Dear W & K: If marijuana has never killed anyone (people kill people) nor has it been proven detrimental to your health, why is it considered such a dangerous drug? Ancient tribes smoked the stuff as a means of peace with their enemies, it has been proven to greatly benefit cancer patients and even reduces male’s sperm count (population control). Why is there so much negative stigma associated with it? And where did all these false “facts” come from?
Kelly: Since the fifth grade we’ve been taught through various health classes and DARE programs that all drugs are bad for us and that we should not use them. We learned about drug abuse and what would happen to us if each drug were taken. For some of the students this created fear, and for others curiosity.
To some, marijuana is considered a bad drug because it is classified as a “gateway drug” — it may lead to other drugs like crack and heroin. However, these beliefs do not have actual solid, statistical proof. Yet many firmly believe that abusing marijuana will lead to a domino effect, damaging not only health but the socioeconomic aspect of society as well. There are some slight risks to marijuana use, including a higher heart rate and blood pressure, paranoia and enhanced senses. Some marijuana contains some of the same cancer-causing compounds of tobacco. But then again nearly everything in society is branded with a “warning” label, including cigarettes and alcohol which are legal.
The positive factors of marijuana include its wide-ranging clinical uses. These include pain relief (particularly nerve damage), glaucoma and movement disorders. Marijuana also increases appetite, specifically for patients who have HIV, AIDS or dementia.
Perhaps we need to start looking at things from a two-sided perspective. Yes, marijuana can be medically beneficial and, yes, there are some factors and reactions to marijuana that are bad. Yet I feel as though the laws restricting marijuana should be loosened. Since 1973, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon each have enacted decriminalization laws. These laws make it so marijuana users no longer face jail time (nor in most cases, arrest or criminal records) for the possession or use of small amounts of marijuana. Internationally, many governments have enacted similar policies.
Wes: There are too many angles on this topic for the space allowed. Whatever we say many readers will not like it because as Kelly and our letter-writer point out, much of the general perspective on marijuana is based on propaganda and emotion. Before the “pro-marijuana” readers light one up in my honor and the “anti-marijuana” readers light up the Internet in protest, I’ll add that the propaganda goes BOTH WAYS.
Our writer is in the majority of his peer group. His portrayal of marijuana as harmless and actually quite delightful is the general cultural zeitgeist among teens and young adults — even those who don’t partake. Call me a 210-pound buzz kill, but I will never be a fan of substance abuse. Sitting in this chair I see one family after another whose marriages, careers and families have been destroyed in the bottle or on the pipe, all of whom were quite sure that they were immune from such things. And that doesn’t touch the number who’ll die this year from cigarette use and those with tobacco-related illnesses who will consume a large share of Medicare and other health resources.
Of course, many people use substances responsibly, and I see them, too. But on any given evening in Lawrence, I’d suggest you drive safely or not at all, because you’re on the road with a bunch of them who don’t — and most will get away with it. So I don’t make any positive distinction between alcohol and marijuana or other drug abuse.
The research does suggest that marijuana is among the less physically addictive drugs. But a great many things are not physically addictive — like sex and World of Warcraft — and yet each can press certain individuals beyond their capacity for control. Why would weed be any different? If it didn’t modify perception, brain functioning and response, then why would anyone spend money on it? As with anything pleasurable, some people are going to stop what they’re doing and pay it more heed than other necessary aspects of life, often to their detriment. And that’s an addiction.
Even if pot addicts are a distinct minority, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the absolute refusal by recreational users to see any possible negative impact on their own lives. Repeatedly I’ve had a young person tell me that they are lethargic, falling behind in schoolwork, inattentive, anxious or even paranoid. When asked how much they smoke they become defensive and say, “That’s not it!” The issue is off the table and cannot be discussed because the zeitgeist tells them that weed is good and anyone who says otherwise must also believe in evil fairies. Everyone can cite a couple of honor students or uncle Joe with the Ph.D. who “smokes every day and done just fine.”
The propaganda on the other side isn’t much better. Lumping marijuana in with other drugs and suggesting that its abuse is worse than alcohol isn’t supported in the literature. These scare tactics just make young people more willing to stick to their guns and ignore the possibility that all this smoking isn’t such a great idea. Whether or not legalization is a worthy goal depends on your theory of what works and what doesn’t.
As a psychologist trying to look out for teens and their families, I’d be a lot more excited about the criminalization of marijuana if it actually did reduce the rate of usage or interdict the supply. If anything, weed is easier for kids to get than alcohol and cigarettes because it is unregulated and underground. Despite my general grumpiness about substance abuse — in fact because of it — I can’t help but wonder whether our current approach is getting teenagers, young adults and society any closer to sensibility on this issue.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.