Marijuana, America's most dangerous illegal drug

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.
MPR File Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

Methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin may be America's most addictive and destructive drugs, but marijuana is the most dangerous illegal drug in our nation. The reasons for this conclusion are many. First is that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in America. Almost 2 million persons began using marijuana last year in the United States, and marijuana use starts at a younger age than most other illicit drugs.

Early marijuana use is associated with drug dependence as an adult. The younger the age of first use, the higher the likelihood of such dependence as an adult. More than 4 million Americans are estimated to be dependent upon or abusers of marijuana, more than any other illegal drug. Treatment admissions for marijuana abuse have been higher than for any other illegal drug in our nation since 2002.

Marijuana is not the harmless substance many would like us to believe. Marijuana is an addictive drug that poses significant health risks to its users. Short-term effects of marijuana include memory loss, distorted perception, trouble with thinking and problem solving, and loss of motor skills. Long-term adverse impacts include loss in muscle strength, increased heart rate, respiratory problems, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, impaired ability to fight off infections and risk of cancer (marijuana contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke).

Marijuana is far more powerful today than it was 30 years ago. THC levels have increased from the 1 percent potency level in the 1970s to more than 13 percent today (on average), with some samples containing THC levels of up to 33 percent.

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Even more troubling is that marijuana serves as a gateway to the use of other illegal drugs. Most people who use methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine started their illegal drug use with marijuana. A recent study on addiction and substance abuse showed that teens who use marijuana at least once a month are 13 times more likely than other teens to use other drugs like cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine, and are almost 26 times more likely than those teens who never used marijuana to use another illegal drug. Another study showed that 12- to 17-year-olds who smoked marijuana were 85 times more likely to use cocaine than those who did not. Sixty percent of adolescents who use marijuana before age 15 will later use cocaine.

Last, but certainly not least, there are strong links between marijuana use, violence and other criminal activity. Young people who use marijuana weekly are nearly four times more likely than nonusers to engage in violence. Nationwide, 40 percent of adult males arrested for crimes tested positive for marijuana at the time of their arrest. Marijuana is in fact the cash crop that drives the illegal drug trade, not just here in Minnesota but across our country. Marijuana use provides a significant part of the demand side of the equation that brings drug dealers onto our street corners and into our schools and neighborhoods -- drug dealers who bring with them other crimes and violence.

The connection between marijuana use and gang activity and violence is inescapable. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently commented about middle-class Minnesotans who are buying marijuana "with a wink and a nod, thinking it has nothing to do with anything" when in fact these persons are "literally paying for the bullets that kill people." I agree with Mayor Rybak that "any person who buys marijuana in this region is directly or indirectly giving money to gangs." Recreational users of marijuana may not think of themselves as criminals, but they are in fact the biggest contributors to the illegal drug trade in America.

We would be wise as a society not to underestimate the destructive nature of marijuana. It is a powerful and addictive substance that is a gateway drug to other controlled substance abuse. Marijuana use finances in large part the activities of gangs and drug dealers. It is by far the most frequently used illegal drug in America and its use is directly connected to crime and violence in our communities.

For all of these reasons, in my opinion marijuana is America's most dangerous drug. We need to recognize the threat it represents and continue our efforts to control it, prevent our youth from starting to use it, aggressively enforce our laws against those who illegally cultivate, distribute and possess it, and effectively treat those who have become addicted to it.


James C. Backstrom is the Dakota County attorney. To read his article with his original source citations, please go to under Publications.