The Legalization of Marijuana:
Medical Advance or an Excuse for Addicts?
Marijuana is part of American culture. Routinely romanticized and glamorized in pop-culture from “Cheech and Chong” in the 1980s to Seth Rogen today, it has become part of the American life, which is curious for a drug that has been illegal for some time. It is connected with rock and folk bands from The Byrds to Pink Floyd to Jimi Hendrix, anchoring it into American life (Ard, 1997).
This essay will argue that the legalization and distribution of marijuana is a bad idea. “Legalization” here means reducing it to the same status as alcohol. Its presence for certain medical conditions certainly is far less problematic than Oxycontin, but to permit small, standardized amounts of THC with a prescription is not the issue. To stress its medical use is a bit of a diversion, since this is not the reason its legalization is demanded. Its popular usage as a relaxing and calming drug is its main attraction, for better or worse. It is recreational first and foremost, and that should be the main focus.
Given experience with pain killers and alcohol, the legalization of any other drug like it cannot be wise. The irrationality of the American population relative to other drugs and practices shows that legalization will merely add to the present insanity and increase the number of mental patients, addicts and auto accidents.
The failure of the “drug war” is not a solid argument (though it is a fact), since many countries have fought this war and won. Legalization experiments the world over have not produced the effects legalizers seek, though there are some exceptions. In short, given the American desire to disconnect from society and alter their perception, the legalization of drugs will lead to a population more docile, more erratic and more suggestible than ever before. The painful fact is that any argument that assumes the rationality of the average American is doomed from the start.
The Case for Legalization
Marijuana legalization is argued in many ways. Some take the free market approach, others stress its relative harmlessness compared with alcohol, others take the medical route. One argument for legalization of marijuana, and much else, comes from the Cato institute, and shows the basic assumption of most advocates of legalization:
In a free society, the presumption must be that people can smoke, snort, eat or inject whatever they wish, so long as they do not harm others. The burden of proof should rest on those who would ban marijuana, not those who want it legal. That burden has never been met (Miron, 2010).
It is unclear that drug use does not harm others. Harm to oneself, under most circumstances, is harming others, especially if one is in a position of authority. Fathers, counselors and taxi drivers harm themselves, but are in a position to severely harm others. Yet, the more fundamental problem with such naiveté is the US track record. Alcohol abuse, massive consumer debt, reckless spending, billions wasted in gambling, auto accidents, DUI, spousal abuse, and fantasy football go a long way to remind most of us that people are irrational. They will not respond to logic and are expert at rationalization. The history of alcohol in America suggests that the last thing people should be trusted with are intoxicants. Of course, this sort of behavior is not similar to “liberty,” but an irrational and abstract license that is destructive and continues to destroy.
The arguments in favor of total marijuana legalization are familiar ones. The huge cost of the Drug War, upwards of $40 billion a year has not altered the fact that the US remains the ultimate market for illegal drugs in the world. Prisons are overcrowded because about half the population is incarcerate for drug related crimes. Private, home users with small amounts were, at one time, prosecuted. The courts are crammed with drug offenses and police must be sick of dealing with well armed and wealthy drug pushers and high priced lawyers.
Part of the problem, so it is argued, is that keeping drugs illegal makes them expensive. Therefore, there is every incentive to the more “enterprising” to take advantage of this for huge profits. The economic issues are hard to deny, since the expense of drugs and the massive market are absolutely irresistible for today’s creating entrepreneurs. The money is not taxed, and drug gangs are well off, well defended and well armed.
Gang wars, murder and all manner of violent crime is often over drugs. Territory and profits serve as an incentive to do anything to maintain one’s position. The high expense of drugs lead to gangs and other organizations to organize powerful networks, well armed soldiers, and, in places like Latin America, entire armies. Not only has this war failed completely, but it has created criminal gangs whose power and money is an easy match for any government. The market will not go away, but, if regulated, the use of these drugs can be monitored and addicts treated if needed. One has heard the litany many times before.
In the British Guardian Newspaper, the modestly titled article “The Case for Legalising all Drugs is Unanswerable”makes this significant claim:
Producing and distributing illegal drugs is a highly organised business, whose effects are felt throughout society. The extreme profits that are reaped corrupt institutions and wreck lives. Dealing drugs can seem a glamorous career to young people in desolate inner cities, even as it socialises them into a gang culture in which violence is normal. The Hobbesian environment of anarchic street gangs, crooked politicians and put-upon, occasionally corrupt cops portrayed in The Wire may not be immediately recognisable in most European countries. But it is not all that far away (Gray, 2009).
Recently, those advocating for the legalization of marijuana have taken the medical route. The essential position is that disorders that feature either mental or physical pain can be substantially improved through THC. Present pain medication is highly problematic and synthetic. Used together with THC, other medications can be used less and have their effects greatly increased (Ellis, 2008).
The literature showing some limited medical use of THC is substantial. Some claim that it is effective in cancer treatment. The control of nausea and pain, as well as increasing appetite, in patients under chemo or radiation seems promising. Certain cancers, including blood, lung and oral types might be slowed or even reversed by THC. There is also some evidence that many oncologists are in favor of THC treatment, at least for side-effects of treatment (cf. Whyte, 2010; Gustafsson, 2006; Pastos, 2005; Kleiman 1991).
Side effects of the drug are always a problem, but THC is hardly different in this respect. The literature cited here makes mention of side effects, but also argues that these are mild in comparison to other classes of drugs such as opiates for pain relief or SSRIs. Ellis (2008) suggests in his studies that pain was substantially decreased by marijuana, with an excellent toleration of the drug from most patients. When used with other therapies, it works even better. The primary side-effect was difficulty in concentration.
Jody Corey-Bloom experimented with marijuana relative to Multiple-Sclerosis sufferers. Dealing with general functions and spasticity (which is quite painful), about 30 patients were used to test THCs effect on this disease. Most found significant relief both in the number of spastic movements and the intensity of the resultant pain (Bloom, 2012).
In areas of pain regulation, THC might have a place. The cancer issue is still in its infancy, and it will be some time before the verdict is in. However, prescriptions for THC are not a problem nor are they the issue at hand. The opiates have ravaged parts of society as alcohol has. Yet, the need for pain relief, sometimes in huge doses, leaves the medical profession little choice. The medical argument is not entirely relevant to the issue, since it would be tightly controlled regardless.
In sum, the case for legalization is primarily that making a highly desirable object illegal is to a) drive up its price, and b) encourage a black market that need not play by the rules other businesses do. The second argument is that marijuana is not nearly as harmful as other drugs used as painkillers. If Percocet (a morphine derivative) is available by prescription, then so should marijuana.
The Case against Legalization
The California Society of Addiction Medicine (2010) argues that these drugs affect the brain in ways that are not entirely known. They wrote: “The normal brain relies on the same cannabinoid chemistry found in marijuana to regulate much of the body’s physiology. Marijuana mimics our brain’s natural molecules and frequent use significantly disrupts the brain’s delicate chemical balance.” In other words, unless there is a clear deficiency in this chemical, it overloads the brain on an otherwise natural chemical. Causing permanent imbalances is real, and its systematic study has yet to be accomplished, especially in the fields of psychosis (CASM, 2010).
In this vein, the American Psychological Association states:
There is no current scientific evidence that marijuana is in any way beneficial for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder. In contrast, current evidence supports, at minimum, a strong association of cannabis use with the onset of psychiatric disorders. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to harm, given the effects of cannabis on neurological development (APA, 2013).
THC’s short term effects are well known, as it impairs verbal competence, attention span and motor control. Longer term abuse can permanently harm learning, memory and general cognition. The toxic effects of marijuana on the brain might not be an argument for its continued criminalization, but it does suggest that its use is not a positive thing in general. When this is combined with alcohol, the effects are far harsher (CSAM, 2010 and 2011).
The argument that alcohol is legal, hence marijuana should be too, is a non-sequitur. The mere fact that alcohol is legal, on the contrary, suggests that any other powerful drug should not be legal. It is all the state can do to keep up with the ravages of alcohol. Making other drugs easier to get cannot help matters at all (CSAM, 2011). In fact, alcohol and its endless destruction of families and lives is more evidence that Americans cannot be trusted with such decisions and thus, making other drugs legal would be an invitation to mass carnage. Alcohol is proof that other drugs should remain proscribed.
London’s Institute of Psychiatry stated that there was indeed a link between pot smoking and psychosis, especially schizophrenia. By the early 1990s, many young people institutionalized for this disease were also heavy grass smokers, they state that at least 10% of such patients were psychotic because of the chemical imbalances caused by its use. Further, new blends with higher levels of THC are causing more damage, and much more awaits (DEA, 2003: 28-32).
To claim that pot is not addictive cannot pass any scientific test. Any drug that affects the pleasure centers of the brain will create withdrawal symptoms and over time, tolerance. This the very definition of addiction. The younger the user, the more intense and permanent the effects. Drugs that function as stimulants, relaxants or pain killers are, by their very function, capable of creating addiction since, once the effects wear off, the brain demands more. Over time, the production of the relevant chemical in the brain stops, since the system is getting it from the outside. Going off the drug at this point is very dangerous (AACP, quoted in DEA, 2003: 3).
From 1998 to 2008, marijuana addiction and treatment for dependence increased substantially. Over this period, addiction rates for this drug increased by 30% even as alcohol and other drugs saw their victims decline. California, one of the first to legislate for “medical” use of marijuana, reports a 117% increase in addiction since 1998. It went from 52 per 100,000 to 113 (DEA, 2003: 32).
Like alcohol (and increasingly Adderall and a bunch of new synthetics), legalization will only make access easier and cheaper. The famed college-level antics with alcohol, if mixed with marijuana, heroin or cocaine will create more John Bonhams than ever before. The Dutch example and, to a lesser extent, the Nebraska one shows that this Utopian future will not happen. In the Netherlands, the consensus is that the legalization of marijuana was a failure and the crime wave in these areas is unsettling.
What the legalizers do not understand is that doing drugs of any kind speaks to a troubled person, society and lifestyle. Those who regularly experiment with such drugs are also going to overuse anything that is legal. Alcohol and pain pills are sufficient proof of that. Legal marijuana will soon lose its status and be replaced by stronger drugs, regardless of its legality. The whole legalization argument misses the point.
Those who think that drugs are their only option, or who cannot control their impulses, are those that cause the drug epidemic, not the legal status of the chemicals. The irrationality that goes into experimenting with these intoxicants shows that drug users are incapable, for whatever reason, of thinking rationally. Human rationality is fragile, and the everyday stresses of modern life, seemingly worse each day, are breaking down what little logic is left. American society functions on impulse buying, manipulative advertising and massive consumer debt. Putting marijuana in their hands will only have the benefit of putting them to sleep for awhile, but the gangs, the irrationality and the illogic will not go away. They’ll just get more creative.
Medical Papers on Marijuana
Whyte et al. (2010). Cannabinoids inhibit cellular respiration of human oral cancer cells.
Pharmacology, 85: 328-335.
Gustafsson et al. (2006). Cannabinoid receptor-mediated apoptosis induced by R(+)-
methanandamide and Win55,212 is associated with ceramide accumulation and p38 activation
in Mantle Cell Lymphoma. Molecular Pharmacology, 70: 1612-1620.
Pastos et al. (2005). The endogenous cannabinoid, anandamide, induces cell death in colorectal
carcinoma cells: a possible role for cyclooxygenase-2. Gut, 54: 1741-1750.
Doblin R, Kleiman MAR (1991). Marijuana as Antiemetic Medicine: A Survey of Oncologists’
Experiences and Attitudes. Clinical Oncology, 9: 1275-1290.
CSAM Statement on the Medical Aspects of Marijuana Legalization (2010). Adopted by the CSAM Executive Council April
APA (2013) Position Statement on Marijuana as Medicine. The Board of Trustees and the Assembly of the APA
Grant, I. (2012) Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke. The Open Neurology Journal, 6, 18-25
Ellis R. (2008) Smoked Medicinal Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain in HIV: A Randomized, Crossover Clinical Trial. Neuropsychopharmacology. E-pub ahead of print.
Corey-Bloom J and T. Wolfson (2012) Smoked cannabis for spasticity in multiple sclerosis: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. CMAJ
California Society for Addiction Medicine. (2011)The Adverse Effects of Marijuana.
Other Papers on the Issue
Suggs, DL (1981) A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of the Impact of Nebraska’s Decriminalization of Marijuana. Law and Human Behavior, 5(1): 45-71
Drug Enforcement Administration (2003) The DEA Position on Marijuana. US Department of Justice
Miron, J (2010) Don’t Buy the Hype on Pot Legalization. CATO
Ard, MJ (1997) The Kingpins of Drug Regulation: Investigating Their Role in the Culture War. Culture Wars
Crossette, B (June 13 2001) Taliban’s Eradication of Poppies Is Convulsing Opium Market. NYT
China Now (1977) How China got Rid of Opium. Chinese History
Ghosn, A (2-2014) The Case for Legalization. Stanford Daily
Gray, J (12-9-2009) The Case for Legalising all Drugs is Unanswerable. The Guardian