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HOT TOPICS: Drug and Alcohol Treatment  Heroin

The Case for Legalizing Pot

The economic, social and moral imperatives for ending pot prohibition go far beyond freedom to get high.

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The "grass"-roots campaign photo

By Phillip S. Smith

11/03/12

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It's been nearly a century since the first state level bans on marijuana were enacted, and precisely 75 years since Congress enacted marijuana prohibition at the federal level. Since then, millions of Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses—overwhelmingly for possession of small amounts—and billions of dollars have been spent trying to stop people from growing, selling, and smoking pot.

It hasn't worked. Cannabis is now used by millions of people in the United States, and has been for decades. It is culturally accepted, the stuff of knowing TV sitcom references and sophomoric press puns. Police chiefs say that they have better things to do than bust people for smoking pot (even though they somehow still manage to arrest more than 850,000 a year). Even the commander-in-chief commanded his very own stoner crew, the Choom Gang, in his younger days, while his two immediate predecessors either issued artful non-denials of youthful use (George W. Bush) or famously tried to have it both ways by ridiculously claiming to have toked but not inhaled (Bill Clinton).

Medical marijuana is now the law in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and in some of those states, most notably California and Colorado, it has generated a cannabis industry, complete with commercial production and retail sales. The sky has not fallen. And public support for full—not just medical—marijuana legalization is trending ever upward, hitting an all-time high of 50% in a Gallup poll last year, and it is higher in the West.

Tomorrow that support will be put to the test at the polls. Three Western states—Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—have versions of marijuana legalization on the ballot. They deserve to win because marijuana prohibition cannot be justified on any reasonable basis. It is a misbegotten policy rooted in racism, hysteria, and demagoguery—not science or medicine—and it results in inordinately more harm to society than marijuana use itself.

Let’s concede that, while among the most innocuous of psychoactive substances, marijuana is not harmless. Its most common form of ingestion, smoking, introduces crap into the lungs that's probably not good for you. Other common negative effects include the impairment of short-term memory, concentration, and coordination as well as increased appetite (although obesity is less prevalent in users than non-). Pot use seems to have a tenuous link with the onset of schizophrenia in a small number of teenagers and, more important, can have a deleterious effect on the development of adolescent brains—an effect that is not reversible upon quitting. And as with alcohol and other substance abuse, some stoners become so dependent on weed that their habit has serious negative consequences on their own lives and those of their partners and families. Driving while high, while not nearly as dangerous as driving while drunk, raises serious concerns.

That’s about it, as far as reefer’s risks go.

A cost-benefit analysis of prohibition has to include the benefits of recreational use of cannabis.

Unlike users of illegal stimulants, such as methamphetamine or cocaine, marijuana users have little tendency to binge and therefore little likelihood of undergoing loss of control and the unpredictable, destructive behaviors associated with bingeing—or the miserable post-binge depression or compulsive cravings. Unlike with opiates, such as heroin or Oxycontin, or barbiturates, there is no danger of fatal overdose or painful physical withdrawal. Some recent evidence suggests that pot is physically addictive, but the reported withdrawal symptoms—headaches, irritability, insomnia—are more akin to those associated with not missing your morning joe than going off smack cold turkey. In addition, pot is less harmful than many prescription medications.

Above all, marijuana has far fewer negative consequences than the nation’s two most popular psychoactive substances, alcohol and tobacco, which are of course legal for adults. Alcohol abuse and addiction lead to everything from stupidity, being a bore at parties and otherwise making a fool of yourself to accidents, violence, suicide, DUIs and chronic diseases that kill an estimated 100,000 people a year. Tobacco use, nicotine addiction and secondhand smoke, while not associated with altered states of consciousness, result in not only the majority of lung cancer cases but in other chronic disease—for a total of 400,000 annuals deaths.

It should not be forgotten that people use drugs because they receive some benefit from doing so. Opiates relieve pain, both psychic and physical. Stimulants make you feel productive and energetic—at least at first. Alcohol is a disinhibiting social lubricant, and moderate doses instill relaxation and camaraderie. Cigarettes soothe the nerves.

So it is with marijuana. A cost-benefit analysis of prohibition has to include the rewards of the drug. The benefits of recreational use of cannabis—especially the enhancement in perception and improvement of mood—go far in explaining why an estimated 4% of the world’s population uses it annually. Whereas most addictive substances can be classified as a depressant, a stimulant, or a hallucinogen, marijuana’s main active ingredient, THC, has properties of all three. As a result, the effects of getting high are variable and subjective. How do you assess the value of an enhanced music listening experience? A fit of hilarity induced by stoned humor? Taking the edge off a hard day at work? The social cohesion of sharing a joint? However hard to measure, these positives are essential to any calculus that purports to assess marijuana policy.

To justify prohibition, most anti-pot advocates claim that marijuana intoxication has no or few benefits; they also exaggerate—often wildly—the harms. But for those of us who use (or have used) the drug, being stoned can be a good thing, just like having a beer or two down at the bar with buddies. Public health policymakers tend to ignore the undeniable fact that people smoke marijuana—and have since 3,000 B.C.—because they find pleasure, creativity, even spirituality in it.

One of the main pillars of anti-pot laws has long been the theory—by now almost completely debunked—that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to the use of harder drugs. Most studies have shown that tobacco is a far greater predictor than pot in terms of movement on to more serious drug use. While it is true that cannabis smokers are more likely than nonusers to do harder drugs, factors including wealth, unemployment status and psychological stress are more closely correlated to drug progression.

It is not the use of marijuana but its prohibition that causes serious harms. As with booze during Prohibition, the criminalization of cannabis has spawned black markets, drug trafficking and the violence (and other illegal trade) that accompanies them. It creates opportunities for the corruption of law enforcement. By imposing heavy burdens of time, money, and labor on law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the policing and prosecution of people who use or sell small amounts of herb diverts these resources from violent crimes and other more dangerous activities. It also fails to collect government revenue raised by the regulation and taxation of the trade—with conservative estimates in the hundreds of millions a year.

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