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 prevail: 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