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Is There a Wrong Way to Smoke Pot?

As the country fitfully moves toward tolerance, how do we determine what constitutes abuse?


America is reconsidering marijuana.

But even as medical applications are recognized and Colorado and Washington roll out regulations for recreational use, the definition of “abuse” is still subject to debate. Until only a few years ago, any marijuana use was drug abuse. Refraining from pot was good. Using it was bad. Then, as medical marijuana gained recognition, users of marijuana ended up split into medical and recreational users, the worthy and the wayward, the legal and the criminal.

Even with medical use laws, many people believed that “green cards” — medical marijuana permits — were often being issued to fakers, people using medical-use laws as a cover for their recreational interest in marijuana. In many cases, the critics were right, but that doesn’t undermine the reality of marijuana’s medical applications. So, even when following the letter of the law, users are still split into the good and bad, the deserving and those taking advantage of the new medical-use laws. Not only were bad people abusing the “drug,” they were abusing the law.

But, as marijuana’s legal status changes, should the framework for what constitutes “abuse” change, too?  Is a recreational user of marijuana like the social drinker, using not abusing, indulging a vice but not committing a crime? Advocates of marijuana legalization often, on one hand, point out that the negative social impacts of alcohol are far worse than those of marijuana, which are barely detectable outside of use by minors. Yet, when looking to regulate marijuana use, laws and systems governing alcohol use remain a basic framework for what legalized marijuana laws should look like. The pharmaceutical industry is the other framework.

Pharmaceuticalization under medical use and/or handing marijuana to the vice industry are paths that integrate marijuana into the culture and society with limited threat to the status quo. Both categories already fit into the cultural paradigm. But the attempt to fit marijuana into one of these categories may interfere with our capacity to properly regulate it, which is what has occurred under its current misclassification as a schedule 1 drug.

Marijuana does not “fit in” as tidily as sound bites and political messaging require. Marijuana can act as a medicine, but it is not a pharmaceutical. Marijuana is an herb, yet its psychoactive effects set it apart from willow bark or Echinacea. And it is fundamentally different from alcohol in its personal and social impact, even when used in excess.


Our brains are habituated to compare and contrast, to try to figure out what something is by finding familiar reference points. So far, the best analogy for marijuana seems to be the wine industry, which involves botanist artistry and consumers who run the gamut from winos to the a-glass-with-dinner crowd; both products invite connoisseurship. But even that analogy is about the market, not the product.

Whether seeking legitimization by association or a template for regulation, it’s perfectly sensible to use a market model from another product or industry. Often, a single dimension of a story or thing is used as a fractal to represent the bigger picture. But it is also the case that a single dimension of a story or thing can misrepresent its true nature.

Just as it’s not yet possible to pinpoint marijuana’s place in consumer society, we don’t yet know who is abusing it as it approaches legalization. So, taking for granted that any use by minors is undesirable, who are the marijuana abusers now? One might think first about the stereotype of the stoner on the couch, doing little and wanting less — other than to get more stoned? However, as the Marijuana Policy Project’s recent  list of influential people who use or have used marijuana shows, marijuana itself doesn’t produce apathy or take away a person’s will. However, it can make the loss of that will more comfortable. Using marijuana for such reasons won’t earn anyone a merit badge, but is that really recreational use?

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