Jim Dey | Recreational-pot proponents riding wave of support

Jim Dey | Recreational-pot proponents riding wave of support

Earlier this month, in an effort to slow down legislation to legalize marijuana in Illinois, Catholic bishops spoke out against the proposal.

Citing marijuana's addictive qualities, its status as a "gateway" toward the use of more serious illegal substances, its links to mental-health problems by heavy users and the danger of commercializing the sale of such a potent substance, the religious leaders issued a broad appeal.

"The Catholic bishops of Illinois are committed to the common good and therefore advise against legalization," they said.

What was instructive about the bishops' action is not their announcement, but the short-shrift response to it by legalization advocates. They ignored the bishops' concerns, dismissing them as a bunch of hopelessly un-hip fuddy-duddies who don't deserve to have their concerns taken seriously.

"Prohibitionists are going to prohibit. It just doesn't surprise me that they want to cling to the old ways. I don't know that anybody's going to be surprised by this," responded state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, one of the leading advocates of legalization in the Legislature.

Cassidy's response was textbook.

In politics, those who are explaining are losing — the rule is always attack and never defend.

That's one reason why legalization advocates simply wrote off their opponents as having nothing useful to contribute — to them, the naysayers are hopelessly out of touch with the real world in which marijuana is not just benign, but a positive good.

All suggestions to the contrary are simply myths from an era that has come and, thankfully, is now gone.

That what's-the-problem mind-set reflects the current political atmosphere in which Illinois legislators will address the legalization issue.

The possession of small amounts of marijuana is a decriminalized, fine-only offense in Illinois, as it is in most states. No one goes to jail anymore simply for smoking weed.

Further, marijuana is available in Illinois by prescription as medicine for a variety of ailments, even though it has never passed muster in Food & Drug Administration medical trials. Legislators, not doctors, made that call.

New governor — J.B. Pritzker — says marijuana legalization is one of his top legislative priorities.

As the son of a woman who died from the consequences of alcoholism, he is unconcerned about introducing another powerful intoxicant fully into society. He considers legalization the moral thing to do and is gaga over the potential tax revenues he anticipates from legalization.

Nonetheless, dissenters persist.

In January, representatives of the law enforcement and mental health communities in Chicago warned of a variety of negative consequences stemming from legalization.

Shortly thereafter, Illinois U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin expressed similar sentiments, citing concerns about more people driving under the influence of marijuana and suffering negative mental health consequences.

"We've got to take care that we don't go to the other extreme" of full legalization, Durbin said.

But few are interested in the warnings, as a chorus of Durbin critics made clear in the aftermath of his remarks.

Former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson is used to skeptical responses — and worse — to suggestions that marijuana is more dangerous than legalization proponents acknowledge.

As the author of a recent book on the subject — "Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence" — Berenson has been the target of critics who assert he's just another anti-marijuana hysteric whose reporting cannot be trusted.

That description is false.

Berenson cites multiple studies showing that the heavy use of marijuana over time can lead to psychotic episodes or full schizophrenia in vulnerable people. They include young people whose brains are not mature, as well as those who are susceptible to mental illness.

He said heavy marijuana users between 14 and 19 can be subject to psychotic breaks in future years — ages 19 to 24 for men and 21 to 27 for women.

He described individuals who can use marijuana without concern as being over 25 and mentally healthy.

Berenson's book includes a slew of good points to make, but his arguments are the functional equivalent of spitting into the wind. He acknowledged that most people have made up their minds that, at worst, marijuana is benign and that "changing someone's mind is next to impossible."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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