Opinion writer

Associated Press

The move toward legalization of marijuana is premised on the assumption that it is “safe” — safer than alcohol — legalization advocates argue. But what if it is very, very dangerous?

That’s the question that Yale Medical School psychiatrist Samuel T. Wilkerson raises. He writes: “Though they receive little attention in the legalization debate, the scientific studies showing an association between marijuana use and schizophrenia and other disorders are alarming.” After reviewing two of these, he explains:

As research accumulates, the emerging picture is that marijuana precipitates schizophrenia or related psychotic disorders in people whose brains are inherently vulnerable to psychosis. All of us who do not regularly experience hallucinations or delusions reside on what may be called a “cliff of sanity.” Some of us, for reasons still unclear (thought possibly to be genetic), are closer to the edge of the cliff than others.

Marijuana may push everyone a few feet closer to that cliff. For those who were already close to the cliff, the drug pushes them over the edge into the chasm of insanity, hence precipitating the development of schizophrenia.

This should not slow the effort to reform the punishments for casual drug use. Indeed evidence of marijuana’s dangers weighs in favor of reforms such as those New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has championed, which require drug treatment rather than incarceration for those convicted of nonviolent  crimes.

Studies like this should compel us to move cautiously before plunging into major changes in drug laws. They also remind us that for all the president’s focus on guns in the aftermath of the Newton, Conn., shootings, far too little attention was paid to mental health and laws concerning family members’ ability to detain loved ones for evaluation. (One of the attributes of schizophrenia is that it prevents individuals from recognizing they are ill.)

This is not to say all people with schizophrenia are dangerous (only a tiny percentage are, and, in fact, they are more likely to be crime victims) or that schizophrenia is  responsible for all mass murders. But what we do know is it is a debilitating disease that puts the patient and others at risk. It deserves our focus and resources — not to mention legislative caution in the drug law debate.