A letter to the National Institute of Drug Abuse about Marijuana.
Dear National Institute of Drug Abuse,
For most people in America, cannabis – more commonly known as marijuana – is strictly illegal, with upwards of forty billion dollars being pumped into its anti-drug campaign annually. According to publications made on your website, it is suggested that the production, distribution, and recreational use of marijuana, due to a plethora of psychological and physical health risks, should remain illegal. Being a nineteen year old college student from Vermont, I’m usually more than open to new ideas. Over the course of my brief yet interesting life, I have heard the opinions of hundreds of people. After many heated debates on topics ranging from local laws like gay marriage and the operation of a malfunctioning nuclear power plant to global debates like the conflict in Iraq and global climate change, I can confidently say that I have a relatively sensible and rational head on my shoulders. However, I regret to say that my openness is not so easily earned when it comes to the debate on marijuana laws. Although I am generally more subtle with my dissatisfaction of the illegality of cannabis, I can no longer allow myself to sit idly as false information slowly weaves itself into the fabric of our nation and entire planet. These publications from your website not only provide misleading and – in some cases – entirely false statements about marijuana, but they also encourage a systematic war on drugs that ruins the lives of should-be innocent people, entirely lacks in cost efficiency, and allows the true danger of drugs fly under the radar. Granted, there are many legitimate points that you note, like how marijuana introduces teens to the black market world of drugs, but why is marijuana illegal in the first place? And if prohibition is meant to protect us, does it really work?
The first thing that I’d like to point out regarding the history of marijuana is how very much legal it used to be. Marijuana can also be hemp, and it wasn’t just legal; it was the most prominent agricultural crop on the planet. Up until 1883, cannabis hemp was used in the creation of thousands of different products. The majority of fabrics, medicines, and papers came from hemp. In fact, one of the first “marijuana laws” ordered farmers to grow hemp. Even the first copy of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and Queen Victoria used the extracted resin to alleviate her menstrual cramps. Even stranger is the fact that, although industrial hemp (since it is not the same as marijuana) cannot be used to get high, a Marijuana Tax Act was implemented for all forms of cannabis in 1937. This tax was generally accepted, up until people wanted to grow hemp, which required a federal stamp to do so. The only problem was that the government wasn’t giving any stamps out at all, and all forms of cannabis were made illegal. Contrary to “reefer madness” and the illegalization of the plant, Popular Mechanics magazine had prepared an article commending hemp as the new “billion dollar crop.” The article read, “Hemp is the standard fiber of the world. It has great tensile strength and durability. It is used to produce more than 5,000 textile products ranging from rope to fine laces…and (it’s cellulose content) can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to cellophane.” (Popular Mechanics, February, 1938) Hemp remained illegal up until World War II, where it was used for war materials. But once the war ended, the government made it illegal again, and, with the exception of a few brave states in our country, marijuana remains as illegal now as it did seventy years ago.
Prohibition, according to the Encarta Dictionary, is the act or process of forbidding something. Senator Larry Campbell (Vancouver Mayor 2002-2005 & Former Member of RCMP Drug Squad) said, “If prohibition worked – if you could just wave a magic wand and say ‘this is gone away,’ I’d be all over it. But the fact of the matter is, prohibition has never worked.” For example, “during the prohibition of alcohol, there were more speakeasies in New York City than there are taverns and liquor stores today.” (Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper) The obvious goals of the prohibition of marijuana (and all drugs for that matter) are to make the substance less available and reduce the demand for said substances. In 1937, there were an estimated 55,000 marijuana users. Now there are estimated to be over 50 million of them. Based on this almost 100,000% use increase, it’s fair to say that regardless of the criminalization of marijuana does not have a major impact. In other words, prohibition is not working.
“Marijuana kills brain cells.” This is the primary attack against marijuana. Neither I nor any marijuana user will argue that the drug enhances brain function. It’s universally accepted that smoking marijuana does cause slightly sluggish behavior, but is that enough evidence to make this bold claim? I’ll be the first to admit, I was fooled. I did truly believe that smoking pot would make me ‘stupid’ over time. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the truth: In 1974, the Heath/Tulane Study was released. Then-California Governor Ronald Reagan announced that “the most reliable scientific sources say permanent brain damage is one of the inevitable results of the use of marijuana.” In the study, monkeys (not humans) were pumped with about thirty joints worth of THC a day. After ninety days, their brains began to atrophy and die. Brain damage was determined after counting the dead brain cells of the monkeys who had been injected with marijuana and those who had not. This study became the foundation of the claim that marijuana killed brain cells. Six years later, details of how the study was conducted was revealed to the public. Instead of giving thirty joints a day for ninety days, Dr. Heath applied a gas mask to the monkeys and administered sixty three ‘Columbian strength’ joints in a five minute span. In this case, all the oxygen in the monkey’s brains were replaced by THC, but with no additional oxygen taken in. This caused the monkeys to suffocate, and the first result of suffocation is a loss of brain cells. In fact, according to an online first aid guide (mayoclinic.com), it only takes four minutes without oxygen for brain damage to occur. I would like to reassure, however, that I’m not accusing the US Government of intentionally lying about the study, rather the majority of people believed the association between brain cells and marijuana because they didn’t know the origin of the study. Since then, countless studies have shown the same results: marijuana does not cause any brain damage. Contrarily, a study performed by Xia Zhang at the University of Saskatchewan suggested that marijuana use actually stimulates brain cell growth.
Another common belief about the dangers of marijuana is that is causes cancer. This is not true, even in the slightest way. Smoking can be harmful because of the properties of smoke, not because of the plant itself, but even then, cannabis smoke is different than other forms. A case-control study by Dr. Donald Tashkin at UCLA concluded that there was no “positive association of MJ (marijuana) use – even heavy long-term use – with lung cancer.” If you look at the data for deaths per substance, even more evidence is revealed showing the not-so dangerous side of marijuana. The number one killer in the country, beating out AIDS, heroine, crack, cocaine, alcohol, car accidents, fire, and murder, combined – tobacco, averaging 430,000 deaths per year. Yet tobacco still receives government subsidies and is even grown with radioactive fertilizer. Marijuana on the other hand, is illegal, obviously, and is grown naturally, with no artificial enhancers included. Even caffeine and regular pain relievers like aspirin cause more deaths than marijuana. “There are no deaths from cannabis use alone, anywhere, you can’t find one.” (Dr. Lester Grinspoon – Professor Emeritus, Harvard Medical School) To reiterate my point, Dr. Paul Horby stated that it would take around “15,000 joints in twenty minutes to get a toxic amount of THC.”
Even though marijuana does not in fact kill brain cells or cause cancer, many will say that there are plenty of other reasons to be fearful. There are more kids in addiction clinics for marijuana than any other substance. This does not mean, however, that marijuana is the most addictive substance today and that every kid in those clinics is suffering from addiction. Tragically, because of the judicial system, if a teenager is arrested for possessing pot, he’ll be given an option in court. Either he can serve a certain amount of time in jail or be placed in a treatment center. By the books, any person who attends a treatment center is considered addicted to that drug, but in reality, less than 5% are there by choice. The other 95% was ordered to attend the meetings by a parent, guardian, or judge. When I walk around my campus or town, I occasionally see or hear people craving coffee, alcohol, or tobacco that day. But I have never seen anyone physically need marijuana in the same way that people need real addictive substances.
The list of anti-marijuana theories continues, too. There are those who believe marijuana to be a “gateway drug.” Also known as a stepping stone, it is commonly said that those who smoke pot are doomed to try the other harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Simply put, the only reason marijuana use leads to the use of other drugs is because it’s illegal in the first place. If someone new to marijuana use finds a dealer on the street and asks for a bag, that dealer might use the opportunity to promote any other drugs he has for sale. Essentially, if marijuana didn’t have to be distributed through the black market people would receive less exposure to harder substances. By the numbers, only one out of one hundred and four marijuana users have done cocaine, and less than one use heroin. In an interview in the documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High, an anonymous ‘former marijuana grower/seller’ puts the gateway theory to rest in much more simpler terms: “I’ll smoke a joint, I want a bag of chips and f***in junk food. I don’t wanna go out and get ripped.” Another example comes from Norm Stamper, who was the Seattle Chief of Police from 1994-2000: “I drink alcohol. Alcohol is my drug of choice. It could be said I started on milk…If I use marijuana, why does that automatically make me a candidate for black tar heroin?” Ex Fear Factor host and current Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator Joe Rogan also had some thoughts on the claims against marijuana: “People say, ‘Well you can abuse marijuana!’ Shit, you can abuse cheeseburgers too! Don’t go around closing Burger King because you can abuse it. I can take a fork and jam it in my eyeball; does that mean forks should be illegal? I could jump off a bridge. Should we outlaw bridges?”
Even the accusations of crime and violence related to marijuana are far from the truth. Norm Stamper explains his view of weed related crime in Seattle – “I saw ample evidence of the harm caused by alcohol. And the absence of evidence of the harm caused by marijuana use. And I mean the complete absence. I cannot recall a single case in which marijuana contributed to domestic violence.” I respectfully challenge anyone to find me an example of someone who has smoked too much pot, gone home, and beaten his wife and children in the same way that they do with drinking too much alcohol.
With the argument over health factors set aside, there is also the economics of marijuana to consider as well. Marijuana, although it’s simply a naturally occurring weed, is worth more ounce-for-ounce than gold. It is impossible to find other major commodities at a price of two hundred dollars an ounce; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything for two hundred dollars a pound. Crops like corn, grain, and barley are closer to two hundred dollars a ton. In British Columbia, a group of marijuana growers purchased twenty full sized train cars and buried them underground. After setting up heating, electricity, and water, these growers proceeded to fill each train car with one hundred and fifty lights, each light growing one or two pounds of weed. Each pound was worth about $2,000 locally and cropped out four to five times a year. That equals an income of $1.2 to $2.4 million annually. The profit doubled if the crops were distributed to different parts of the United States. The farther East the crop traveled, the more it sold for. Even small grow operations (also known as grow ops) are commonly used as a secondary source of income for one out of every one hundred households in British Columbia. Systems with no more than ten lights are still capable of producing tens of thousands of dollars each year.
Marijuana, in its 10,000 year existence on this planet, has proven to be one of the most useful industrial crops ever imagined and an extremely satisfactory means of profit. Include the fact that there are no known negative side effects of smoking marijuana and that it can be used to save lives in many cases (like a man suffering from multiple sclerosis, who uncontrollably shakes and cannot talk clearly unless under the influence of marijuana) and you are presented with an undeniable amount of evidence that suggests new marijuana laws are desperately necessary in the near future. Although it is still highly debated whether the proper cause of action is legalization or decriminalization, one thing is clear, the rationalization of keeping marijuana outlawed is greatly less certain than it once was, and a major change is soon approaching.
-For those interested in learning more about the marijuana legalization efforts, check out the amazing documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High. This served as a useful inspiration and resource for knowledge about marijuana.