1. LEARN SOME BACKGROUND ON THE ISSUE
Marijuana, or Cannabis sativa, is a dioecious plant (which is a fancy way of saying it's a sexy plant; there are separate male and female plants, and they've got to get it on in the pistil and stamen scene), containing upwards of four hundred chemicals. The psychoactive agent, THC, or, for you chemistry savants, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is much more abundant in the female buds. THC is what makes you laugh uncontrollably at the lamest possible thing when you're stoned.
In colonial America, "hemp" was a major agricultural crop; both Washington and Jefferson raised it. Hemp was valuable because you could use its fibers for rope and canvas and its seeds for soap, lamp oil and birdseed. Preoccupied with finding practical uses for weed, people from temperate climates did not realize the great fun you could have simply by smoking it. Folk weren't so benighted in hot regions like India and North Africa. Here the plant fairly oozes with sticky resin, and is fit to be boiled for tea, ingested, and . . . you guessed it . . . smoked. Here also, perhaps under the psychoactive influence of the drug, they started giving it really cool names like dagga, ganja, bhang and hashish, from which we get the word "assassin."
Along with absinthe, hashish was de riguer for French artists and writers in the late 19th century. At the same time, physicians, who had been recommending tinctures of marijuana for pain relief, began switching to synthetic drugs marketed by a burgeoning pharmaceuticals industry. As the drug became associated with marginal groups - Mexican laborers, blacks, jazz musicians, prostitutes - many states started passing laws against it. In the 1930s, the Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Agency) got interested in pot. This was the era of "reefer madness," when the government tried to convince the public that marijuana made you crazy, horny and violent, or some unwholesome combination of the three. Pot finally went underground with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, only to emerge thirty years later as the drug of choice of socially-aware, middle-class college students.
In the 1970s, larger segments of society were toking up. A number of states, among them California, recognized this and decriminalized possession of small amounts. However, the relaxation of America's marijuana laws was only temporary: Reagan's ascendancy to the top job in 1980 heralded a national shift to the right, and legislators responded with acts carrying harsher and harsher penalties for drug offenses. Under President Clinton, the "war on drugs" has continued to receive massive federal funding.
Americans are funny about marijuana: present them with a pile of facts showing that the enforcement effort is wasteful and ineffective and you'll be greeted with an angry glare. Simply put, a majority of Americans find marijuana morally offensive, although, if the studies are right, a third of them had to try it a few times before they could be sure.
Furthermore, most Americans, except maybe some in Idaho, aren't warm to the libertarian point of view, which goes something like this: "Where does the government get off telling me what I can and can't do with my own body? Humans have always used drugs, natural or otherwise, and it is paternalistic to tell us which ones are okay to use and which ones are not." A more nuanced offshoot of this school of thought suggests that the ultimate answer is to allow people to grow their own and use it themselves or give it away, but not to sell it.
Intelligent people can still disagree as to the health risks of chronic marijuana use. Pro-marijuana folk blame the government for this, saying the government only gives lip service to the need for further study of pot, as it will not freely release it to scientists to study.
2. HEAR SOME ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF LEGALIZING POT
Now, especially for those humming "legalize it, don't criticize it" while reading this, here are the key arguments in favor of legalizing marijuana:
"Compared with cigarettes and alcohol, the health risks and societal costs associated with even chronic marijuana use are mild. Yet we don't ban those items, while we deny marijuana to seriously ill people who could get a lot of relief from it. This is misguided and cruel. "
The Argument: Ever wake up feeling really hung over from a night of smoking out? Thought not. Throw in some heavy drinking, though, and you'll awake feeling like death itself (in fact, alcohol poisoning is a real risk). No one overdoses on marijuana because it has a negligible therapeutic ratio; that is, you don't have to use much to get the desired effect. Why then is one drug available from corner stores and allowed to be promoted at bowling tournaments, whereas the other you have to get from a pimply guy with a mullet you knew vaguely in high school, who hands you something dodgy-looking in a sandwich baggie? Quit the hypocrisy and make these intoxicants equally available.
Anyone familiar with pot knows about the "munchies." So, too, do people weak from AIDS and anorexia that use marijuana to put on needed weight. Cancer patients smoke pot to dispel the nausea they get from chemotherapy, and doctors recommend it for epilepsy, arthritis, migraines and glaucoma. Synthetic forms of THC such as Marinol are ineffective substitutes because they often put patients to sleep before they start to eat, which is the whole point. And administering a proper dosage is even easier: once they've smoked enough to have an appetite, or once their pain subsides, they put down the joint. The federal government should follow the lead of voters in Arizona and California and at least allow the medical use of marijuana.
The Response: We can address the availability of cigarettes and alcohol elsewhere; but surely, adding marijuana to the list of harmful substances that are legal isn't the answer.
Synthetic alternatives are available for patients with these conditions. For patients who are wasting away, we have steroids to stimulate muscle growth; megace, too, has been shown to help patients put on weight. Marinol comes in pill form so patients needn't inhale a carcinogen to make them hungry. A study by The National Institutes of Health concluded that smoking marijuana isn't more effective than regular therapies. It is wrong for doctors to have patients figure out for themselves what the correct dosage should be, especially with a drug as impure as marijuana.
"Prohibition of marijuana doesn't work. It has only spawned an enormous black market, eroded our civil rights and corrupted our justice system."
The Argument: When corn sells for a few dollars a bushel and pot goes for $70,000 a bushel, guess which one cash-strapped midwestern farmers are going to grow? Add to this the fact that you don't exactly need a green thumb to grow basic varieties of marijuana, and the choice gets even easier. Ironically, we've returned to the image of the colonial hemp farmer, though the center of the production is now also the center of the nation: Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky. Marijuana has replaced corn as America's top cash crop, and is really tough to detect tucked away in fields of corn. A legal regime that turns ordinary farmers into the worst class of offenders (growers) has something deeply wrong with it.
The war on drugs will only be won if we're willing to turn our country into a police state, and that is what these draconian laws are doing for us. Owing to a quirk in the law, someone's property can be forfeited even though he's been found innocent in a drug offense. Stiffer sentencing has meant jails overcrowded with drug offenders, forcing the early release of violent criminals - inclluding murderers - to make room for guys who've been handed mandatory life terms without the possibility of parole for their "third strike." America is now the world's greatest jailor nation, with a prison population consisting overwhelmingly of drug offenders. On average, we sentence nonviolent drug offenders to five times more jail time than those convicted of manslaughter. Judges, disgusted with these injustices, are quitting the bench. When the severity of punishment is way out of proportion with the offense, the system is corrupt.
Americans - four million regularly - use marijuana more frequently than they do all other illegal drugs combined. They are no more criminals than people who like to have a drink to relax after work.
The Response: All the drug offenders in jail shows we're doing our job properly. The stiff penalties deter would-be growers, users and traffickers. Financial advantage has never worked as a criminal defense before, and farmers who knowingly break the nation's laws are as culpable as anyone else who does so. The shift of marijuana production to the Midwest proves that our efforts against pot entering this country from Mexico worked, so now we should concentrate our resources on the heartland and reap further successes.
3. HEAR SOME ARGUMENTS AGAINST LEGALIZING POT
"The government has an obligation to protect public health."
The Argument: Drug use causes serious problems in society: accidents, lost productivity on the job, and wrecked families. Legalizing marijuana will make things worse.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has no known medical uses and possession of any amount is illegal. That puts it in the same category as heroin, whereas cocaine and PCP are Schedule II drugs and may be prescribed by physicians. Smoking a joint is four times more carcinogenic than smoking a cigarette, it remains in the body for weeks at a time, and it is psychologically addicting. The marijuana available today is much more potent than the stuff hippies smoked in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Response: Of course the government classifies pot as a Schedule I, it has long waged a battle against it. Any list that considers pot worse than PCP needs revision. People do not chain smoke pot the way they smoke cigarettes. Once they've gotten high, they usually stop, so ultimately they inhale much less smoke than cigarette smokers. Among heroin, cocaine, nicotine, and caffeine, marijuana is by far the least addictive.
Following decriminalization of pot in California in the 1970s, use rose five percent. A moderate rise in use is a small price to pay to regain normalcy in the application of our drug laws.
"The 'Gateway' Thesis: Pot smokers are much more likely than non-users to graduate to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin."
The Argument: Nearly all heroin users were initially marijuana smokers. In 1988, a National Institute on Drug Abuse survey found that marijuana smokers are thirty times more likely to use cocaine than those who've never smoked it. Other research confirms a strong correlation between marijuana use and use of cocaine, heroin and the hallucinogens.
The Response: No one has proved a causal link between the two. You could also establish a correlation between espresso and a higher incidence of heroin use, but no one would say espresso leads inexorably to heroin addiction. (Those who've seen the patrons at the Berlin Wall cafe in Berkeley may argue otherwise).
Anyway, it should be expected that more people who smoke pot move to harder drugs than those who've never smoked it, for they have already proven themselves curious enough about drugs to try pot. However, in Jamaica, where per capita use is pretty high, no progression has been shown.
Heroin addicts are a breed apart from the millions of midnight tokers, and their overall consumption rate pales in comparison.