Cutting through the haze

Students learn from health class/parents/commercials/Mr. Mackey that marijuana bad. Mmk? Yet, it is still one of the most abused and most politicized drugs. A simple Google search on marijuana shows how polarized the debate is. Pot is no longer a G-Man vs. Hippy issue; scientists have stepped up the debate with libraries of studies and facts for both the pro- and anti-cannabis movements as well as neutral researchers.

“Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base” by the National Academy of Sciences, a U.S. government-commissioned exhaustive research into marijuana, yielded intriguing results. One major finding was that there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana causes cancer in humans, including cancers usually related to tobacco use. However, smoked marijuana (just like any smoke you inhale) is certainly a major risk factor for the development of respiratory cancer, lung damage, and poor pregnancy outcome. Thus, the major direct and indirect harm of marijuana is in smoked marijuana. Warnings for using cannabis itself are similar to what you see on prescription med bottles (don’t drive, operate forklifts, or pretend small children are airplanes – you won’t catch them when you throw them in the air). It is dangerous if heavily or idiotically abused, like grinding up and injecting or snorting Ritalin. From this evidence, the scientific conception of cannabis is expanding to harness its potential.

Medical cannabis, legal in several states, is the most successful venture into the pro-cannabis movement. While cannabis is recommended only for terminal patients where any possible long-term effects are less crucial, it still faces political grilling. Opponents of medical application see legalization for treatment as a gateway to full legalization; however, Marinol, a synthesized version of THC (the active chemical in cannabis), has been approved by the FDA and is currently a totally legit prescription drug used to treat nausea and vomiting common from chemotherapy treatments. Marinol is a synthetic version of THC just like heroin is a synthetic version of morphine, yet Marinol is accepted and faces nothing compared to heroin. Opponents highlight side effects of cannabis in terms of cognitive defects, stressful withdrawal, and increased heart rate. However, even the maximum increase in heart rate by cannabis is about as much as the average workout, and cognitive defects are reversible and wear off after seven days. Withdrawal from legal tobacco and alcohol have considerably longer, more intense, and more difficult to maintain withdrawal periods, not to mention millions seek treatment for alcoholism and tobacco each year compared to about 120,000 for marijuana. Still, the hounds move in to kill the pro-cannabis front.

According to the FBI in 2007, arrests for possession of marijuana were the highest arrest rate (42.1%) of all drug abuse violations. That’s about 757,800 arrests – more than the arrests for all violent crimes combined, including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Arrests for a drug scientifically proven to be less harmful than legal tobacco don’t always require jail time. Minor convictions for marijuana possession could result in losing a job, losing custody of your children, losing adoption rights, losing financial aid for school, losing federally subsidized housing, losing your right to vote, and losing your driving privileges. The current drug policy forces minor drug offenders to fill the prisons, raising the public’s taxes without any national move to even partial decriminalization to ease the burden.

The term “decriminalization” has been a severely misconceived term with the recent state laws determining the penalties for marijuana possession. Decriminalization does not mean marijuana is a legal substance that a seven-year-old can buy across the street from school. The people of Massachusetts passed a measure November 4 to decriminalize marijuana possession. There, if authorities catch someone over 18 in possession of marijuana up to, say, one ounce of marijuana, then that person would not receive automatic arrest and possible jail time; instead, the person would be required to forfeit the marijuana and pay a $100 fine. That’s it. Someone under 18 would have to forfeit the marijuana and face a $1000 fine unless they completed a drug awareness course.

Decriminalization is not a gateway or degradation of the legal system. It is the first sorely needed step from punishment to rehabilitation and education. It costs much more to stash a first-time marijuana possessor in a prison cell than to rehabilitate; in fact in cases like Massachusetts, the fines for possession turns into revenue for the state.

The idea that marijuana is a gateway drug to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin does have merit. However, the National Academy of Sciences research study found that “there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.” While most users of other illicit drugs have used marijuana first, most of these abusers “begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana – usually before they are of legal age.”

The target of the war on drugs is stretched too thin to effectively shut out the truly harmful hard-drug scene while authorities pursue the lethargic pot-smoking teenager. There are gangs across the country and terrorist-funding organizations across the world trafficking extremely potent and dangerous drugs like cocaine; yet, we continue to lock up the much less dangerous. The effect of criminalization on society in the U.S. is more deleterious than the effect of marijuana on the user.

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