The Saturation of Life

Referred to as pot or weed, scientifically referred to as cannabis, and commonly known as marijuana, it is without a doubt the plant that draws the most attention to itself. Millions of Americans are willing to break the law in order to consume it, and thousands of them are jailed every year for doing so. The government invests billions of dollars every year to prevent its consumption and distribution. And as with any noteworthy topic, there are greatly differing opinions on the issues associated with it. But bizarrely enough, there are also major differences in the actual scientific data and information available from different sources – when studying marijuana, even facts are subjective. I had often contemplated writing an essay on marijuana, but never managed to pull it together – partly because there is so much to discuss and the mere task of beginning was daunting, and partly because I never found the inspiration to start it.

Luckily, the inspiration finally came on my way to class one day. As I passed by some posters the elementary school children had posted up in the hallway, I noticed they had recently been studying drugs, and decided to give them a look. They had worked on the typical elementary school project of creating specific studies for each of the main drugs, each of which had a poster with a long list of facts informing us of how dangerous they are. I never did find the cocaine or heroin posters very interesting, because they are so evidently harmful drugs. But marijuana is a completely different story. The marijuana poster is a lot more interesting than the others because it is the only one loaded with misinformation and exaggerations, the only one in which many of the bullet points are not only misconceptions, but often utter lies. Judging from the posters, marijuana would appear to be just about on the same level as cocaine, heroine, meth, and the whole assortment of horrendous drugs. And yet, it is undoubtedly different. It was this experience that finally offered me the incentive to sit down and plow through the first 2500 words: because if children are being taught totally biased ‘facts’ then it is important to do something about it. If history teaches us anything, it is that misinforming people in order to indoctrinate them to blindly follow an ideology can only lead to miscommunication and disaster.

The discussions concerning marijuana usually focus on three different aspects, although these three overlap in many areas: the medical, the moral, and the legal. The medical area of discussion is rather peculiar. Typically, medical evidence is based on scientific facts, and the discussion of the medicinal properties of a substance is fairly closed. But regarding marijuana, there are equally respectable sources of information that propose very opposing views and ‘facts’ concerning marijuana. Even more peculiar is that only one side of those opposing views is ever taught in health classes, chemistry classes, or whatever school course happens to be teaching drugs. On the legal side, the debate is rather one-sided, as there are very few reasons for why marijuana should be illegal from an economic, technical, and logical point of view. It is extremely difficult for a logical argument to be constructed compelling the illegality of the substance without resorting to a moral basis, and usually it is not very difficult to convince reasonable people that the current marijuana laws are incredibly inefficient. The reason is simple: the current marijuana laws are incredibly inefficient. Whether you believe that smoking marijuana is moral or immoral, it is difficult to deny that the marijuana laws as they are today in the United States are in desperate need of reform. What usually creates much more heated debate is the ethical/moral aspect: is it ethically correct to smoke marijuana?

I first researched marijuana about three years ago, and, after becoming immediately fascinated with the subject, I began reading more and more. What I came to realize was that my suspicions were correct: the image of marijuana conveyed in health classes was completely misconstrued. Typically, an elementary school, or even middle or high school, health class will portray marijuana as a highly addictive, highly toxic substance that ultimately leads to death. Lester Grinspoon, a professor at Harvard Medical School, believed this lie that he was taught by health classes and the government, and in 1967, amidst a huge increase in marijuana consumption, set out to publish a paper on the harmfulness of the substance. He was concerned for “young people [who] were ignoring the warnings of the government”. His hope was that “some would seriously consider a well-documented review of the available data”. And so he began to scientifically research marijuana, with the explicit purpose of proving how harmful it was. But as he began to investigate further, he realized that he had to “seriously question” what he believed he knew about cannabis. He eventually came to the realization that he had become “a victim of a disinformation campaign”, that he “had been brainwashed”. As he clearly puts it, by the time he had published his first book on cannabis, Marihuana Reconsidered, “it had become inescapably clear that while marijuana was not harmless, its harmfulness lay not so much in any inherent psychopharmacological property of the drug but in the social and legal consequences of our firmly held misbeliefs”. Another study, published in the medical journal The Lancet by David Nutt, Leslie A King, William Saulsbury, and Colin Blakemore in 2007, compares different drugs in addictiveness and physical harm. Cannabis ranks lower in addictiveness and physical harm than both alcohol and tobacco.

The study by the Lancet should have effectively ended the popular misconception that marijuana is more addictive than alcohol – one of the main reasons for which marijuana has a much more dangerous connotation than alcohol.  One often hears that people become psychologically addicted to cannabis, that they will only go out on weekends if they know there will be marijuana available somewhere. This is undoubtedly true in some cases (rarely concerning responsible adults), but is the same not true for many teenagers with respect to alcohol? There are countless teenagers who would never go to a party if there were no alcohol available, or who would only leave their house if they know they will have a place to drink. And yet, while this is viewed as the norm, people who become ‘psychologically’ addicted to marijuana are viewed as huge burdens to society. The fact is that people simply see only what they want to see, because if only they opened their eyes they would realize that while 4% of Americans are alcoholic, and 10% abuse of alcohol, there is virtually no percentage of people addicted to marijuana, although 1 in 3 of them has tried it.

What becomes clear is that even if much of the information distributed at health classes is if not completely false, it is at the very least questionable. If reputable sources such as Lester Grinspoon, who has published multiple books about cannabis, and The Lancet, one of the most well respected medical journals of Europe, question the given information on marijuana, then perhaps so should health classes. Perhaps health classes should prompt students to research from multiple perspectives, rather than set them on a blind march of faith behind extremely questionable ‘facts’.

 It is exactly this blind indoctrination that causes problems later in life. Because teenagers, as part of their nature, are likely to experiment at some point or another with different substances – most people have tried alcohol or cigarettes by the time they turn twenty. It is important to remember that although marijuana is usually seen as the greater threat to society, reality reveals that a much greater percentage of Americans regularly abuses of alcohol and tobacco than marijuana. Once a teenager tries marijuana, even after being taught how incredibly evil it is, it is probable they realize how false everything they were told really was, and may begin to believe that everything else the y were told was a also lie. At this point, they might begin experimenting with much more dangerous and addictive drugs, such as cocaine or heroine, and eventually end up in jail or in rehab. Oddly enough, it is this that causes marijuana to become somewhat of a ‘gateway drug’, one of the central pillars of the argument against marijuana’s legality.

For those who are not familiar with it, the gateway drug theory is, in a nutshell, that after trying marijuana people are more likely to experiment with other drugs as well. Besides the fact that one of the reasons as to why marijuana is a gateway drug in the first place can be attributed to the very people who try to minimize marijuana use, the gateway drug theory contains one major fallacy: that the people who by nature are more likely to try the ‘harder’ drugs are clearly going to start with a softer one. For someone who is naturally predisposed to trying any kind of dangerous behavior, such as experimenting with drugs, marijuana is clearly much more available and likely to be the first one they try. It would be difficult to find a heroin addict whose first drug was heroin, clearly, the kind of people who would be involved in heroin use, would have to first begin with something which is more available to them. It is important not to confuse a correlation with causation. Maia Szalavitz’s example, from her article Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die (which appeared in Time’s health section on October 2009), explains it the best: “Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang members are probably 104 times more likely to have ridden a bicycle as a kid than those who don’t become Hell’s Angels, but that doesn’t mean that riding a two-wheeler is a ‘gateway’ to joining a motorcycle gang. It simply means that most people ride bikes and the kind of people who don’t are highly unlikely to ever ride a motorcycle.” Not to mention that at this point, wouldn’t alcohol and tobacco also have to be considered gateway drugs? And yet, are they not legal?

From a medical point of view, it seems evident that the way most health classes teach the subject is flawed. To make matters simple, one need only look at the number of deaths caused by marijuana. While around 50,000 people a year die of alcohol poisoning, and 400,000 deaths a year are attributed to tobacco, virtually none are attributed to marijuana. Unlike alcohol, it is non-toxic, and it cannot cause death by overdose (it is estimated that 1500 pounds of marijuana would have to be consumed in a time-span of 15 minutes to die). So although one needs to consume much less marijuana in order to become dysfunctional in society, one also needs to consume tremendously less alcohol to risk death. Who ever heard of a teenager leaving a party in an ambulance because of marijuana poisoning?

Of course, there are other medical sources that refute some of the evidence presented above and insist that marijuana’s negative side effects are dangerous to individuals and society. But in health class, it is never even mentioned that there is some debate. As Lester Grispoon reminds us, “over the last four decades, little has been said or written about its many uses. The overwhelming preponderance of funding, research, writing, political activity, and legislation has been centered on its harmfulness”. Until recently, there had been no research into its medicinal qualities, and never has there been any research into what positive experience it may give us. The debate has never “been concerned with its non-medical uses; it is always limited to the question of how harmful it is and how a society should deal with the harm it is alleged to cause. Only one side to the story is ever presented; I certainly don’t recall ever being told in health class that while marijuana has some negative side effects, there is also much to be learned from its experience.

Whether or not you believe the evidence I presented above, wouldn’t children benefit from hearing some contradicting evidence? Since the issue is so clearly subjective, would it not be more beneficial to present both arguments, and then let children draw their own conclusions? I personally believe that much of the information presented in health classes is completely incorrect, but even if it is not, the fact that the class is taught from one and only one perspective is more than evident. And being taught only one perspective is rarely, if ever, an adequate method of education.

From a moral or ethical perspective, the debate becomes even more subjective – as always occurs in moral or ethical debates. Morals and ethics are largely subjective areas of discussion. I believe that smoking a joint is no more immoral than drinking a couple of beers on a Friday night, and even less immoral than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan discusses how smoking of marijuana satisfies the very basic human desire of altering consciousness. From a very young age, children attempt to alter their consciousness: how many us would spin around and around until we could not see or think properly? The human desire of altering consciousness has been present in humans ever since humans existed as a race. Traces of cannabis have been found dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, and shamans from all over the world used them in order to communicate with a greater power. Ancient Romans used cannabis to connect with their Gods, and the Assyrians too used cannabis for religious purposes. And not only humans have an inherent attraction to altering their consciousness, as Michael Pollan demonstrates through an anecdote of his cat. Throughout the summer, he observed his cat drugging itself with catnip every day within thirty minutes of five p.m. This is but an anecdote, but it should lead us to question whether or not the desire to alter consciousness is totally unnatural. And how can something that comes so naturally to us, and is not harmful to anyone else (and hardly harmful to ourselves), be immoral? Did anyone ever condemn little children for spinning around until they had the sight and reaction time of a drunk, and high as kites on adrenaline?

We should also question why it is that our normal consciousness is so superior to others. When one is high on THC (the active ingredient in cannabis which causes the ‘high’ sensation), consciousness is altered. One of the immediate physiological effects of cannabis is to greatly impair our short-term memory. We often praise the power of the brain to remember, but we don’t often acknowledge the brain’s power to forget, which is just as important. Michael Pollan reminds us that our brains are designed to immediately forget the millions of details with which our senses are flooded every second of our lives. Without this ability to forget, we would become overwhelmed with information and become unable to think. By tampering with our short-term memory, cannabis also tampers with our ability to forget all of these details. Thus, when high on marijuana, we lose the capability of forgetting, and become much more attentive to the small details. Moments of time can become almost frozen in time, and one can see an object as it truly is in all of its glory. So why must it be immoral if every once in a while a responsible adult wishes to step out of our regular consciousness and perhaps gain some new knowledge or experience by experimenting with a new state of being?

To urge marijuana to remain illegal, it is often framed as immoral. But arguing that smoking marijuana is immoral in order to keep it illegal is often a “way to sidestep empirical investigation and the assumptions inherent in practical arguments”, in the words of Mitch Earleywine in his essay Pot Politics. The fact that there is so much data – convincing data – to support that marijuana is not immoral, makes it much harder to debate that it is. As he points out, “economic, psychological, and sociological data would have a hard time convincing citizens to legalize murder”, and yet the data for legalizing marijuana is so convincing that 18 states have already legalized medical marijuana, while 13 of those 18 have gone so far as to decriminalize it.

There is also the issue that if cannabis were to become legal, then everyone would have much greater access to it, such as minors. This is yet another huge misconception, because in reality, the opposite would occur. In the US, where alcohol is illegal for people under the age of 21, teenagers agree that it is much easier to access marijuana than alcohol. Why? Because while alcohol can be taxed and regulated by the government, and a license is required for its sale, marijuana is distributed in a black market, where the government has no power to regulate age limits, quantities, etc. All the government can do is seek to end black market activities and block the sales of marijuana altogether, but while the war on drugs has been going on for decades, marijuana is still readily available to teenagers. How beneficial to society would it be if instead of letting criminals decide how much marijuana to produce and who to sell it to, the government could?

One of the strongest points in favor of legalizing marijuana is that if it became legal, the government could play a much larger role in its responsible distribution. Licenses would have to be acquired in order to sell it; those who could legally sell it would have to maintain strict age limits – similar to alcohol. Not only would it become much harder for teenagers to buy marijuana, but responsible adults could smoke marijuana on Friday nights with their friends without the fear of breaking the law and being sent to jail. Thousands of young people would not be jailed every year for simple marijuana possession. The vast majority of people incarcerated for marijuana-related causes are simply arrested for possession – not for sale or distribution. The people who are being punished are not the organized criminals who distribute huge amounts of drugs and often engage in other, much more violent crimes, but the young teenagers who may just be experimenting for the first – and possibly last – time in their lives.

Illegality on a purely moral basis (by saying, quite simply, that its just wrong) is always risky. Mitch Earlywine reminds us of the dangers associated with making an action a crime solely for being immoral. Back when same-sex contact and extramarital affairs were immoral they were also illegal, but “issues about privacy and civil rights undermined their rationale”. It is also evident that immorality is a dangerous basis for laws, since they are so clearly subjective. I, as an Italian, personally feel ketchup on pizza is close to immoral, and yet a law prohibiting ketchup on pizza in Italy would clearly be unjust. Mitch points out that “Many legal scholars view this legal moralism with considerable distaste…. They feel that immorality is not enough to justify a criminal penalty”, and that it “may be neither necessary nor sufficient”. Laws can, and often do, have a moral basis – most people across cultures would agree that killing is wrong. However, they are not, and should not be, based solely on that – there are also more technically legal reasons, such as the fact that killing someone else is infringing on that person’s freedom. In the words of Terence McKenna, “if the words ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on”.

From an economic point of view, marijuana’s illegality is incredibly illogical. In 2006 alone, there were more than 829,000 people arrested for marijuana-related causes. That is no insignificant number, and such a huge amount of people being arrested every year warrants attention. What makes the number even more absurd is that the majority of those people were arrested simply for possession; and therefore include plenty of people that were casual smokers, maybe even first-time smokers. According to The National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “Of those charged with marijuana violations, approximately 88 percent, 758,593 Americans were charged with possession only. The remaining 99,815 individuals were charged with “sale/manufacture,” a category that includes all cultivation offenses, even those where the marijuana was being grown for personal or medical use. In past years, roughly 30 percent of those arrested were age 19 or younger”. As marijuana is such an evil activity, and so dangerous to the public, they were thankfully given a prison sentence of several years in order to keep them from destroying society. However, after several years in prison, most of the previously non-violent offenders will emerge as even greater threats to society. One who went to prison for simply giving his friend some marijuana could now emerge a violent criminal, after being caged in a criminal environment for an extended period of time. NORML warns us: “many adult marijuana smokers share marijuana on a nonprofit basis with friends. Under many state laws, this activity could subject them to lengthy prison sentences”.

It is not beneficial to society to incarcerate non-violent offenders for such long periods of time, nor is it economically reasonable. At an average cost of $23,000 a year, keeping 829,000 in prison amounts to several billion dollars a year. During the prohibition in the 1920s, alcohol was made completely illegal. However, alcohol was readily available to almost everyone. Popular literature at the time (most famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) depicts a society consumed by alcohol, while Al Capone is amongst the most memorable figures of the time period. What should the prohibition have taught us? That making a substance illegal simply because it is supposedly evil only makes matters worse. Polls show that 1/3 of Americans have tried marijuana. This also means that 1/3 of Americans are willing to break the law in order to smoke marijuana. As occurred during prohibition, the legal status of a substance has very little impact on a population that is determined to try it, especially when they do not view it as immoral to smoke. Another lesson that the failure of prohibition should have taught us is that when honest people were not allowed to sell alcohol, the demand had to be satisfied by criminals, who flourished. Such is occurring now, as the only available supply of marijuana to fulfill the demand is coming from highly dangerous, extremely violent, organized crime.

If marijuana were legalized, then it could also be taxed and regulated. It could be ensured that it not be smoked by minors, but that it could be consumed by responsible adults, in a similar way to alcohol. Instead of spending roughly 10 billion dollars a year to keep marijuana offenders in prison, the funds could be saved and spent on something else, if anything to reduce the enormous deficit. Not only would money be saved by legalizing marijuana, but it would also become a source of profit, as it would obviously be taxed. Furthermore, once legal, people who had taken an informed decision could now experiment with another state of consciousness, and learn from the experience.  There many believe that cannabis is greatly beneficial to creativity, a belief that is certainly supported by the fact that the majority of the romantic poets were constantly high. Lester Grispoon says it makes decision-making much easier for him, and that he always sits down to smoke when he has a big decision to make. George Washington smoked it frequently, as did Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, George W. Bush, Barrack Obama, and another 8 US presidents. And 42% of Americans said they tried marijuana, and who knows what each of those individuals has gained from their experiences? Of course, used irresponsibly, and used every day, it can have harmful long-term effects. But so does the everyday use of alcohol or tobacco; and even the everyday consumption of McDonalds has extremely damaging long-term and short-term effects. There are plenty of substances that are legal but which have some negative side effects. And in the case of marijuana, it certainly seems like both individuals and society have only to gain from its legalization.

December 25, 2011 / Julian Modiano

2 thoughts on “The Saturation of Life

  1. Pingback: Opinion: The Saturation of Life | The Open Wall

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