Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pot, We'd Better Meet the Kettle

It's hard to talk about legalizing marijuana with a straight face. This narcotic has born the brunt of goofy jokes for years, and acquired a legion of pop-culture slang terms. Compared with much harder illicit drugs out there today, marijuana, or pot, or weed seems so relatively benign, it's hard to get worked into a lather about it.

We've heard all the reasons why some people would like to see it legalized:

  • It's a great pain medicine, and people suffering severe physical hardships should have legal access to it.

  • Legalizing marijuana could immediately wipe out a lot of drug-related crime, from human trafficking to illegal immigration to inner-city gang wars.

  • Legalizing pot means you can tax it, which could provide a lucrative revenue stream for taxing authorities.
We've also heard all the reasons why some people say it should never be legalized:

  • Marijuana isn't the only pain medicine out there. Why use a narcotic when we have legal drugs that have been clinically tested?

  • Legal access to marijuana won't cure the physical damage it causes in the health, earning potential, and longevity of its users.

  • Latin American drug cartels aren't going to simply close-up shop if marijuana is de-criminalized in the United States. They'll just move on to something else so they can preserve the empires they've built with other peoples' blood.

In a way, I'm rather amazed that the talk of legalizing marijuana continues to surface in our social dialog. The valedictorian of my high school class back in the 80's was advocating for the decriminalization of pot, and it was already an old idea at the time. Some First World countries and a few states have approved medical marijuana, although widespread acceptance of the drug still seems more the stuff of juvenile dreams and frat boy jokes than anything else.

Then again, we Americans have become so jaded by duplicitous politicians and their reasons for supporting or opposing legalization, talk of making marijuana legal sounds more like a pipedream (pardon the pun) than legitimate legislation. We hear contradictory scientific studies on the merits and disadvantages of marijuana, and a lot of myths on both sides of the argument masquerade as fact. Even our own increasing ambivalence towards morality in general encourages advocates for legalization to live in hope that one of these days, Americans will simply give in.

But what are the facts about marijuana? As it turns out, reality is a bit more murky than both sides care to admit.

  • It is not considered particularly addictive. Depending on a variety of factors, including frequency of use, dosage, and ancillary drug use like alcohol, between 9 and 10 percent of users develop a clinical addiction over time.

  • Doctors and scientists suspect that it causes some health problems, can harm the fetus if a pregnant woman uses it, and can lower worker productivity, but nobody can say whether marijuana use itself is the culprit, or other factors which can actually precipitate marijuana use.

  • Psychologically, marijuana can become a crutch, masking other problems and distorting one's ability to deal effectively with stressful or complicated situations.

  • Virtually everybody agrees that it alters the user's awareness, which makes pot as dangerous as alcohol for drivers, pilots, and other people who need to keep a clear head.

Maybe now you can see why the issue isn't as clear-cut as many people on both sides of the issue would like it to be.

What strikes me most about this topic, however, is how similar marijuana sounds to alcohol. Try to find a reputable source on the Internet which doesn't admit that marijuana consumed sporadically, by adults, in small doses, without other mood-altering drugs, causes more problems than the same type of alcohol consumption. If alcohol didn't enjoy the widespread social acclaim that it does, would we be having the same debates over beer and wine that we're having over marijuana?

By way of full disclosure, perhaps I should inform people who don't regularly read my blog that I don't drink. Maybe this makes it easier for me to imagine a world in which alcohol, a conventional drug, and marijuana, a drug with a bad reputation, can be compared. I'm sure most people at their country club's bar right now would consider me insane for even suggesting their gin & tonic or imported beer has the potential of inflicting the same type of damage we suspect marijuana of being capable of.

Nevertheless, doesn't it make sense that the apparent reality of marijuana's similar affects on consumers as alcohol plays a greater role in the discussion of marijuana's legalization? Why has alcohol enjoyed virtually a universally-cheered position in cultures the world over, while marijuana - which carries the same dangers and, frankly, quite similar pleasures - has been stigmatized as illicit?

If it's simple ignorance as to the similarity between marijuana and alcohol, then maybe, if society continues to frown on pot, we need to call the proverbial kettle black, too. Shouldn't we need to re-visit how harmful alcohol can be to our society? And whether or not we really benefit from having multinational conglomerates peddling all sorts of libations to people who need to keep a clear head?

Of course, if society decides that marijuana is harmless and should be legalized, then what does that say about our willingness to tolerate people driving under intoxicating influences, people getting hooked on substances that can distort their ability to function in the workplace, and people who need artificial crutches to cope with interpersonal relationships?

After all, we already have enough of those types of people with legal alcohol. And look how much good it's doing us.

And them.
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