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Drug addiction experts want state to exercise caution with medical marijuana decision

Now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking steps to move ahead with the legalization of medical marijuana in New York state, there are some who are urging caution. The concern comes from experts who deal with drug addictions every day.

During his State of the State address earlier this week, Cuomo said he would enact a plan allowing 20 hospitals to dispense medical marijuana to those suffering from cancer and other ailments.

Liz Berry has worked in the field of chemical dependency treatment for 30 years. The Syracuse-based Crouse Hospital addiction specialist says almost all of the patients she sees started on a road to drug abuse using marijuana and alcohol.

"We deal with a specific population," Berry said. "It’s not like everybody who uses marijuana will go on to develop an addiction. But for us, everyone who has an addiction started with marijuana.”

She believes legalizing medical marijuana may simply send the wrong message to young people.
"I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve had in my office who say to me, 'Well I use it every day, and it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it,'" Berry said. "They’re likening it to drinking water, and it’s not. There are side effects to it. And Gov. Cuomo’s statement, just like it did in every other state, just increases this perception among kids that they can use it, like they eat gummy bears, and nothing bad is going to happen."

Berry says what gets lost in much of the debate over legalizing marijuana is the fact that there are side effects.

"One of the concerns I have working with young people and working with people who have problems with addiction is that this reinforces the perception that marijuana is a benign and harmless drug," Berry said. "And it’s not.”

She says there is evidence that it can lower the IQ in young people and can make symptoms of mental illness worse. Another problem is that because it’s an herb, it hasn’t been researched the same way a man-made drug is, so many of these side effects are anecdotal.

Berry says she'd like the state to move slowly on the issue and make sure people are aware of all the facts surrounding the impacts of marijuana, and ultimately would like people to look at the whole picture of a drug that a majority of Americans now say should be legalized.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.