Getting Into the Weeds of the Marijuana Debate

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First, sorry about that title; I couldn’t help myself.

When I was in grad school, a sheltered 21-year-old living on her own in the Big City for the first time, I had a friend I’ll call Bo. An English major like me, Bo was a wildly creative character who scavenged through garbage cans and transformed odd stuff he’d found into some very interesting works of art.

He was also eager to share some of the things he regarded as life’s gifts with his friends. And so one day he offered me—a non-smoker, rule-abider, and rather fastidious sort—a dirty-looking piece of hemp. Despite myself, perhaps swept up by his enthusiasm, I took a few puffs. I coughed several times and waited for the mind-altering experience to sweep across me. Nothing.

Then Bo said, “Close your eyes and open your mouth.” Again despite myself, I did so. I bit down on what I realized were a couple of cherry tomatoes. But these weren’t just cherry tomatoes. They were the purveyors of what felt like thousands of tiny, glorious seeds that danced through my mouth, spurting forth and swirling among the juicy streams, evoking delight on a sensory journey I can still vividly recall.

That was my one and only experience with pot. I didn’t like smoking or the smoke, and I returned to my law-abiding self. Had I even had enough of the drug to create that euphoria, or was it a pot-cebo effect attributable to the circumstances and my friend’s delight? I’m not sure, but I think it was due to that puff, the magic drag-in. (It appears even the remembrance is making me giddy; could bad puns be a side effect of cannabis use?)

In fact, my admittedly blog-sized study of this very complex topic has led me to believe that the legalization of marijuana is no laughing matter. For one thing, the substance today is not, as some have said, “your father’s marijuana.” It’s also not my friend Bo’s. It’s far more potent, and the potency is one factor that can get people into a heap of trouble. 

“Today’s marijuana plants are grown differently than in the past and can contain two to three times more tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that makes people high,” states the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). “The ingredient of the marijuana plant thought to have most medical benefits, cannabidiol (CBD), has not increased and remains at about 1%.”

Marijuana, I’ve learned, is a complicated substance, containing over 100 distinct chemicals. In addition to THC and CBD, it’s comprised of other elements that also have specific effects on the central nervous system. According to an article in the Annual Review of Medicine, 

“The concentration of these compounds can vary substantially, making it difficult to characterize the specific positive or negative health effects of marijuana, especially in uncontrolled and epidemiological studies.”

As this movement toward legalization seems to be gaining ground, I’m extremely conflicted about its implications. Though I lean toward the civil libertarian approach to life, I have worries about whether we as a society have sufficient data at this point to know the safest and wisest ways to proceed. 

I’ve concluded that it’s irrelevant for me to decide whether or not I support legalization because I assume it’s inevitable: 10 states and the District of Columbia have already passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana, and 33 states have legalized medical marijuana. Thus, I’m focused here simply on raising some of the issues that give me pause.

There’s no doubt the financial incentive is strong. When John Boehner, former Republican speaker of the House, spends his time leading events to woo cannabis investors, you can bet there’s gold in them thar weeds.Unknown-12

 

According to a leading analyst, the current US market opportunity is between $40 and $50 billion, and may increase by 2030 to $80 billion if there’s national availability.

Whether that’s enough to snatch the market away from the drug cartels is problematic.

Opponents of legalization argue that there’s no way these people will pack up their bags; they’ll simply focus on building up their clientele for even more dangerous drugs. There’s also concern about synthetic marijuana, which can be considerably worse than the natural variety.

The emphasis on medical use of marijuana, which I had thought was an easy issue before I began my research, is considerably less so. The authors of the study cited above point out that in many cases these substances have been legalized by voters in state elections or by state legislators, bypassing the scrutiny of the traditional FDA testing/approval process. 

These researchers said (in 2015) that “the evidence for the legitimate medical use of marijuana or cannabinoids is limited to a few indications, notably HIV/AIDS cachexia [wasting syndrome], nausea/vomiting related to chemotherapy, neuropathic pain, and spasticity in multiple sclerosis,” with other potential uses showing promise but lacking robust data.

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Web MD added to those conditions Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, eating disorders, epilepsy, glaucoma, mental health conditions (eg, schizophrenia and PTSD), muscle spasms, and pain.

That’s a pretty impressive list that could mean relief for many people, but the issues apparently aren’t so clear. James Beck, PhD, the Chief Scientific Officer of the Parkinson’s Foundation, said in a brief video called “Neuro Talks” that use of marijuana might help relieve anxiety, appetite loss, and pain in Parkinson’s patients, but the increased potency might mean it would exacerbate slowness of thinking, cognition, balance, and hallucinations. (For the video, click on the James Beck hyperlink above.)

Beck pointed out that the Parkinson’s Foundation was committed to research to help identify the different formulations, potencies, and components of cannabinoids and how they might affect patients at various stages of illness.

One of my major concerns involves the use of marijuana in young people, whose brains are apparently more greatly affected than those of adults. AACAP points out that many teenagers believe that marijuana is safer than alcohol or other drugs, possibly thinking it’s natural, non-addictive, or won’t affect their thought processes or grades.

But AACAP warns parents about the various difficulties arising from short-term use (such as problems with memory and concentration, increased aggression, car accidents, increased risk of psychosis); regular use (leading to Cannabis Use Disorder, involving cravings, unintentional heavier use, and interference with other activities); and long-term use (creating breathing problems, lower intelligence, and mental health problems, including risk of suicide). That’s a partial list.

The authors of the previously cited study say:

“Early and greater quantity of marijuana use results in greater cognitive deficits. This is particularly true for adolescents who begin smoking marijuana in their early teens.”

They refer to a finding that those who began between 14 and 22 years old and stopped by age 22 had significantly greater cognitive deficits at age 27 than those who’d never used marijuana.

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How can we protect our young people from the potential harm? Surely parents and schools who warn against drug and alcohol abuse must be similarly open about marijuana, since young people may find its new legality confusing.

One positive aspect of legalization is that it may help address the clear racial disparities in this issue. In a 2012 NPR Intelligence Squared debate on the legalization of drugs,  Paul Butler, a former prosecutor and current law professor at Georgetown whose expertise is in criminal law, especially involving race, advocated for legalization. 

Butler noted that, growing up in all-black neighborhoods, he’d had no contact with marijuana. His introduction came as an undergraduate at Yale College and at Harvard Law School (!).

In the war on drugs, he observed, about 90% of those arrested have been black, though people of color make up only 12% of drug users. Legalization, he said, “will stop the counterproductive practice of treating kids like seasoned criminals.”

But that’s not happening yet. According to Vox, the racial disparity in arrests continues, even in states that have legalized marijuana.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety reported in 2016, four years after Colorado legalized the drug, that the drop in arrests hadn’t occurred across the board equally.

“The decrease in the number of marijuana arrests by race is the greatest for White arrestees (-51%) compared to Hispanics (-33%) and African-Americans (-25%).”

To counteract these disparities, activists say that “legalization must include a change in how drug laws are enforced by police officers,” reports Vox. This issue will be addressed as part of the widening scrutiny of racial justice and policing.

[For more on that topic, see my earlier post, “How Do We Talk About Race in America? (Part 2) Meet Doug Glanville.”]

And an important driving factor in this effort, Vox observes, will be the activism of black women.

I would like to think that the arguments of proponents of legalization will actually hprevail: that there will be stricter regulation leading to safer marijuana; that legal resources will be freed up to be deployed where they’re really needed, and people can be spared unnecessary police records and damaging prison time; and that we may even see a drop in adolescents’ use of marijuana, as well as harder drugs. That would be wonderful. 

But we simply don’t know. We’re at the beginning of a complicated path as we increase access to marijuana. We live in an age of anxiety, and it’s not surprising that people are eager for substances that help them relax.

And, in my one, extremely brief encounter, I certainly got a hint of the pleasure that cannabis can provide.

I don’t worry about adults’ feeling comfortable with the occasional weed, freed from concern that they may soon find themselves involved in the criminal justice system.

I just hope that we as a society are up to the vigilance, research, and regulations needed to help us ease our way into this new era, ensuring that marijuana users have access to carefully regulated products so that excessive potency, bad processing, or dangerous synthetics doesn’t take them by surprise and/or damage them.

I hope that all users are as responsible and aware on the road as they would be after having alcohol—surrendering their keys to a designated driver before the high becomes “too high.”

And I hope, especially, that everyone protects and educates the children.

This is a controversial topic, and I’m sure many of you have strong opinions. Please let me know your thoughts, stories, insights, and other resources in the comments box below. Many thanks.

Annie

23 thoughts on “Getting Into the Weeds of the Marijuana Debate

  1. An excellently researched and well written post, Annie.

    I didn’t know that former Republican house speaker John Boehner is now trying to woo marijuana investors.

    I remember when he resigned and he retired from politics, he said that a major factor in his decision was meeting Pope Francis.

    He felt meeting him drew him to a new calling in life.

    I didn’t know that new calling would be attracting investors to the pot industry.

    As Robin the Boy Wonder might well put it, “Holy smokes, Batman!”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Christopher. The impetus for this post was your expressed concern about the brains of young Canadians following Canada’s legalization, so I thank you for the idea as well. And your pun was far wittier than mine! Boehner was a long-time heavy smoker, so perhaps he felt the “godliness” of advocating for pot investing followed naturally from the “cleanliness” of legislating against health care.
      Annie

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Annie
    Thanks for sharing your experience with Bo and your willpower not to repeat the episode that you, in terms that maybe only an English major could, describe as ‘glorious’. And whatever happened to Bo?

    While you don’t get into alcohol legalization, regulation, and usage very much in this posting, it would seem marijuana legalization etc could be similarly controlled by States after being decriminalized by the Feds. Looks like just a matter of time, even though this legalization should be done cautiously. Don

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Don–

      So you’re telling me that all my worries are for nothing? I hope you’re right, and perhaps in time this will be a non-issue. But I felt it was important for people to know that: a) today’s pot is very different/more potent than the substance people were accustomed to years ago; b) it appears to be a much more complex entity than I certainly knew, encompassing many different elements affecting the central nervous system; c) its effect on young brains is potentially really detrimental (my main concern); and d) it’s being used in all sorts of medical situations without adequate testing–because it’s been illegal. I don’t know if you watched the video from the Parkinson’s Foundation, but that was, to me, emblematic of the problem: marijuana seems to help with certain symptoms of the disease and to make other symptoms worse. So the conclusion is that more research is needed. That’s essentially what I was trying to say with this post.

      Whatever happened to Bo? I dunno.

      Annie

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  3. An excellent topic, and one that I will join you in your mixed feelings.

    On one hand I too have a libertarian streak that sees a parallel with alcohol. Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol and the “War On Drugs” has been a dismal failure. Unless success is measured by epidemic drug use.

    On the other hand my undergrad econ days hammered in the tent that when you lower the costs of most things, more of those things will be demanded. Eliminating the chance of arrest is a big cost reduction. Drug use is bad now and will surely be higher if the stuff is legal. But with retail sales and labeling at least people will know what they are getting.

    I really, truly don’t know the answer. I don’t really like either answer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess we just have to hope for the best. Maybe retail sales and labeling will help. I’ve been looking for positives, which seem to turn on non-negatives; eg, there seems to be less domestic violence among couples who use pot than those who don’t (too stoned?). And while excessive alcohol is associated with about 88,000 deaths a year, deaths from marijuana alone appear non-existent—one would have to smoke at least 238 joints a day to get a fatal amount of TCH. Does that help? Hmmmm…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Another excellent, well researched, beautifully written discussion here, Annie. I loved your description of the tomatoes. Seeds have never danced in my mouth — what an idea! Meanwhile, it’s a sticky subject as you so carefully discuss. And I appreciate your readers’ comments here, which so often point up considerations I’ve overlooked. 238 joints daily? What a thought. I especially appreciate, as well, your discussion of various ailments which might be served by pot, at least in pain management and to curb the effects of chemotherapy. I don’t know about you, but I have so many friends now who suffer from the very things you list. I don’t have any answers to this, of course, but I am now better prepared to think about it thanks to your work here. Perhaps in the purported overhaul of the drug companies — a campaign point for so many on the trail, most vocally Senator Sanders — we can see sensible, carefully tested recommendations at least, if not legislation. There’s big money here, and that usually kicks off scrutiny. Scary stuff, if you ask me. Thanks for shedding some light.
    Your faithful reader,
    Denise

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Denise—

      Thank you, my faithful reader! The Big Money aspect is something I find both worrisome and encouraging. Each one of these issues seems to cry out for citizen involvement to ensure the proper scrutiny. As we’re in a period of deregulation of many substances and chemicals that have previously been monitored, we have to let our elected officials know that this issue demands vigilance. And then, as I discussed with another respondent, we have to hope for the best. Thanks again.

      Annie

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  5. I have been a pro legalization person for years and this post actually made me rethink my position. Have I been being too selfish on this issue? Thank you, Annie, for always presenting both sides of the coin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, you’re welcome, but that wasn’t my intent. Legalization is inevitable; I was just trying to assess what might lie ahead. I’ve since learned of an article stating that rat studies suggest that while cannabis isn’t good for young brains, it may be very good for aging brains! So, with luck, we may all be marveling about the wonders of cherry tomatoes, etc, well into our 90s!

      Annie

      Thank you for your comment!

      Like

  6. I actually welcomed the legalization of pot because it was so mainstream and the number of people imprisoned for its use far outweighed its social effects. But I’m a radical. I’m all for the legalization of narcotics and prostitution. In this way it can be controlled and perhaps actual help can be given to the recipients. It’s a long discussion. You really do your research Annie.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I look forward to your being right, Len, though I’ll continue to worry about young brains. I understand that vaping is now getting some kids in trouble, leading to psychotic episodes.

    Of course, it is, as you say, a long discussion, in which I’ve just scratched the surface.

    I do love the research! Thanks.

    Like

  8.     I never smoked cigarettes. But when I was in college in the stone age, I was in several situations where people were passing around a “joint”. I thought I needed to take a puff to fit in. Several times I joined in and nothing happened. Thinking there was no effect was a mistake. The circle was too big and so the dose I got was too small and not being an experienced smoker I didn’t inhale properly.
        However, soon after when I thought I was immune to it and everyone said it was harmless, I went to a College party. I was not enjoying myself and was talking to no one. I went to the free bar and had drinks several times. After quite a few visits, the kid at the bar said, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” He came back with a big fat “joint”. He said, “Try this.”
        I took it, put it in my pocket and went back to my dorm room alone. My room mates were there. After I took a few puffs, nothing. And I thought, oh there’s no effect. But it was big enough so that I could keep trying. I wanted to know what everyone was taking about. I didn’t share it.
        After a while, I noticed that my short-term memory was gone. I started to think of something like being alone and having no friends and its concomitant scenarios, but I couldn’t remember a moment later what I had thought about. The bad thing about it was that I remembered the anxiety and not what it was about. It was a bad experience. I couldn’t wait to come down from the high. I had to say to myself, be calm and wait.
        I would say that you took such a very low dose of the active ingredient and that, in effect, you’ve never really tried it especially if you coughed. I think that a lot of non-smokers who say they tried it in the old days with no effect, never actually “tried it” in a meaningful way. But they spread the propaganda that, “Oh, it’s harmless, it has no effect.”
        I can see that doing research would be difficult. It’s almost as bad as doing research on a rat where you can’t ask it what it’s thinking. The human subject can’t remember what happened. It would be kind of awkward to say to an experimental subject, “Think of something unpleasant… Now, how do you feel on a scale of 1 to10, and what were you thinking about.” The subject might reply with, “Oh, I like your tie and the colors are very bright and interesting. The blue is like the sky. Open the window and let in a blue bird. Did you have a question, Doc?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thank you for your cautionary tale of your experience in the “stone age.” One of my concerns is the unpredictability of individual responses—especially now with greater potency, and particularly with young brains.
      As for your assertion that my cherry tomato episode was invalid, you may be right. I don’t know, and neither do you. I do know from several prescription drugs that have been prescribed over the years that I am extremely sensitive to substances that don’t affect other people. But my situation is irrelevant to the larger issue. It’s clear that many people find pleasure and possibly relief from cannibis; otherwise we would not be seeing this worldwide move to legalization.

      Like

      1. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to have a negative personal tone to my comment. No one can see if I have a smile or raised eyebrow when I’m writing so if I’m not careful, it can seem too dark or critical. Like with alcohol, mood, circumstance, and sensitivity can make for big differences in reactions. Many things can be done appropriately for pure pleasure or healing. I can see how your concerns about young people are important to consider.

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  9. P.S. The tomato thing is a Chef’s trick. I saw it demonstrated on TV where the Chef said, “Close you eyes and open your mouth…” He got a WOW response and a fantastical description. Nobody was high on anything.

    Like

    1. Thank you! And it’s ironic that you just commented on that post, as my newest post is a follow-up on the topic.

      Tell me: did you get an email this time–or was it still just through the WordPress Reader?

      Annie

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. By the way, when I looked through my emails from WordPress, there was one letting me know you liked something I did, with links to some of your newest posts.

        Like

      1. I appreciate the compliment. I hadn’t noticed the confusion about comments for my blog posts. I’ll look closer when I’ve had a chance to think about what to do or otherwise find the answer.

        Liked by 1 person

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