This entry’s name is a variation on that of a famous 1930s anti-marijuana propaganda film. The film alleges that smoking marijuana causes madness. That is not my thesis here. While there is a madness associated with marijuana, it is of a very different kind than the film would have us believe.
When it comes to U.S. marijuana laws, the inescapable conclusion is that quite a lot of states and quite a lot of lawmakers are insane. Simply and literally insane. This is an extremely strong claim, but I submit there is no avoiding it once one reflects on the harrowing disparity between how marijuana is regarded in one state as opposed to in another. I further insist the issue is polarizing to such an extent that regardless of which side of the debate one finds oneself on, he is committed to relegating the opposition to the madhouse.
Currently two states—Colorado and Washington—have legalized marijuana for recreational use. There marijuana can be legally bought at licensed stores and smoked by any adult who simply wants to get “high.” Another seventeen states have “decriminalized” marijuana, making possession of small amounts either legal or the equivalent of a traffic citation. Several others have legalized marijuana for medical use. Yet in many states—including Arkansas—possession or delivery of marijuana is often an extremely serious crime, carrying the very real possibility of many years behind bars and tens of thousands of dollars in fines, court costs, and attorney’s fees.
Under Arkansas law someone with no prior drug offenses arrested with up to four ounces of marijuana is guilty of a misdemeanor and can be punished by confinement in county jail for up to one year and/or fines up to $2,500.00. A larger amount of pot and/or a third or subsequent offense is an automatic felony.
The upshot is that we live in a country where what is legally done in Colorado and Washington is punishable by six or more years imprisonment in Arkansas and many other states. Phrased differently, in much of the United States possession of even a modest amount of marijuana is regarded as more serious than physical assault and battery on a police officer, yet it is completely legal in other states! There’s no avoiding the conclusion that many states simply have to be wrong here. Further, there are degrees of being wrong, and the disparity within our country’s marijuana laws illustrates that the wrong ones must be at the very bottom of the scale of wrongness. They are as wrong as one can be—indeed they must be insane.
In April 2013 Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron calculated that our marijuana prohibition costs federal and state government about $20 billion per year. Of course, if marijuana is as harmful as many people appear to think it is, perhaps this number represents tax dollars well spent. But before we continue making what might be a $20 billion mistake, shouldn’t we at least glance at the evidence?
Many people ask: Is marijuana safe? But that’s a vague question? What do we mean by “safe?” Safe compared to what? There’s no doubt that smoking marijuana in one’s own home is far safer than many other activities—playing football, hunting deer, hitting golf balls on a driving range, fishing on Beaver Lake, taking an ocean cruse on Princess Lines, and driving from Fayetteville to Little Rock are all examples. Further, all these are examples of legal activities!
A related question is whether marijuana is safer than alcohol? Here the answer is simple and indisputable: marijuana is immensely safer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out of Atlanta, excessive alcohol use is responsible for approximately 88,000 nationwide deaths annually. Alcohol is highly toxic and a lethal dose is fairly easy to reach. No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana and no one ever will, because an overdose is medically impossible.
So given that one cannot physically overdose on marijuana, the question remains: What are its harms? There exists a mountain of literature going both ways—literature frequently bespeaking more of a writer’s political leanings than of the available scientific evidence.
So how are most of us, as nonscientists, to resolve the conundrum? The answer lies teaching ourselves just a little about how science works, about the self-correcting nature of the scientific process. Specifically about the concepts of peer review and reproduction.
Science is replete with individual studies yielding inconsistent results. A (very) few studies have supported the thesis that marijuana causes violent behavior, but other studies have been unable to reproduce their results. That is, studies suggesting a nexus between marijuana and violence have not survived peer review. The upshot is that, a single study, or even a small group of studies, standing alone establishes little. Perhaps the experiment was flawed. Perhaps the proper controls were not in place. Perhaps experimenter bias affected the results.
Despite its many discrepancies, however, science slowly converges on the truth by requiring all researchers to clearly explain their methodologies, to state exactly how their experiments are conducted, what results they find, why they reach the conclusions they do, and allowing their peers in the scientific community to review—and hopefully reproduce the results of—their research. If others find fault in their methodologies or reasoning, or are unable to reproduce the same results, then their conclusions are suspect and further research is needed.
If, on the other hand, a study is specifically described, so any flaws are open for peer review, and the same methodology applied time and time and again reproduces the same results, then those results gradually become accepted scientific knowledge.
Many claims have been made about the harmfulness of marijuana. It has been accused of lowering overall intelligence, of causing violent and suicidal behavior, of damaging both long and short term memory, of causing “anti-motivational syndrome” (basically, making people lazy), of being a “gateway” to other, harder, drugs, of harming the lungs and respiratory system, of increasing the estrogen count in boys (sometimes even to the point where they start growing breasts), and of increasing the prevalence of automobile accidents, just to name a few.
Some of these claims have been consistently supported and had their results reproduced in numerous peer reviewed studies. The great majority have not.
In terms of affecting health only two claims that marijuana is harmful have withstood peer review. First, marijuana smoke is harsh, is harmful to the lungs and bronchial system, and can lead to many of the same health problems associated with smoking cigarettes. However, this isn’t quite as bad as it might seem on its face, because hardly any potheads smoke as much weed as tobacco users partake of their vice. It’s difficult to imagine anyone smoking 20 marijuana joints a day, but many tobacco users routinely smoke that or twice as many cigarettes.
Second, marijuana adversely affects short term memory, and these effects continue after the euphoric “high” sensation ceases. But there is absolutely no evidence that these effects are permanent or even last more than a few hours.
None of the other claims about marijuana causing health problems have survived properly conducted, peer reviewed scrutiny. Not a one.
Now what of the notorious “gateway effect;” that is, the claim that pot leads to harder drugs? Opponents of liberalizing marijuana laws try to prove marijuana leads to harder drugs by comparing a more common activity (smoking marijuana) to a less common activity (doing methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, or whatever). They then point out that most of the people who did the less common activity did the more common activity first; therefore, the more common activity is a “gateway” to the less common activity. Therefore, pot leads to harder drugs.
Makes sense. Well, sort of. But let’s look closer. Let’s apply exactly the same reasoning to another scenario and see how it holds up. Driving a car is a common activity. Piloting an airplane is a much less common activity. Further, almost everyone who has piloted an airplane drove a car first. So what would you say to someone who argued that cars are “gateways” to airplanes? That you shouldn’t teach your son to drive because driving is nothing but a gateway to him insisting on a pilot’s license? I hope you’d laugh him out the door, as such reasoning is obviously absurd. Yet the argument that pot is a gateway to harder drugs is in the same logical boat as the one about cars being gateways to airplanes. If one fails, so then must the other. The car/airplane argument is nonsense; so, therefore, is the pot/meth argument.
Now what about marijuana and driving? There’s no question that a person high on pot shouldn’t drive, just like a drunk or a person stoned on prescription pain killers shouldn’t drive. But this isn’t an argument in favor of outlawing marijuana any more than drunk driving is an argument in favor of banning liquor. Further, what research there is shows that when marijuana is involved in an auto accident it’s almost a certainty alcohol was also a factor.
None of the above is intended to suggest that people “should” smoke marijuana. There is little doubt that, other things being equal, one is better off not smoking it. Nonetheless, in terms of vices marijuana is one of the very least harmful and its current prohibition is absurd, a horrible waste of tax money, and an unnecessary strain on an already overburdened justice system that should be expending its resources going after real crimes that cause real harm to society.
So let’s return to the original topic: Given that many states and many legislators have to be severely mistaken on this issue, which side is right and which side is in the nuthouse? Is there really any question?