Reefer Madness: With Legalization Now at Issue in Many Places, What Are the Benefits & Detriments of Marijuana Use?

“If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster Marihuana he would drop dead of fright.”  —Harry Anslinger, opponent and prohibitor of marijuana, fomenting hysteria about its dangers

“Deaths per year: Alcohol—88,000; Tobacco—480,000; Cannabis—0”  —fraudulent claim that cannabis is 100% harmless being put out by cannabis proponents who stand to benefit from its legalization

“Both sides tend to get it wrong.”  —Michael Backes, author of Cannabis Pharmacy, describing the exaggerated claims made by both sides of the marijuana legalization debate


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Marijuana: A Complex Issue

According to Michael Backes, the serious scientific study of marijuana is “still pretty new.”  But marijuana has numerous component parts, many of them which are put to different uses within the system of the human body when ingested.  Some of these uses might be beneficial in nature, while others are unquestionably harmful.  Writes Backes, “Cannabis as a plant species is far more than its THC content and is capable of producing a rich chemical ecology . . . that is daunting in its complexity.  While different varieties of cannabis differ slightly in their chemistry, today’s cannabis is almost exclusively bred for THC content, when once the plant produced a broader entourage of cannabinoids with a possibly safer adverse effects profile.”  So, the focus by marijuana growers on increasing the power of the “high” one gets while on the drug has resulted in bringing more harm, and less benefit, to users.


Caleb Hellerman writes  that the University of Mississippi, in a laboratory that tracks the potency of marijuana, has found THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) levels “as high as 37%, according to Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, the director of the Marijuana Potency Project.”  Hellerman also reports that, according to ElSohly, since 1972, “the average THC content of marijuana has soared from less than 1% to 3 to 4% in the 1990s, to nearly 13% today.  Legalizing pot isn’t about medicine, it’s about getting high.”  The good news is that the risk of overdose is still less serious with marijuana than it is with cocaine, heroin, or some other more harmful drugs, although the drug being used today is, on average, about twenty times stronger than it was in the nineteen-sixties.


Driving Dangers

Marijuana is not risk-free, especially when it comes to the harm its use can cause to people driving under its influence—or to their victims, since there is often “collateral damage” affecting innocent people who did not choose to use the drug.  The number of driving deaths tends to go up with increased use of marijuana; in Washington State, the number of fatalities specifically due to marijuana intoxication doubled after legalization of the drug.


When Is a Cannabis-Intoxicated Driver Considered DUI?

One of the problems with tracking marijuana-related car accidents is the fact that, if there is no conviction for DUI (driving under the influence), the incident may not be legally categorized as marijuana intoxication.  Colorado has seen extensive problems in this area, because “[t]he thing is, unlike alcohol, where how impaired someone is can be easily assessed by blood alcohol levels, cannabis intoxication cannot be so easily measured.  Considering each strain has a slightly different effect . . . there is no way to truly determine how impaired someone may or may not be when they get in the car.”  Because of the pervasiveness of this type of situation, many Colorado judges have been busy throwing out cannabis-related cases “where individuals were pulled over (generally for routine reasons, such as a headlight being out), resulting in being cuffed and being administered a blood test; if their THC levels come out to higher than 5 nanograms they are automatically stuck with that DUI.”  Thus, since different strains of marijuana intoxicate people differently, depending on which strain a person is using, 5 nanograms has not been universally accepted as an appropriate standard to use for judging the level of cannabis intoxication in all cases.


Medical Benefits & Detriments

One thing that proponents and opponents of marijuana legalization can agree upon is that more research does need to be done, with respect to cannabis.  And nowadays, with all the different strains that are being developed, the research requirement has increased along with the number of strains.  What we know about marijuana at present includes the following facts, with regard to the medical benefits and detriments of marijuana use:


Medical Benefits: Marijuana does stimulate the appetites of patients suffering from auto-immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and different forms of cancer; eye pressure is generally reduced in patients suffering from glaucoma; and there seems to be a relaxation in the muscle tightness experienced by patients being treated for multiple sclerosis (MS); in some kidney transplants, cannabis may reduce the likelihood of organ rejection.  For certain individuals, these benefits may be a godsend, especially if they are finding other medications to be ineffective in treating their symptoms.  So, there are indeed some positive aspects of marijuana that can be utilized to help some medical patients.  But the ill effects of cannabis use seem to outweigh the positive aspects, in people who are not receiving the drug for a medically valid purpose.


Medical Detriments: Marijuana does make people in general more susceptible to infections, can increase bleeding, lower blood pressure, and affect blood sugar levels.  Other medical consequences can be a twice-as-rapid heartbeat for up to three hours which sometimes causes heart-attacks, a worsening of asthma symptoms, a negative impact on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and, of course, worse outcomes for any lung-related diseases whatsoever, such as pneumonia.


Many smokers of marijuana suffer from a chronic cough and/or recurring chest colds.  Sometimes users suffer from spells of shallow breathing and/or bouts of dizziness.  Red eyes and dilated pupils are symptomatic of users, and “if you’re a long-time user, you can have physical withdrawal symptoms—like cravings, irritability, sleeplessness, and less appetite—when you stop.”


Psychological & Physical Addiction

The psychological dysfunction that ensues for users of cannabis can entail the following, according to WebMD: a distorted sense of time, random thinking, paranoia, anxiety, depression, short-term forgetfulness, and eventual addiction in 10% of users.  Marijuana also causes existing health conditions, such as liver disease, low blood pressure, or diabetes to get worse.  And, in men, heavy use lowers testosterone levels, sperm counts, and sperm quality; this makes for a reduced sex drive and a reduced chance of getting a woman pregnant.


What has been unclear in the past is whether or not marijuana should be considered a “gateway drug that makes people more likely to try harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.”  The likelihood is that, psychologically speaking, cannabis is a gateway drug for some users but not for others.  And, nowadays, experts are also worried that, as growers increase the amount of THC in marijuana, addiction rates stand to increase, and physical addiction is also likely to become more of a hard reality, whereas, back when THC levels used to be under 1%, physical addiction to cannabis was unheard of.


Mental Health Problems Linked to Cannabis

Marijuana research has demonstrated a link between marijuana use and mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, short-term psychosis, and schizophrenia.  While it is not certain that marijuana causes these conditions, it is clear that marijuana does tend to make them worse.  While most users of marijuana start using the drug recreationally to make themselves feel relaxed and to provide an escape from reality, many of these users often wind up worsening the very depression from which they were seeking refuge.


Relative Safety Does Not Denote Total Safety

Marijuana use, over an extended period, can cause emphysema or lung cancer to develop, and its extended use is not recommended for those who have a family history of cancer.  Many of the detrimental effects described are easy to see in students, and this has traditionally made marijuana addiction the bane of school teachers, who are constantly under pressure to increase learning outcomes.


Even Michael Backes himself warns marijuana smokers, “[T]he truth is that smoking anything irritates lung tissue.  Heavy use of smoked cannabis leads to chronic bronchitis in some users.  Saying that smoking cannabis is harmless is incorrect.  Cannabis smoking can be done relatively safely, but to state flatly that it’s harmless is nonsense.  Don’t fall for that hype.”  The “relative safety” of which Backes speaks means that, relative to many other substances one could choose to put into one’s body, marijuana is nowhere near the riskiest of the lot.  And, upon this noncontroversial point, we can certainly find wide agreement.


Is Being Anti-Cannabis Racist?

The problem lately with having a rational debate about whether or not cannabis should be legalized, or for what uses it ought to be legal, is that those who stand to benefit from its legalization in the United States have resurrected the specter of a racist bureaucrat, who fought to ban it, from eighty years ago.  This might not be a bad time to point out that one of the problems with Big Government is that Big Brother and his scions must constantly make up new rules in order to give themselves work to do, behavior to regulate, and people to monitor; and each new rule takes away from everyone’s personal freedom.  The charge of racism —as leveled against Harry Anslinger, the progenitor of much harmful government overregulation and overreaction to American marijuana use—is indeed a valid one.  (If you would substitute your own judgment for that of a government bureaucrat, and would trust your friends and neighbors before you would trust the government, then you really should consider voting for backers of Limited Government, rather than for those who support the Big Government agenda.)


According to the Wikipedia, in the 1930s, “Anslinger’s articles often contained racial themes in his anti-marijuana campaign.”  Anslinger’s wild accusations against “colored students” and “Negroes” are difficult to believe.  But the racist bureaucrat’s emotional appeals to fear and prejudice, to get cannabis banned, are no worse than the emotional appeals of today’s race-baiters who are mislabeling reasonable opponents of legalization as racist, in order to get the substance legalized.  To fight against Anslinger’s racism, they have chosen to become just like him; in other words, they are fighting prejudice with prejudice, demonizing all opponents of legalization by smearing them as racist—an act that is just as prejudicial as Anslinger was accused of being.  It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once said, “He who fights with monsters must be careful that, in the process, he does not become a monster himself.”  („Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.“)


By focusing on incendiary remarks made by racists who have been dead for decades, cannabis advocates seek to take the focus off the facts about marijuana, by making racism the issue.  The hope is that, by tying the prohibition of a drug to a racist founder of that policy, proponents of blanket legalization can succeed in categorizing every opponent of legalization as a racist.


However, with most Americans weary of hearing so many overblown, or outright false, accusations of racism these days, this strategy is ill-advised, since it is likely to backfire, causing people to close their minds to the issue of legalization altogether.  The flawed argument being made by many supporters of legalization goes like this: Since it was a racist who originally banned marijuana, then anyone who wants to keep the ban in place is, by association, also a racist—despite the fact that almost none of the opponents of legalization have ever even heard of Harry Anslinger.  Sadly, there are many in the world of politics and media who prefer to attack straw men that they can easily defeat, rather than engage in a vigorously nuanced debate of the issues before them that are, usually, much more complex in nature.  The science of cannabis should inform all decisions related to legalization or regulation of the drug, and accurate science reporting is hardly racist.


State versus Federal Regulation

The truth is that the cannabis issue is a complex one, with many facets that need to be considered.  Most classical liberals—taking the view that it is government’s proper role only to protect us from each other, not to protect us from ourselves—come down on the side of personal freedom.  Classical liberals (often referred to as Constitutional conservatives or libertarians) believe in the right of the individual to exercise his or her own judgment over that of the government, when it comes to choosing whether or not to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco.  So, why oppose marijuana use?  It is merely an issue of deciding how the substance might be reasonably regulated, who should be allowed to purchase it, and so forth.


So, why not take cannabis off the federal schedule of controlled substances and allow states to decide for themselves how to regulate the drug?  Each state can attempt different policies, according to the preferences of its citizens, and, in this manner, the states can become “laboratories” yielding different sets of results from the different “experiments” they are all legitimately running.  All of America could learn from the differences in results.


States should have the right to make their own laws, under the Tenth Amendment, which reads as follows:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  The regulation of drugs is not an enumerated power of the federal government, per the Constitution of the United States, and, therefore, all drug laws should be made and enforced at the state, not the federal, level.


State-level rules are the key to putting more freedom into the hands of the American people.  Only at the state level can the will of the people be accurately reflected in terms of policy decisions.  But an eye must be kept on the science of cannabis, in order to make good decisions, rather than simply accusing opponents who hold certain political positions of being patently “racist.”


Decriminalizing Personal Use, While Punishing Unauthorized Distribution

In states which choose to make marijuana legal, some appropriate guidelines might be these: Cannabis use should be decriminalized for adults 21 and over.  And treatment for addicts should be encouraged.  A warning should also come with every cannabis purchase of the mind-altering properties of the drug, which are increasingly severe in users under the age of 25.


The question will be how taxpayers might be insulated from the costs of treating people who choose to become addicted to a substance by overheavy use of the drug.  In other words, in a world of socialized medicine, why should I be on the hook to pay for an addiction that you have voluntarily chosen?  Perhaps the most famous example of choosing not to become ill with the disease of addiction is President Trump, who has chosen not to become addicted to alcohol or drugs, by never having drunk alcohol or taken drugs in the first place.


Perhaps drug and alcohol tax collections could be set aside in order to pay for rehabilitation programs; that might be an option whereby users of substances actually pay towards the rehabilitation costs of any who may fall victim to addiction.  That might be a fair solution to the problem—if the funds set aside would actually be used for rehabilitation purposes and not used for welfare or other government programs unrelated to the purpose of such a tax.


The unlicensed sell of marijuana should be punished.  Drug dealers and cartel members selling marijuana on the street should be fined and imprisoned.  Only licensed companies should be allowed to produce it, and only licensed pharmacies should be allowed to sell it.  Illicit drug dealers often add harmful ingredients to the unlicensed drugs they sell in order to make their supplies go further and, therefore, make more money.  This kind of drug dealer should be treated as any other person who provides services requiring a license without having obtained the proper licensing.  If there are consequences for unlicensed physicians and pharmacists, then why should drug dealers be any different?  In the case of drugs, death is much more likely if the substance is not pure, since people do not know exactly what they are putting into their bodies and, therefore, cannot guard against possible allergic reactions.


There are many questions to answer, with regard to the legalization and regulation of marijuana, and movement towards more legalization and state-regulation of the drug is highly likely in the future; but race-baiting on the issue will not help when it comes to the formulation of responsible policy decisions about how cannabis is used and regulated in American civil society.  A debate based on science is what is needed, so education and awareness about the real effects of marijuana is called for.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

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