EVMS study shows possible negative impacts of medical marijuana laws

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A new study by doctors at Eastern Virginia Medical School cites evidence of a link between reduced educational outcomes and medical marijuana laws.(Photo courtesy NIDA for Teens)
A new study by doctors at Eastern Virginia Medical School cites evidence of a link between medical marijuana laws and reduced educational outcomes. (Photo courtesy National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens)

A newly published study by doctors from Eastern Virginia Medical School claims to have unearthed the first evidence that medical marijuana laws could be bad for education.

The study, “The Impact of Adolescent Exposure to Medical Marijuana Laws on High School Completion, College Enrollment and College Degree Completion,” was written by EVMS doctors Andrew Plunk, Paul Harrell and Kelli England Will. It was published last week in the journal “Drug and Alcohol Dependence.”

The doctors worked on the study for 1.5 years, using data from sources such as the U.S. Census, to compare dropout rates among states that did and didn’t have medical marijuana laws from 1994 to 2013, Plunk said.

The results show that states with medical marijuana laws have about 10 percent more high school seniors who drop out and fewer dropouts enrolling in and finishing college, according to an EVMS news release.

Plunk said other scientific studies show that teenagers living in states with medical marijuana laws often use marijuana that is legally prescribed to someone else.

“We noticed there was an increase in daily usage,” in states with medical marijuana laws, Plunk said. “We have a plausible way to explain what’s going on.”

Negative effects of marijuana use on education aren’t limited to high schoolers, Plunk said. While the study suggests that medical marijuana laws could have led to almost 6 percent fewer high school graduates going to college, the laws may also be responsible for nearly 2 percent fewer college students graduating.

Another key finding of the study was that people in states with medical marijuana laws often have a different attitude about marijuana usage and its standing as a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Schedule I drug. These impressions can change the way a person uses marijuana, especially teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18, Plunk said.

“If something is seen as a medication, it’s possible we will see it as less risky,” he added.

Plunk said more work must be done to determine the brain mechanism that marijuana affects, and how that brain mechanism relates to education, but he called the findings an important first step.

The EVMS study was released the same week that several Norfolk residents attended a Norfolk City Council meeting and asked local leaders to back marijuana decriminalization. Some cited families and lives harmed by the legal repercussions of small marijuana-possession charges.

Separately, a new study was also released by the Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union, titled “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drugs in the United States.”

That study states:

“More than 1.25 million people are arrested per year for drug possession, making it the single most arrested crime in the country. Black and white adults use drugs at similar rates, but a Black adult is 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession. On any given day there are at least 137,000 people behind bars as a result of drug possessions, while tens of thousands more are convicted, cycle through jails and prisons, and spend extended periods on probation and parole, often burdened with crippling debt from court-imposed fines and fees.”

Plunk said he doesn’t believe the EVMS study should be considered in the decriminalization debate, which deals with underlying criminal justice issues, whereas the EVMS study focuses on how the availability of medical marijuana affects high-school completion and post-secondary education.

“I don’t think this study has a negative impact on decriminalization,” Plunk said. “Underlying justice implications is a separate issue, and one that justifies looking at that issue more carefully.”

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Adrienne Mayfield is an award-winning, multi-media journalist hailing from Clermont, Fla. She moved to Lynchburg, Va. on a whim when she was 19, and worked her way to Hampton Roads in 2013. Adrienne is passionate about telling people stories via covering public safety and the judicial system. She isn’t afraid to take a heads-on approach to covering crime, including knocking on doors to get the details police aren’t sharing. Adrienne is a 2014 Old Dominion University graduate who still lives within walking distance of the college. You may see her cruising around Downtown Norfolk on her bike, enjoying a sandwich from Grilled Cheese Bistro or playing fetch with her dog, Greta, at the Colonial Place dog park.