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09 January, 2013

The Case for Marijuana Legalization

The debate centered on whether or not the use of marijuana (cannabis) should be decriminalized is sometimes a complicated one.  As with any hotly-debated issue, there are two sides and both have facts to strengthen their arguments.  Personally, I am in favor of legalization, but, before I explain some of the reasons why, let us first dispense with a few of the reasons commonly given for keeping marijuana a controlled substance.

Few could honestly argue against the assertion that prolonged use of cannabis can be bad for a person’s health.  For instance, persistent use over a long period can lead to a quantifiable decrease in mental function and intelligence (Meier et al., 2012).  There are also concerns regarding respiratory issues.   The smoke inhaled in the most common method of using marijuana contains many of the same carcinogens found in tobacco smoke, some of which are even found in higher concentrations (Moir et al., 2008); and, individuals classified as chronic smokers of marijuana exhibit mutations in their lung cells that have been observed to precede the development of lung cancer in tobacco smokers (Tashkin, 1999).

Yet, all of the detrimental health effects described above (and worse ones) can also be observed in those who abuse alcohol and tobacco, both of which remain legal substances to both purchase and use, restricted only by the age of the consumer.

In truth, much of the reason for my stance in favor of decriminalizing marijuana is tied to my heartfelt sense of the sanctity of individual liberties.   I simply do not believe that there should be laws dictating what a person does in their own homes to their own bodies, with the exception of when harm to others occurs as a result.  Essentially, my idea of a truly free society is one in which, as long as you aren’t harming anyone else or infringing on their rights, you should be able to do as you wish.

I am not alone in that stance: a recent Rasmussen Poll (2012) showed that 56% of Americans favor marijuana legalization.  The poll indicates further that people believe it should be regulated much in the same way as cigarettes and alcohol.  Further, former Surgeon General of the United States Joycelyn Elders was quoted in October 2010 as saying: “I think we consume far more dangerous drugs that are legal: cigarette smoking, nicotine and alcohol... I feel they cause much more devastating effects physically. We need to lift the prohibition on marijuana” (Nagourney, 2010, p. 2).

But, with that said, there are also some proven benefits to marijuana use.  Studies show that there is a lower prevalence of obesity among marijuana users than in nonusers (Le Strat & Le Foll, 2011).  Also, more importantly, cannabis has been studied for possible palliative effects in cancer patients.  These include pain relief, relief of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, as well as appetite stimulation.

Further, there is data showing a possible correlation between use of the drug and a slowing of tumor growth (Guzman, 2003).  Interestingly (and a bit hypocritically, in my opinion), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refuses to approve the smoking of marijuana as a medical treatment, while simultaneously approving two cannabis-based drugs in pill form to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy (Guzman, 2003), thus effectively endorsing the drug in one of its forms, while demonizing the other.  This is explained, of course, by the fact that our government is far too intertwined with Big Pharma -- it has nothing whatsoever to do with keeping people off drugs, but, rather with maintaining Big Pharma's comfortable spot as America's only legal drug pusher.

And then there is the issue of all of the wonderful things that can be done with hemp.  For instance, it would only require 6% of America's land to produce enough hemp, for use as hemp fuel (a form of biodiesel) to render us 100% energy independent from the rest of the world.  Too bad it's illegal to grow or even purchase the seeds, huh?

Invariably, when this issue is discussed, the conversation eventually drifts toward someone who argues against legalization, citing issues with the dangers of people driving under the influence.   First, regarding the very mild hallucinatory effects of cannabis, these are far different from the all-out vivid effects of more powerful hallucinogens like LSD and others, so it’s important not to conflate the two situations in your mind.  Also, these usually only occur when ingesting certain strains of marijuana.  Unfortunately, I cannot cite a scholarly source for the above info, but it is apparently common knowledge in the marijuana-related subculture.  I found it by perusing online forums.

If it is true about those effects being tied to particular plant strains, however, then I would say that is another argument for legalization, rather than against it.  Legalization would mean strict regulation, rather than every grower producing different strains with different effects.  The government could simply allow producers to grow and sell the milder strains and not the others.

It is an indisputable fact that instances of driving while under the effects of marijuana are steadily growing, but this growth is consistent pursuant to the rising numbers of individuals in society who are now using the drug (O’Kane et al., 2002).  In other words, more people are using the drug, therefore more are getting in accidents -- this is a normal statistical variation.  Likewise, it is a fact that 25% of all motor vehicle-related fatalities involve drivers who are under the influence of alcohol (Sewell et al., 2009), many of which also test positive for marijuana use.  What is not clear is to what extend each substance alone affects driving ability.

It is telling, in my opinion, that the above statistic involves many cases where the individual in question was using both substances together.  We will revisit that point later.  By the way, it is also very telling that younger drivers are at higher risk of using marijuana (O’Kane et al., 2002; Sewell et al., 2009) and that their particular demographic is already historically responsible for the majority of all traffic fatalities, in general (Sewell et al., 2009), with or without drugs being involved.

This fact, as with the one concerning increased usage in the general population accounting for the higher numbers seen in traffic accidents, renders some of the more damning numbers as being statistically mute.  More young people equals more marijuana use; and, since young people account for most of the accidents, of course the numbers of marijuana use in accidents is higher; how, statistically-speaking, could it be any different?  Failure to make such connections is a failure of logic.

Oddly enough, despite the cognitive effects, most marijuana-intoxicated drivers show only modest impairments on actual road tests that were conducted on a closed-course as part of a scientific study (Smiley, 1999).  It has been found that, unlike those driving under the influence of alcohol who underestimate the level of their impairment, marijuana users seem to do the opposite: they overestimate their impairment, and, therefore, are consciously more careful behind the wheel (MacDonald et al., 2008).

However, the concurrent use of both alcohol and marijuana as described earlier eliminates the user’s ability to compensate effectively in such a manner and causes significant impairment at even very low doses (Sewell et al., 2009).  With that in mind, in my opinion, a majority of marijuana-related accidents are likely less a result of marijuana-induced impairment of the driver and more the result of the mixing of both marijuana and alcohol and the multiplier effect that occurs as a result.

Regardless, the fact that alcohol remains legal to purchase and consume renders all arguments against marijuana legalization mute.  As is also true with moonshine, marijuana isn't illegal because it's bad for you; it's illegal because of politics and money, and any argument to the contrary is an outright lie.


References

Guzman, M. (2003). Cannabinoids: potential anticancer agents. Nature
Reviews Cancer, 3, 745–755.


Le Strat, Y., & Le Foll, B. (2011). Obesity and Cannabis Use: Results From 2
Representative National Surveys. American Journal of Epidemiology, 174 (8), 929-933. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwr200


MacDonald, S., Mann, R., Chipman, M., Pakula, B., Erickson, P., Hathaway, A.,
& MacIntyre, P. (2008). Driving behavior under the influence of cannabis or cocaine. Traffic Injury Prevention, 9 (3), 190–194.


Meier M., Caspia, A., Amblere, A, Harrington, H., Houts, R., Keefe, R., ... Moffitt,
T. (2012). Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 109 (40). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1206820109


Moir, D., Rickert, W., Levasseur, G., Larose, Y., Maertens, R., White, P. &
Desjardins, S. (2008). A comparison of mainstream and sidestream marijuana and tobacco cigarette smoke produced under two machine smoking conditions. Chemical Research in Toxicology, 21, 494–502.


Nagourney, A. (2010, October 15) U.S. Will Enforce Marijuana Laws, State Vote
Aside. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/us/16pot.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1


O’Kane, C., Tutt, D., & Bauer, L.A. (2002). Cannabis and driving: a new
perspective. Emergency Medicine, 4 (3), 296–303.


Rasmussen Reports. (2012, May 17). 56% Favor Legalizing, Regulating
Marijuana. Retrieved from http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/general_lifestyle/may_2012/56_favor_legalizing_regulating_marijuana


Sewell, A., Poling, J., & Sofuoglu, M. (2009). The Effect of Cannabis Compared
with Alcohol on Driving. The American Journal on Addictions, 18 (3): 185–193. doi: 10.1080/10550490902786934


Smiley, A. (1999). The Health Effects of Cannabis. In: Kalant, H. (Ed.),
Marijuana: On-Road and Driving Simulator Studies. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, 173–191.


Tashkin, D. Effects of cannabis on the respiratory system. In: Kalant, H.,
Corrigall, W., Hall W., &ampSmart R., eds. (1999). The health effects of cannabis. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 311–45.



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