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Marijuana Policy: Let’s be Adults About This

February 4, 2014

by Brian Martucci

A protestor carries a poster reading, "Legalize It !" as he walks in front of Berlin cathedral durin..

(Photo: Reuters)

Let’s get this out of the way: Inhaling marijuana smoke is not good for you.

Even compared to other Schedule I substances, marijuana remains pitifully under-studied. Under federal law, the only “legal” source of raw cannabis is a small acreage owned by the University of Mississippi. Most aboveboard research on the drug has utilized this facility’s stash, but short supplies and onerous legal constraints have limited the number of studies that can be run at any given time.

Plus, measuring short-term psychotropic effects is far more difficult than establishing a relationship between chronic use and specific health risks. Remember, the long-term consequences of chronic tobacco use were obvious to rational, unbiased thinkers for decades prior to the release of the Surgeon General’s seminal report on the subject.

Enough research has been done, though, to confirm our intuitions about the harms associated with inhaling combusted organic matter at high temperatures. Whether or not it’s as bad, pound for pound, as tobacco, it’s still not good.

It’s possible to get high without sucking hot air into your lungs, of course, a fact that many commentators apparently fail to realize (it’s good to know that Bennett and Beach aren’t baking brownies in their spare time, but a little research would have been nice).  In states where weed is legal or “medically available,” there’s a thriving market for candies, lozenges, baked goods, and pretty much any other type of “edible” that can deliver the fat-soluble THC molecule. Health-conscious users can also vaporize the drug’s active ingredients without reaching the combustion point, which reduces – but probably doesn’t eliminate – the absorption of carcinogens.

Setting aside the question of its long-term health consequences, cannabis has psychotropic effects that are universally agreed to cause impairment (NO, you don’t drive better when you’re high). While these effects are less clear-cut than those of alcohol – and less obvious than those of harder drugs that engender manic, hallucinatory or borderline comatose states – it seems evident that marijuana delays reaction times, alters depth perception and causes equilibrium changes for some time following delivery.

Since cannabis laws are so widely flouted, the drug’s psychotropic effects are pretty well known, and policy has evolved accordingly. A single puff on a joint might not blast a smoker into an alternate psychic universe, but even a mildly altered state can have serious consequences when there’s little room for error. No serious person thinks it’s okay to operate heavy machinery after ingesting a pot brownie, and bosses have every right to terminate employees who show up to work in states of obvious intoxication.

That’s just common sense.

But should we, as a nation, subject to harsher forms of justice adults who choose to ingest a substance that temporarily alters mood and perception? Immediate, proportionate consequences for irresponsible behavior are inevitable and just, but when does enforced responsibility become retribution? Where does social control shade into stigma?

The argument in favor of normalized – “legalization” is a fraught term – marijuana policy can take many different forms, and we just don’t have the resources to devote a single essay to cataloguing them all (though we welcome well-reasoned contributions from folks on all sides of the issue). Depending on how the experiments in Colorado and Washington go, it may turn out that the economic imperative wins out over the more abstract arguments against paternalism and structural racism or the remote humanitarian concerns about the narco-war to our south.

But, for now, let’s focus on an argument that more of us may be able to grasp by intuition alone. Life has always been stressful – antelope don’t hunt themselves, if you’ll forgive the cliché – but, these days, it lasts a lot longer and comes with way more moving parts. We do our best to carve out meaning by chasing productivity, building families, and pursuing service, but these activities pose their own challenges. I give credit to those who can, using with nothing but guile and resolve, plot a course through the confusion without the aid of a crutch (or two). For the rest of us, there are plenty of crutches to be had.

It’s unfair to characterize our collective inclination to use mind-altering or productivity-enhancing substances as an original sin, unless you consider mammalian biology to be its source (well…okay, there may be something there). Our brains are wired to respond to certain chemical combinations, and we’ve grown adept at seeking them out – and rendering them more potent.

In the morning, and sometimes well into the afternoon, many of us drink caffeinated beverages that focus our minds and facilitate cognition. At intervals throughout the day, some of us inhale or chew tobacco products that calm frayed nerves and satisfy deep physical urges. In the evening (hopefully), our public spaces and private dwelling areas fill with weary souls who quiet the day’s accumulated stresses with alcoholic beverages of various colors and strengths.

None of these substances is universally beloved. In certain places, and within certain social circles, physio- or psychoactive compounds indicate weakness or sinfulness. Nevertheless, a critical mass of Americans accepts (without necessarily endorsing) that their compatriots will continue to seek and consume caffeine, nicotine and alcohol until human biology changes in some dramatic and as-yet-unimaginable fashion.

All of these substances can be dangerous when abused, but alcohol and tobacco’s long-term health effects and acute risks are particularly troublesome.  In a world in which alcohol and tobacco – with the moral ambivalence that they engender and the indisputably adverse impacts that they have on public safety and health – are both widely available and legal to use, how can we continue to enforce an outdated stigma against a substance that appears to be no more problematic?

For many serious thinkers, the issue of cannabis normalization isn’t particularly pressing. That’s probably a good thing. As even a cursory glance over the past year’s posts here reveals, we’re facing down some pretty overwhelming problems. By comparison, this is small-ball, niche stuff.

And that’s why we need to size it up, plot a rational alternative to an untenable status quo, and move on. On this front of the culture war, the time has come for an armistice.

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