Opinion: Five Things Marijuana Legalization Advocates Need to Realize - Drug Week

Photo by Bart Everson.

So hey there, hipp… — I mean, stoner… — I mean, legalization advocates! You guys have been riding high and mighty lately, (let the puns begin) and with good reason.

Since the beginning of the year, marijuana lovers in Colorado have joyously celebrated their right to personal use. Many more states are pursuing legalizing medical use -– if not recreational –- and while there are some substantial hurdles to jump, almost nowhere in the United States do we see any authorities getting tougher on marijuana use.

As my relatives love to joke, the memory of smoking pot as an illegal activity could be up in smoke in under a decade. Really, I have no complaints about the likelihood. Whatever may happen, for better or for worse, certainly addresses the country’s flawed and raciallybiased prohibition, which is far worse than living in a nation full of glassy eyes and insatiable appetites.

There are still some issues that the legalization movement has either improperly addressed or could arguably a do better job at recognizing. The following are not cases against the widespread legalization of cannabis. But before the legalization movement can truly reach its full potential, it must first clear the following hurdles.

1. Don’t act like marijuana is not a vice.

Legalization advocates love to tell us all about the medicinal benefits of marijuana, followed by the truism that marijuana is not “physically addictive.”

In short, this description basically means that there’s no way for anyone to become physically dependent on marijuana, like they can on alcohol or other kinds of dangerous drugs. However, marijuana does exhibit certain physical effects, including a withdrawal process, similar to that of nicotine: irritability, difficulty sleeping, cravings, and anxiety.

Smokers may certainly become mentally addicted, as rehabilitation centers are full of people who want to stop smoking marijuana but are having immense trouble in doing so. Legalization advocates are 100 percent in the right when they point out how we legalize many kinds of drugs that do carry the possibility of physical dependence, from prescription medications to alcohol. Nevertheless, marijuana is a substance, and like any of them, legal or not, it is commonly abused.

If you’re still not convinced that marijuana can ruin lives in the same way “real” drugs can, check out this fantastic op-ed from The Atlantic.

Though in speaking of alcohol…

2. We need to stop comparing marijuana to alcohol across the board.

All of the bases by which alcohol can be argued as more dangerous, and therefore more worthy of being made illegal, are pretty obvious. The problem, though, is that these arguments often gloss over the apples-and-oranges nature of the pot comparison.

Let’s just take beer, for instance. I love beer; in fact, I love drinking beer more than I like being drunk. It’s possible to make a statement like that because the experience of drinking beer offers other pleasures besides being inebriated.

Considering the recreational use of marijuana, however, the substance serves no other purpose than getting high. No one who smokes marijuana regularly (including yours truly) does so for the “taste” of the smoke, like they would beer or wine. You may try different strains of the plant to alter the kind of high you can get, but there’s really no fluctuation in the experience of smoking.

Also, most alcohol takes time for your body to process and achieve the levels of euphoria and inebriation that the typical user is seeking. Drinkers may take a shot of liquor but not feel drunk the minute they put the shot glass down. Seasoned marijuana smokers find their adequate high within minutes, if not seconds, of their first hits.

The ‘better off high or drunk’ comparisons render many conversations about the specific social responsibilities of someone who is intoxicated (for instance, when operating a motor vehicle) as hopelessly moot. Which makes regulation complicated because…

3. We still haven’t come up with a way to “breathalize” drivers for marijuana use.

This is a big one. As Colorado began the process of regulating their way to an effective legalization, a big legislative hurdle arose over individuals driving under the influence. Though no legalization organizations formally take this stance, desperate advocates in arguments usually retort that marijuana doesn’t significantly inhibit driving. Even if that allegation was true, it would hardly make the basis for good policy.

Ultimately, to ensure everyone’s safety, responsible drivers need to control their vehicles with a clear mind.

Further, general marijuana use is too easily traceable in one’s body, making the driving aspect even more difficult to regulate. Seasoned smokers know that traces of marijuana can be found in their bodies up to a month after their last use. The residual effect makes current marijuana testing after DUI arrests misleading — just because a user tests positive doesn’t necessarily prove they were impaired while driving.

For the strength of the legalization movement, it may be best for this front to admit defeat here and simply err on the side of keeping marijuana use on the road illegal in almost any context, It’s hard to imagine if any state legislature would rescind their legalization of the drug after a single heartbreaking story, but all it would really take is one stoner behind the wheel and a child’s mangled body in the street to cause people to change their minds about the failed prohibition of marijuana, whether or not.

Extensive scientific research could potentially determine a “limit” for how high someone can be to drive safely, but until then, it’s not worth it to make such assumptions which put others in danger.

4. Address legalization concerns for those with mental illnesses.

One of the best –- if not the single best –- reason for legalizing marijuana is the disproportional number of African American males arrested for posessing and selling the substance. While legalizing marijuana would effectively deflate the country’s mass incarceration and swelling prison population, it puts another group of individuals at risk whom require facilities from the state.

The 2012 massacres at Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado say a lot about the state of gun control in the nation, but they say even more about how little our society cares for those who suffer from mental illness. If our current institutions are so incapable of compensating for the free trade of firearms while preventing violence in our communities, largely at the hands of mentally unstable individuals, what makes us think they’re adequately prepared for the legalization of a hallucinogenic drug with diverse effects on those with mental instability?

It’s useful for a blossoming public movement to anticipate challenges, and this particular example gives the legalization community the opportunity to connect with potential allies. If marijuana’s benefits as an alternative to psychiatric pharmaceuticals can be better articulated, it’d be smart for advocates to get the mental health community on board. For now, the two don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, which doesn’t have to be the case.

That is, of course, unless the wonder drug that is marijuana is a complete exaggeration, in which case legalization advocates would do well to…

5. Stop talking about marijuana like it’s the panacea.

Yes, there is evidence that components of marijuana can kill cancer cells, so much so that biotech companies are beginning the first steps of marijuana-based treatments to cure cancer. Other components may be able to help treat depression and other forms of mental illness. However, smoking marijuana everyday will certainly not keep the doctor away — a false assumption one might gather from the tone of legalization advocates so desperate to prove their kind of smoking does more good than harm.

Heck, if Google searches could be trusted, then marijuana can also cure herpes, ADHD, and AIDS while we’re at it.

Such hyperbole is understandable. It’s difficult to petition for legalizing something without maximizing the benefits of doing so, while ignoring the lesser consequences. The trouble is much of the most recent and promising science on the medicinal benefits of marijuana (its affect on cancer cells, and possible role as an alternative to psychiatric meds) is actually as premature as it is optimistic.

Marijuana advocates know full well that unchecked, shoddy research studies have done so much to mislead the public about the effects of the drug, many times away from legalization. In the 70s, a study by Heath/Tulane University using Rhesus monkeys concluded that smoking marijuana leads to brain damage. That study became a talking point for conservative politicians to strike down any possibility of decriminalization, like Ronald Reagan did during his term as governor of California. However, it was later determined this study’s results were erroneous; the scientists withheld monkeys from their oxygen supply while the animals were consuming approximately 30 joints per day — a ridiculous intake portion size that not even a devoted marijuana addict would dream to attempt.

Now I’m not conspiring that the same sort of malfeasance is exercised in these new, more optimistic studies. The point is that if the marijuana-benefit studies and treatments turn out to be untrue or exaggerated (which is pretty substantial to begin with — a relatively painless treatment for cancer does tend to get people’s hopes up), their falsehood could only discredit the legalization movement.