Let Cooler Heads Prevail with Pot

Originally published by The Guy Code on January 2, 2002.

The U.S. government recently gave final approval to experiments that will help determine whether smoking marijuana can help AIDS patients and people with multiple sclerosis, according to the New York Times.

This marks the first time in nearly 20 years that the federal government has allowed anyone to study the drug’s possible benefits.

About time, isn’t it?

Anecdotal reports about the benefits of marijuana for sick people have been piling up for decades. I heard a few of those anecdotes seven years ago, when I visited Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club in San Francisco.

Operating like a speakeasy on Church Street, Peron’s club provided fresh, uncut marijuana at a decent price to visitors who carried notes from their doctors. I met men and women with AIDS and cancer, sweet people with sores on their skin, people who were in terrible pain. The pot and the friendly atmosphere – people conversing amid oriental rugs and jazz – gave them a few doses of joy on the way to the grave.

What’s wrong with that?

They told me how grateful they were to Peron, a longtime dealer and political activist, for helping them. They said the pot reduced their nausea, restored their appetite, and just generally helped them feel happier than they had been feeling.

The government’s will to stamp out this sort of thing confused me then, and as time passed it made less and less sense.

If another substance had the ability to provide this much relief, some drug company would have lined the campaign coffers of enough congresspersons to get federal approval for it years ago. By now, the stuff would be available at Walgreen’s.

But noo-oooo – this substance is marijuana. In addition to our history of hysteria about its effects – the government used to tell the public that pot swells the ranks of communists and gays, among other groups that no longer scare most of us – pot comes from a plant no pharmaceutical company can control. If it became legal, there wouldn’t be much money in medicinal marijuana – so there’s no pressure from drug companies or other capitalists.

And so the slippery-slope argument prevails – i.e., “If we allow sick people to use this drug, the next thing you know, they’ll be serving crack in school cafeterias.”

But the tide seems to be turning. Extremist efforts by some conservatives to clamp down on pot by imposing mandatory-minimum sentences on first-time offenders – 10 years in prison for simple possession — have led to a counterreaction that is all to the good.

A little more than a year ago, more than 60% of California voters said yes to Proposition 36, which mandates treatment instead of prison for nonviolent drug offenders until their third conviction.

Californians have watched their state spend more tax money on prisons in recent years than on higher education, and they are apparently ready to try another approach.

Dismissive as usual of California’s efforts to determine its own fate, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug – the category for potentially addictive drugs with no redeeming value. In other words, the government continues to behave as if marijuana were more dangerous than alcohol.

If only that were true. If only drinking caused less damage than smoking grass – to users and those around them – how much happier would the history of America have been.

The harmful effects of alcohol

Our proud nation would have been spared the carnage of millions of alcohol-related deaths, from auto accidents and cirrhosis, from crimes of passion and ordinary barroom brawls. (These days, the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency attributes 105,000 American deaths to alcohol each year.)

Our families, including a number of my Irish-Catholic relatives, would have escaped the devastating shame and loneliness and anger – the ruined holidays, the disruptions to career and home – that come of living with an alcohol addict.

Yes, it would be lovely if alcohol were less harmful than marijuana. But it’s simply not the case.

When I was a senior in high school an underclassman drank himself nearly to death. A nice kid, possibly depressed, he upended a fifth of vodka down his throat. Fearing punishment, some of his drinking buddies left him passed out on a rock near a bay. Fortunately someone thought to bring him to the hospital in time to have his stomach pumped, or my high school would have lost another son.

In the 15 years since I left that school, alcohol has contributed to a number of similar incidents there, just as it has done at countless other schools across the country.

However paranoid it may have made people over the years – however many bad pizzas it may have induced them to eat – there is no evidence that marijuana has ever, of itself, brought anyone that close to death.

It has occasionally caused people to do a fatally poor job of driving cars or operating other machinery. But even then it has a very long way to go before it can challenge the number of fatal accidents that have been traced to booze.

After college I worked in a psychiatric hospital in New Mexico for three years, during which time I knew a number of patients who smoked more pot than was good for them. While hospitalized, they naturally missed their favorite drug – but not a single one of them needed medication to keep him or her alive in its absence. For alcoholics who checked in, the story was very different, as anyone can attest who has watched someone cope with delirium tremens. Untreated d.t.’s can kill.

Later, in California, I was assigned a hospice patient who was dying of cirrhosis. Alcohol had ruined his liver and kidneys so that he could no longer process the day-to-day toxins that the rest of us hardly notice. Poisons built up in his system, bloating his stomach until he looked like a victim of famine. He vomited a lot and he smelled bad and his skin turned yellowish-green and he tottered when he tried to walk. Mostly he sat in a wheelchair and waited for death. When it finally came he was 37.

A healthy teenager who drinks too much in five minutes can die. An alcoholic who is suddenly deprived of his drug can end up just as dead. An alcoholic who has access to all the alcohol he wants can also die way too young.

None of those outcomes occurs with marijuana. Too much at once does not kill, and neither does sudden deprivation. Nor does chronic use measurably shorten a life. And it need hardly be said that marijuana does not generally incite its users to violence, the way alcohol so easily can.
All things in moderation

Now, I’m no teetotaler. I appreciate the way that alcohol, when used as directed, promotes relaxation. I know what one of America’s greatest psychiatrists, Harry Stack Sullivan, meant when he suggested that without alcohol, Western civilization might have collapsed long ago.

Nor am I an advocate of the recreational use of marijuana. It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve used it. I believe the evidence is solid that chronic use impairs short-term memory, dulls the ambition and in other ways addles the brain. It’s not great for the lungs, either.

Marijuana is not a harmless drug – just one that causes a good deal less harm than alcohol.

Let’s think this through

So let’s be reasonable, shall we? Allowing scientists to study the beneficial effects of marijuana for sick people is a step in the right direction.

We should also look into those mandatory-minimum sentencing laws – the ones that force judges to throw first-time offenders into prison for ten years, regardless of the judge’s assessment of extenuating circumstances. I was lucky not to be caught during my “experimental” years, and so were many of my currently productive friends. It would seem as though our current president was lucky, too.

But our own good fortune should not cause us to simply avert our eyes from those who were less fortunate. Californians have reacted against these excessive laws. The rest of us should, too.

Check out this Web page: http://www.fas.org/drugs/Principles.htm

The signers of this request for a more rational drug policy are not wild-eyed hippies bent on destroying the soul of America. They’re smart, sober people. We should listen to them, and we should support their efforts to bring sanity to our nation’s drug policies.

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