The Debate for Legalizing Marijuana

Just this morning, a column in the Florida Today by Chris Muro referenced the impact the so-called “pot vote” will have on Governor Scott’s bid for reelection.  With states like Colorado & Washington State giving in to the tide of people clamoring for legalization, it’s important to educate ourselves about the issue – & not just the political side of it.

First of all, what is pot?  Among many slang terms, marijuana, pot, weed, etc. are all call-names for cannabis, a literal weed that has a natural abundance of cannabinoids, which is, chemically speaking, what causes the “high”.  According to Ray & Ksir , there are over 400 chemicals in the cannabis plant, but only 61 of them are unique to it (2004).  Politically speaking, “the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which first criminalized cannabis, predated widespread cannabis use in the United States & had clear political origins” (Reinarman, Cohen, & Kaahl, 2004).  So, we know that yes, pot gets you high, & yes, it has been politically charged in this country since before it was well-known as a recreational drug.  However, what’s so bad about pot?  Well, remember how pot has all those different compounds & chemicals in it?  According to the Mayo Clinic, marijuana also has “50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke and has the potential to cause cancer of the lungs and respiratory tract” (2006).  It’s also usually held in the lungs for longer than tobacco smoke, which ups the lungs’ exposure to carcinogens, which in turn cause lung cancer.  In addition, the second-hand smoke is just as, if not more dangerous, as cigarette smoke.  Hmm, so pot smoking is potentially more damaging than smoking regular ol’ death sticks.  Alright, you may say, but what if I responsibly smoke, away from people, in my own home?  I’m only responsible for my own health.  You’d be correct, but there’s a catch: Reinarman, et al. said in their study that seasoned users regulate their pot usage to fit in with social norms of their culture or co-culture (2004).  So, you essentially have an addiction, that is managed.  However, that raises the question of productivity. 

Let’s say you have someone who is an alcohol addict.  This person works a regular 9-5 job, but drinks outside of work hours.  His compulsion to drink soon becomes strong enough that it’s difficult to reign in, & he starts to sneak a drink or two while on the job.  Eventually, he’s caught by his boss after he makes a mistake in his duties, & is sent to mandatory rehab, during which time, he’s not being productive in his profession.  This same scenario could just as easily apply to one who smokes pot.  The proponents of legalizing pot say that alcohol is just as damaging, but what they fail to understand is that someone who drinks is not always a lush, but anyone who smokes marijuana has a greater chance of becoming addicted, because different chemical pathways are at work in the brain.  Addiction to alcohol, a depressant, is vastly different from THC, the active compound in pot that makes it so addicting.

The other factor that you can use to draw a parallel between alcohol & marijuana is the social rituals surrounding both.  For wine, beer, whiskey, vodka, etc. there are deeply-ingrained traditions, many of them cultural.  For cannabis, the earliest record of recreational or other use dates back to ancient China, where it was used medicinally.  However, just because something has been around for a very long time does not mean that it is without dangers, or even particularly helpful.  Even early users of the potent weed noted its negative aftereffects & side effects, notably lethargy & a lack of interest in basic biological urges (in Roman times, it was used to “suppress sexual longing” (Booth, 2005).  It’s also helpful to note that before regulations & laws, substances as varied as opium, cocaine, & chocolate were all considered to be “medicinal”.  Getting back to the social rituals aspect, modern medicine has succeeded in teasing out the chemical compounds in cannabis that could potentially be used as analgesics or pain-relievers for chronic or terminal illness.  This synthetic version of pot, carefully made to only be medicinal, without all the carcinogens & harmful chemicals, is, in many proposed forms, a small pill to be taken orally.  However, if you ask the average pot-smoker, they would much rather smoke the weed for the high than take a pill.  It would be the equivalent of inventing a pill that, when it hits your stomach, immediately causes inebriation.  Not as fun as sitting & drinking, or sitting & smoking, with the buzz or the high acting as the reward.  So, the problem we mainly face with pot is a social one, more related to human behavior than simple addiction.

The other argument pot advocates often put forth is that marijuana is harmless, at least compared to “harder” drugs.  According to a study by Krakauer & Hannah, a lower IQ & persistent memory problems are risk factors for anyone smoking pot who is not fully-developed.  So, if you’re under 18, the plasticity of your brain will be adversely affected by getting high (2012).  This is the same argument, incidentally, why you shouldn’t smoke or drink in excess as a child or teenager.  Common sense says that until your brain stops rearranging & pruning its neurons, any outside factors, especially chemical ones, will hurt you in the long run.  The biggest problem with exclusivity (that is, banning the sales of drugs & alcohol to minors) is that it makes these items a social taboo, & thus, tantalizingly irresistible to rebellious kids & teens.  Without proper education & a sound family unit predicated on respect for elders & authorities, many young Americans succumb to addiction when they are most vulnerable.  So, in the end, it all comes down to discipline & using our uniquely human brains to parse out what decision best affects the whole society. 

What can we do to halt the tide of legislation that seeks to legalize marijuana?  In a word, education.  Separating the facts & myths from the scientific studies & empirical data will be key in the coming months, years, & far into the future when arguing against legalization of a harmful substance that is part of a rapidly-growing subculture, members of whom are mobilized to protest, rally, & vote.  If we become a society of wanton smokers, drinkers, & other classes of hedonists, then we will become trapped in an almost literal lotus-eater machine, not realizing our full potential, & not even caring about our mental & philosophical stagnation.  Unfortunately, with politics in the driver’s seat, & common sense thrown under the bus, it’s looking like marijuana will be just another brick laid in the road to oblivion as overly-zealous lawmakers & politicians seek to appease their uneducated bases.  They clamor for tolerance, open-mindedness, & individual freedom while ignoring the documented consequences of dumbing down the next generation & numbing the current one.