Marijuana, or Cannabis sativa, is a dioecious plant (which is a fancy way of saying it’s a sexy plant; there are separate male and female plants, and they’ve got to get it on in the pistil and stamen scene), containing upwards of four hundred chemicals. The psychoactive agent, THC, or, for you chemistry savants, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is much more abundant in the female buds. THC is what makes you laugh uncontrollably at the lamest possible thing when you’re stoned.
In colonial America, “hemp” was a major agricultural crop; both Washington and Jefferson raised it. Hemp was valuable because you could use its fibers for rope and canvas and its seeds for soap, lamp oil and birdseed. Preoccupied with finding practical uses for weed, people from temperate climates did not realize the great fun you could have simply by smoking it. Folk weren’t so benighted in hot regions like India and North Africa. Here the plant fairly oozes with sticky resin, and is fit to be boiled for tea, ingested, and . . . you guessed it . . . smoked. Here also, perhaps under the psychoactive influence of the drug, they started giving it really cool names like dagga, ganja, bhang and hashish, from which we get the word “assassin.”
Along with absinthe, hashish was de riguer for French artists and writers in the late 19th century. At the same time, physicians, who had been recommending tinctures of marijuana for pain relief, began switching to synthetic drugs marketed by a burgeoning pharmaceuticals industry. As the drug became associated with marginal groups – Mexican laborers, blacks, jazz musicians, prostitutes – many states started passing laws against it. In the 1930s, the Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Agency) got interested in pot. This was the era of “reefer madness,” when the government tried to convince the public that marijuana made you crazy, horny and violent, or some unwholesome combination of the three. Pot finally went underground with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, only to emerge thirty years later as the drug of choice of socially-aware, middle-class college students.
In the 1970s, larger segments of society were toking up. A number of states, among them California, recognized this and decriminalized possession of small amounts. However, the relaxation of America’s marijuana laws was only temporary: Reagan’s ascendancy to the top job in 1980 heralded a national shift to the right, and legislators responded with acts carrying harsher and harsher penalties for drug offenses. Under President Clinton, the “war on drugs” has continued to receive massive federal funding.
Americans are funny about marijuana: present them with a pile of facts showing that the enforcement effort is wasteful and ineffective and you’ll be greeted with an angry glare. Simply put, a majority of Americans find marijuana morally offensive, although, if the studies are right, a third of them had to try it a few times before they could be sure.
Furthermore, most Americans, except maybe some in Idaho, aren’t warm to the libertarian point of view, which goes something like this: “Where does the government get off telling me what I can and can’t do with my own body? Humans have always used drugs, natural or otherwise, and it is paternalistic to tell us which ones are okay to use and which ones are not.” A more nuanced offshoot of this school of thought suggests that the ultimate answer is to allow people to grow their own and use it themselves or give it away, but not to sell it.
Intelligent people can still disagree as to the health risks of chronic marijuana use. Pro-marijuana folk blame the government for this, saying the government only gives lip service to the need for further study of pot, as it will not freely release it to scientists to study.
Now, especially for those humming “legalize it, don’t criticize it” while reading this, here are the key arguments in favor of legalizing marijuana: “Compared with cigarettes and alcohol, the health risks and societal costs associated with even chronic marijuana use are mild. Yet we don’t ban those items, while we deny marijuana to seriously ill people who could get a lot of relief from it. This is misguided and cruel. “
The Argument: Ever wake up feeling really hung over from a night of smoking out? Thought not. Throw in some heavy drinking, though, and you’ll awake feeling like death itself (in fact, alcohol poisoning is a real risk). No one overdoses on marijuana because it has a negligible therapeutic ratio; that is, you don’t have to use much to get the desired effect. Why then is one drug available from corner stores and allowed to be promoted at bowling tournaments, whereas the other you have to get from a pimply guy with a mullet you knew vaguely in high school, who hands you something dodgy-looking in a sandwich baggie? Quit the hypocrisy and make these intoxicants equally available.
Anyone familiar with pot knows about the “munchies.” So, too, do people weak from AIDS and anorexia that use marijuana to put on needed weight. Cancer patients smoke pot to dispel the nausea they get from chemotherapy, and doctors recommend it for epilepsy, arthritis, migraines and glaucoma. Synthetic forms of THC such as Marinol are ineffective substitutes because they often put patients to sleep before they start to eat, which is the whole point. And administering a proper dosage is even easier: once they’ve smoked enough to have an appetite, or once their pain subsides, they put down the joint. The federal government should follow the lead of voters in Arizona and California and at least allow the medical use of marijuana.
The Response: We can address the availability of cigarettes and alcohol elsewhere; but surely, adding marijuana to the list of harmful substances that are legal isn’t the answer. Synthetic alternatives are available for patients with these conditions. For patients who are wasting away, we have steroids to stimulate muscle growth; megace, too, has been shown to help patients put on weight. Marinol comes in pill form so patients needn’t inhale a carcinogen to make them hungry. A study by The National Institutes of Health concluded that smoking marijuana isn’t more effective than regular therapies. It is wrong for doctors to have patients figure out for themselves what the correct dosage should be, especially with a drug as impure as marijuana.
“Prohibition of marijuana doesn’t work. It has only spawned an enormous black market, eroded our civil rights and corrupted our justice system.” The Argument: When corn sells for a few dollars a bushel and pot goes for $70,000 a bushel, guess which one cash-strapped midwestern farmers are going to grow? Add to this the fact that you don’t exactly need a green thumb to grow basic varieties of marijuana, and the choice gets even easier. Ironically, we’ve returned to the image of the colonial hemp farmer, though the center of the production is now also the center of the nation: Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky. Marijuana has replaced corn as America’s top cash crop, and is really tough to detect tucked away in fields of corn. A legal regime that turns ordinary farmers into the worst class of offenders (growers) has something deeply wrong with it.
The war on drugs will only be won if we’re willing to turn our country into a police state, and that is what these draconian laws are doing for us. Owing to a quirk in the law, someone’s property can be forfeited even though he’s been found innocent in a drug offense. Stiffer sentencing has meant jails overcrowded with drug offenders, forcing the early release of violent criminals – inclluding murderers – to make room for guys who’ve been handed mandatory life terms without the possibility of parole for their “third strike.” America is now the world’s greatest jailor nation, with a prison population consisting overwhelmingly of drug offenders. On average, we sentence nonviolent drug offenders to five times more jail time than those convicted of manslaughter. Judges, disgusted with these injustices, are quitting the bench. When the severity of punishment is way out of proportion with the offense, the system is corrupt.
Americans – four million regularly – use marijuana more frequently than they do all other illegal drugs combined. They are no more criminals than people who like to have a drink to relax after work.
The Response: All the drug offenders in jail shows we’re doing our job properly. The stiff penalties deter would-be growers, users and traffickers. Financial advantage has never worked as a criminal defense before, and farmers who knowingly break the nation’s laws are as culpable as anyone else who does so. The shift of marijuana production to the Midwest proves that our efforts against pot entering this country from Mexico worked, so now we should concentrate our resources on the heartland and reap further successes.
Driven by the Drug War, the U.S. prison population is six to ten times as high as most Western European nations. The United States is a close second only to Russia in its rate of incarceration per 100,000 people. In 2000, more than 734,000 people were arrested in this country for marijuana-related offenses alone.
The US war on drugs places great emphasis on arresting people for smoking marijuana. Since 1990, nearly 5.9 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges, a greater number than the entire populations of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming combined. In 2000, state and local law enforcement arrested 734,498 people for marijuana violations. This is an increase of 800 percent since 1980, and is the highest ever recorded by the FBI.
As has been the case throughout the 1990s, the overwhelming majority of those charged with marijuana violations in 2000– 646,042 Americans (88 %) — were for simple possession. The remaining 12% (88,456 Americans) were for “sale/manufacture”, an FBI category which includes marijuana grown for personal use or purely medical purposes. These new FBI statistics indicate that one marijuana smoker is arrested every 45 seconds in America. Taken together, the total number of marijuana arrests for 2000 far exceeded the combined number of arrests for violent crimes, including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Like most Americans, people who smoke marijuana also pay taxes, love and support their families, and work hard to make a better life for their children. Suddenly they are arrested, jailed and treated like criminals solely because of their recreational drug of choice. State agencies frequently step in and declare children of marijuana smokers to be “in danger”, and many children are placed into foster homes as a result. This causes enormous pain, suffering and financial hardship for millions of American families. It also engenders distrust and disrespect for the law and for the criminal justice system overall. Responsible marijuana smokers present no threat or danger to America or its children, and there is no reason to treat them as criminals, or to take their children away. As a society we need to find ways to discourage personal conduct of all kinds that is abusive or harmful to others. Responsible marijuana smokers are not the problem and it is time to stop arresting them.
Once all the facts are known, it becomes clear that America’s marijuana laws need reform. This issue must be openly debated using only the facts. Groundless claims, meaningless statistics, and exaggerated scare stories that have been peddled by politicians and prohibitionists for the last 60 years must be rejected.
HOW HARMFUL IS MARIJUANA?
ANNUAL AMERICAN DEATHS CAUSED BY DRUGS
TOBACCO …………………… 400,000
ALCOHOL …………………… 100,000
ALL LEGAL DRUGS ……………. 20,000
ALL ILLEGAL DRUGS ………….. 15,000
CAFFEINE ………………….. 2,000
ASPIRIN …………………… 500
MARIJUANA …………………. 0
Source: United States government…
National Institute on Drug Abuse,
Bureau of Mortality Statistics
Like any substance, marijuana can be abused. The most common problem attributed to marijuana is frequent overuse, which can induce lethargic behavior, but does not cause serious health problems. Marijuana can cause short-term memory loss, but only while under the influence. Marijuana does not impair long-term memory. Marijuana does not lead to harder drugs. Marijuana does not cause brain damage, genetic damage, or damage the immune system. Unlike alcohol, marijuana does not kill brain cells or induce violent behavior. Continuous long-term smoking of marijuana can cause bronchitis, but the chance of contracting bronchitis from casual marijuana smoking is minuscule. Respiratory health hazards can be totally eliminated by consuming marijuana via non-smoking methods, i.e., ingesting marijuana via baked foods, tincture, or vaporizer.
A 1997 UCLA School of Medicine study (Volume 155 of the American Journal of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine) conducted on 243 marijuana smokers over an 8-year period reported the following: “Findings from the long-term study of heavy, habitual marijuana smokers argue against the concept that continuing heavy use of marijuana is a significant risk factor for the development of chronic lung disease.” “Neither the continuing nor the intermittent marijuana smokers exhibited any significantly different rates of decline in lung function as compared with those individuals who never smoked marijuana.” The study concluded: “No differences were noted between even quite heavy marijuana smoking and nonsmoking of marijuana.”
Marijuana does not cause serious health problems like those caused by tobacco or alcohol (e.g., strong addiction, cancer, heart problems, birth defects, emphysema, liver damage, etc.). Death from a marijuana overdose is impossible. In all of world history, there has never been a single human death attributed to a health problem caused by marijuana.