The Lone Dissenter in the Pro-Marijuana Masses

By Jordan Rosenfeld 04/26/16

We need to be able to take into account those most vulnerable to the drug’s effects without writing off its medical potential.

The Lone Dissenter in the Pro-Marijuana Masses

As a native Northern Californian raised by hippies who toked as much as they talked, you’d think I’d be as pro-marijuana as the rest of the masses in my geographic domain. After all, my childhood memories are all but steeped in pot’s potent sweet-stink. While I find the scent pleasant, the memories paired with pot are not so kind, and they complicate my ability to stand up and cheer the miracles of all things marijuana. If anything, I think there needs to be more nuance on both sides of the equation that takes into account those most vulnerable to the drug’s effects without writing off its medical potential.

I admit my reservations come with personal bias. My father made his living selling marijuana in the '70s and '80s, omnipresent in our home wrapped in plastic and stacked hip high, when doing so carried the threat of federal prison. There were no dispensaries, just guys in black jackets my father dealt with under cover of night, guns tucked inside their belts. For years I pasted handwritten letters to his bedroom door begging him to “please stop dealing” for fear that he would be taken to prison. Because of this, there’s no way for me to talk about marijuana without the specter of this dark truth.

I’m also the mother of a seven-year-old boy, who remembers my own miserable 16th year, when I snuck buds off my mother’s personal stash and lost hours to pot’s numbing effects, my own poor coping mechanism for my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s rapidly expanding new family. I find it difficult to engage in the wholehearted embrace of the pro-marijuana dialogues that run rampant in my home state and across the web of my Internet friends, when I picture my own child one day doing as I did, and worse.

With more than a few of my beloveds having used the pungent green herb on a daily, if not hourly, basis, I struggle with the rhetoric that claims it’s not addictive. In fact, I find myself continually in the minority when it comes to singing the praises of pot, a lone dissenter who believes there has to be a more complex conversation that protects children and young adults, but also doesn’t ruin lives over small acts of possession.

Dr. Harold Urschel, Chief of Medical Strategy at EnterHealth LLC, an addiction treatment company, shares some of my concerns. “Marijuana is addicting,” he says. “One of the major issues with marijuana is that it injures the frontal lobes [of the brain] and alters their function so that the marijuana user doesn’t realize the problem.” 

Urschel, like me, is especially alarmed at how vulnerable teens and young adults are to the effects of marijuana. “Their rapidly growing and maturing brains are much more susceptible to becoming injured from the drug,” he says. Though he goes further and suggests that “everyone” is vulnerable to its damaging effects.

As a result of his work with addiction, Urschel is strongly against the legalization of marijuana and feels it is little more than a smokescreen for recreational use. “In my opinion, the medical piece is a scam,” he says. 

In this regard, however, I think more nuance is called for. Not all cannabis products are created equal. With legalization comes the possibility of education and regulation, in much the same way of alcohol. Though widescale legalization is unlikely to happen in a hurry, there’s a good chance that marijuana, which is currently considered a Schedule I illicit drug—ridiculously on par with heroin and LSD—could be downgraded to Schedule II, which would lift some of the restrictions on clinical research. 

Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, an addictions therapist based in Manhattan, believes that legalization could allow for “moderate control that comes with education and prevention campaigns,” he tells The Fix. “This way it is brought out into the light and kept from lurking in the shadows.”

However, he also worries about the ease of availability of any drug to youngsters. “Teenagers and young adults are profoundly vulnerable, as marijuana destroys their brains’ ability to develop the executive functioning required for them to become productive and autonomous adults.”

Indeed, I worry. Research shows that kids who use marijuana are significantly more likely to drink sooner and try cocaine, for example, and it's well documented that use of marijuana in youth aged 18-25 causes a 40% increased risk of early onset schizophrenia, which is irreversible. Moreover, a new study out of UC Davis finds that prolonged use of marijuana leads to social and economic disparities for people in midlife.

Our understanding of addiction is still a work in progress. There are genetic underpinnings that suggest certain people may be more predisposed than others to addiction, and yet the neuroscience continually reveals that drugs and alcohol can change anyone’s brain, even during short periods of usage. And without comprehensive testing, there’s no surefire way to know in advance if you’re a person who might need medical treatment or a twelve-step program for addiction, or if you can quit by your own volition. “One of the most pernicious characteristics of addictive disorders is that they thrive beneath a thick layer of defenses. At the top of the list of these defenses are denial and rationalization,” says Hokemeyer. 

I can’t deny that much of my resistance to marijuana is shaped by the climate of my childhood in which my mother struggled with hard drugs and alcohol, and my father’s livelihood—the very roof over my head, and clothes upon my body—depended upon the sale of an illegal substance I was forbidden to use myself. You might call my resistance to marijuana personal, a knee-jerk response. Except I also come from the school of conscious suffering. Whether you are at risk of an addiction or not, I’ve seen enough firsthand evidence that if you use a drug or alcohol to cope with a tough emotional experience, eventually you aren’t really coping at all; you’re self-medicating, numbing over and pushing away the necessary suffering the human heart and mind are meant to feel to make sense of and overcome difficult experiences.

“Information is power,” says Hokemeyer. “People need to know what they are putting in their bodies and understand how it will impact not just the quality of their short term existence, but the impact it has over the course of their life trajectory.” 

Of course, I’d consider myself just as irresponsible if I said that marijuana was more dangerous than truly illicit drugs like methamphetamine or even alcohol, which accounts for a minimum of 88,000 deaths per year through direct and indirect causes. 

Research into cannabis shows that extractions and formulations can be made into products that don’t bring about the typical “high” associated with marijuana—such as creams, suppositories, and edible items—and may treat chronic pain and other hard to resolve symptoms of illness such as intractable seizures. Even greater claims, still to be substantiated in clinical trials that marijuana’s legal status makes difficult to get funded, promise cures for illness such as cancer and autoimmune disease.

Constance Finley, CEO and founder of California-based Constance Therapeutics, is one such researcher in the burgeoning medical cannabis field. After a near-death experience by prescription medications for her autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis in 2008, she turned to marijuana as a last resort to ease her pain. When the results were far better than anything she or her doctors expected, she invested in developing cannabis oils and products to help others with chronic pain and illness. “We were really the first to embrace third-party testing and to work with known [plant] genetics,” she tells The Fix. “We don’t go out on the street and find someone selling cannabis; we grow our own, and have been for eight years now.”

Her products are so carefully cultivated, she claims, that they may be responsible for shrinking the highly malignant and usually fatal glioblastoma tumors of some cancer patients, and prolonging the life of other terminal cancer patients.

“Soon famous doctors from around the world were banging on my door, in my emails, and we were getting hundreds of phone calls a day. We were able to stop seizures, get a handle on chronic pain, make a significant difference in fibromyalgia, MS, and more.”

There’s no doubt that federal legalization of cannabis may be the only way for claims like Finley’s to be clinically validated in the U.S. and potentially open an entire realm of medical treatment that has long been out of reach.

Meanwhile, I stand here straddling two rapidly separating continents between acceptance and fear, struggling to pump my fist in solidarity when my pro-marijuana friends share their love of the timeless green herb, and unable to demonize it, either. What I’d love to see is everyone, on either side of the marijuana aisle, praising the importance of sober thought, and working to protect the developing brains of our youth as we carefully and consciously remove the barriers to medical research on this long and winding journey.

Jordan Rosenfeld is author of seven books, including A Writer's Guide to Persistence. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, GOOD, Pacific Standard, the New York Times, the Washington Post and many more.

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Jordan Rosenfeld is author of seven books, including A Writer's Guide to Persistence. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, GOOD, Pacific Standard, the New York Times, the Washington Post and many more. Find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.