Marijuana has some medicinal value but legalizing its recreational use would have a high cost to society, particularly among youth, Jackson County legislators were told Monday.

“It affects their ability to focus, their ability to stay motivated, and it’s increasing,” said Burt Whaley, principal at Summit Ridge Academy, the alternative school in the Lee’s Summit School District. He said many of his students come to the academy after getting into trouble that involves drugs.

There are bills in the Missouri General Assembly to loosen state marijuana laws, either allowing medicinal use or even recreational use. In response, County Legislator Bob Spence, R-Lee’s Summit, introduced a resolution in opposition to legalization in either form. He says there’s a contradiction in that Jackson County spends millions each year through its dedicated anti-drug tax while the state might consider legalizing one of those drugs.

Legislators held a hearing Monday and could vote next week on the resolution, which is a statement of a position but not binding on state legislators.

The Jackson County Drug Task Force’s 2013 annual report is straightforward in its assessment: “Marijuana is readily available in all areas of Jackson County. It is the most abused and preferred drug in the area, and has commonly been referred to as the ‘gateway drug.’ Marijuana is commonly found to be used in combination with other drugs and/or narcotics.”

The report says some is locally grown and some in brought in from California and the Southwestern U.S., much of that brought in from Mexico by the organizations that also bring in cocaine and methamphetamines.

Dan Cummings of the Jackson County Drug Task Force said the loosening of marijuana laws in Colorado over the last several years, including legalization for recreational use last year, is having noticeable effects in the Kansas City area. Kansas and Missouri are Nos. 1 and 2 respectively in “diversion” of marijuana products now legal in Colorado, Cummings said.

Whaley said he’s seeing that in his school.

“It’s a candy, and it’s marketed to children,” he said. He told of one incident in which a student ate a large amount of one such product – coming to school very high – but apparently oblivious to the problem because she hadn’t smoked anything.

Cummings said there’s an argument that legalizing and taxing marijuana is good for government revenues.

“So is that going to outweigh the costs to society? I don’t think we know yet,” he said.

What about the argument that legalization would take the business away from drug cartels? Cummings said he didn’t know but didn’t think so with huge amounts of money at stake. He put it this way: Did legalization get the mob out of the gambling business?

Cummings also offered these statistics: One teenage driver in four admits to driving while drunk or high – and 75 percent of those who admit that also claim that smoking marijuana doesn’t impair their ability to drive.

Whaley said the facts clearly point to the dangers of marijuana use even as the loosening of laws around the country is getting wider acceptance.

“I think it’s going to be a detriment to our kids,” he said.

Wayne Lucas, professor emeritus in criminal justice at University of Missouri-Kansas City, said his review of research indicates that marijuana can have medical benefits. It can help chemo patients who lose their appetites, it can ease eye pressure for glaucoma patients, and it can ease pain for conditions such as arthritis.

“Like any kind of medication,” he added, “there are risks.”

Some users – fewer than 10 percent, he said – develop a dependency on marijuana, and some suffer withdrawal symptoms. Plus, of course, users are impaired and shouldn’t drive or operate heavy machinery.

The Missouri General Assembly is in session until mid-May.

“I don’t anticipate that full legalization will even get close” to passage, lobbyist Fred Dreiling told legislators, but he said some legislators who have opposed legalization have shown an openness to considering medical uses. Also, the medical use of marijuana could get on the ballot by way of statewide initiative petition. Polls suggest permitting that use of marijuana has strong support.