred spaces regarding alcohol use.  These discussions, which include information on how to recognize a problem and how to intervene early in order to save a life, will now expand to include marijuana. 

Taking a thoughtful, clear-eyed approach to the legalization of recreational marijuana will allow us all to address first things first – health and safety!