Ohio voters this week helped the U.S. reach a milestone of sorts when they voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana in their state. While the passage of Issue 2 puts the U.S. at 50% of states that have made pot-smoking legal for recreational use, it's a decision that could prove to have national health complications as new studies have linked marijuana use to heart disease.
That concerns Dr. John Fleming, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration.
"This study really grabbed me because I'd seen nothing written about this – but I really felt at my core as a physician, as somebody who has treated a lot of people with lung and heart disease related to tobacco, that marijuana smoking has got to be as dangerous, if not more so than cigarettes," Fleming said on Washington Watch Thursday.
"This is a very large study over a number of years, so there's no question now that the tar and all the toxic chemicals and everything that we find in cigarettes are also in marijuana as well," Fleming added.
Thirteen additional states have legalized medical marijuana. Only 12 states have not legalized marijuana. Washington and Colorado became the first states to okay recreational use in 2012.
Ohio's decision comes as drug-related deaths nationwide have reached record levels, according to 2022 data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those deaths are related to the country's deepening fentanyl crisis. Fleming argued that relaxing the rules for marijuana is an inconsistent message for the times.
"I wrote a book back in 2006 based on the premise that the earlier a child is exposed to addicting chemicals – whether it's tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, whatever – studies show clearly that the brain becomes imprinted on these addictive substances; and [children] have a much higher risk of ultimately developing alcoholism, drug addiction, whatever … and the rates of addiction have been going up progressively," Fleming told show host Tony Perkins.
According to the former HHS official, studies have shown that some young people who smoke marijuana have lost eight points off their IQ from their teen years to their early thirties. The side effects are numerous, Fleming added.
"As we become more relaxed about access by children and young adults to these addicting substances, we're having more and more problems. And the drugs are more and more powerful – that's why you see the 'zombie' effect that we see today on the streets of San Francisco," he stated.
"We see hyperemesis syndrome [a condition] where people can't stop throwing up, and acute and chronic psychosis, including schizophrenia, at a much higher percent."
Tax revenue won't offset consequences
Some proponents point to the taxation benefit that comes from legalization, but that's not generating enough money to offset the negative consequences, Fleming explained.
"There's a huge social cost, and the taxes that are coming in are far below projected levels," he noted.
The money that changes hands from the legalization of marijuana goes more to the entrepreneurs than the government, he continued.
"What we see evolving today is 'Big Marijuana,'" Fleming said. "Go back to the 1960s and 1970s when we found out people were dying left and right from heart disease. There were investigations, and 'Big Tobacco' claimed they couldn't find any addictive effects. Later that was proven to be wrong, and we had those Big Tobacco settlements.
His prediction: "Big Marijuana is now replacing Big Tobacco."
Before his service at HHS, Fleming represented Louisiana's 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives where he was a member of the Doctors Congress and the conservative Freedom Caucus.