Weed Whackers: The Anti-Marijuana Forces, and Why They're Wrong

Rarely do trial balloons burst so quickly. During the recent British campaign, Tory shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe had no sooner proposed tougher penalties for marijuana possession than a third of her fellow Tory shadow-cabinet ministers admitted to past marijuana use. Widdecome immediately had to back off. The controversy reflected a split in the party, with the confessors attempting to embarrass Widdecombe politically. But something deeper was at work as well: a nascent attempt to reckon honestly with a drug that has been widely used by baby boomers and their generational successors, a tentative step toward a squaring by the political class of its personal experience with the drastic government rhetoric and policies regarding marijuana.

The American debate hasn't yet reached such a juncture, even though last year's presidential campaign featured one candidate who pointedly refused to answer questions about his past drug use and another who -- according to Gore biographer Bill Turque -- spent much of his young adulthood smoking dope and skipping through fields of clover (and still managed to become one of the most notoriously uptight and ambitious politicians in the country). In recent years, the debate over marijuana policy has centered on the question of whether the drug should be available for medicinal purposes (Richard Brookhiser has written eloquently in NR on the topic). Drug warriors call medical marijuana the camel's nose under the tent for legalization, and so -- for many of its advocates -- it is. Both sides in the medical-marijuana controversy have ulterior motives, which suggests it may be time to stop debating the nose and move on to the full camel.

Already, there has been some action. About a dozen states have passed medical-marijuana laws in recent years, and California voters, last November, approved Proposition 36, mandating treatment instead of criminal penalties for all first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders. Proponents of the initiative plan to export it to Ohio, Michigan, and Florida next year. Most such liberalization measures fare well at the polls -- California's passed with 61 percent of the vote -- as long as they aren't perceived as going too far. Loosen, but don't legalize, seems to be the general public attitude, even as almost every politician still fears departing from Bill Bennett orthodoxy on the issue. But listen carefully to the drug warriors, and you can hear some of them quietly reading marijuana out of the drug war. James Q. Wilson, for instance, perhaps the nation's most convincing advocate for drug prohibition, is careful to set marijuana aside from his arguments about the potentially ruinous effects of legalizing drugs.

There is good reason for this, since it makes little sense to send people to jail for using a drug that, in terms of its harmfulness, should be categorized somewhere between alcohol and tobacco on one hand and caffeine on the other. According to common estimates, alcohol and tobacco kill hundreds of thousands of people a year. In contrast, there is as a practical matter no such thing as a lethal overdose of marijuana. Yet federal law makes possessing a single joint punishable by up to a year in prison, and many states have similar penalties. There are about 700,000 marijuana arrests in the United States every year, roughly 80 percent for possession. Drug warriors have a strange relationship with these laws: They dispute the idea that anyone ever actually goes to prison for mere possession, but at the same time resist any suggestion that laws providing for exactly that should be struck from the books. So, in the end, one of the drug warriors' strongest arguments is that the laws they favor aren't enforced -- we're all liberalizers now.

Gateway to Nowhere

There has, of course, been a barrage of government-sponsored anti-marijuana propaganda over the last two decades, but the essential facts are clear: Marijuana is widely used, and for the vast majority of its users is nearly harmless and represents a temporary experiment or enthusiasm. A 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine -- a highly credible outfit that is part of the National Academy of Sciences -- found that "in 1996, 68.6 million people -- 32 percent of the U.S. population over 12 years old -- had tried marijuana or hashish at least once in their lifetime, but only 5 percent were current users." The academic literature talks of "maturing out" of marijuana use the same way college kids grow out of backpacks and Nietzsche. Most marijuana users are between the ages of 18 and 25, and use plummets after age 34, by which time children and mortgages have blunted the appeal of rolling paper and bongs. Authors Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter -- drug-war skeptics, but cautious ones -- point out in their new book Drug War Heresies that "among 26 to 34 year olds who had used the drug daily sometime in their life in 1994, only 22 percent reported that they had used it in the past year."

Marijuana prohibitionists have, for a long time, had trouble maintaining that marijuana itself is dangerous, so they instead have relied on a bank shot --marijuana's danger is that it leads to the use of drugs that are actually dangerous. This is a way to shovel all the effects of heroin and cocaine onto marijuana, a kind of drug-war McCarthyism. It is called the "gateway theory," and has been so thoroughly discredited that it is still dusted off only by the most tendentious of drug warriors. The theory's difficulty begins with a simple fact: Most people who use marijuana, even those who use it with moderate frequency, don't go on to use any other illegal drug. According the Institute of Medicine report, "Of 34 to 35 year old men who had used marijuana 10–99 times by the age 24–25, 75 percent never used any other illicit drug." As Lynn Zimmer and John Morgan point out in their exhaustive book Marijuana Myths/Marijuana Facts, the rates of use of hard drugs have more to do with their fashionability than their connection to marijuana. In 1986, near the peak of the cocaine epidemic, 33 percent of high-school seniors who had used marijuana also had tried cocaine, but by 1994 only 14 percent of marijuana users had gone on to use cocaine.

Then, there is the basic faulty reasoning behind the gateway theory. Since marijuana is the most widely available and least dangerous illegal drug, it makes sense that people inclined to use other harder-to-find drugs will start with it first -- but this tells us little or nothing about marijuana itself or about most of its users. It confuses temporality with causality. Because a cocaine addict used marijuana first doesn't mean he is on cocaine because he smoked marijuana (again, as a factual matter this hypothetical is extremely rare -- about one in 100 marijuana users becomes a regular user of cocaine). Drug warriors recently have tried to argue that research showing that marijuana acts on the brain in a way vaguely similar to cocaine and heroin -- plugging into the same receptors -- proves that it somehow "primes" the brain for harder drugs. But alcohol has roughly the same action, and no one argues that Budweiser creates heroin addicts. "There is no evidence," says the Institute of Medicine study, "that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular physiological effect."

The relationship between drugs and troubled teens appears to be the opposite of that posited by drug warriors -- the trouble comes first, then the drugs (or, in other words, it's the kid, not the substance, who is the problem). The Institute of Medicine reports that "it is more likely that conduct disorders generally lead to substance abuse than the reverse." The British medical journal Lancet -- in a long, careful consideration of the marijuana literature -- explains that heavy marijuana use is associated with leaving high school and having trouble getting a job, but that this association wanes "when statistical adjustments are made for the fact that, compared with their peers, heavy cannabis users have poor high-school performance before using cannabis." (And, remember, this is heavy use: "adolescents who casually experiment with cannabis," according to MacCoun and Reuter, "appear to function quite well with respect to schooling and mental health.") In the same way problem kids are attracted to illegal drugs, they are drawn to alcohol and tobacco. One study found that teenage boys who smoke cigarettes daily are about ten times likelier to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder than non-smoking teenage boys. By the drug warrior's logic, this means that tobacco causes mental illness.

Another arrow in the drug warriors' quiver is the number of people being treated for marijuana: If the drug is so innocuous, why do they seek, or need, treatment? Drug warriors cite figures that say that roughly 100,000 people enter drug-treatment programs every year primarily for marijuana use. But often, the punishment for getting busted for marijuana possession is treatment. According to one government study, in 1998 54 percent of people in state-run treatment programs for marijuana were sent there by the criminal-justice system. So, there is a circularity here: The drug war mandates marijuana treatment, then its advocates point to the fact of that treatment to justify the drug war. Also, people who test positive in employment urine tests often have to get treatment to keep their jobs, and panicked parents will often deliver their marijuana-smoking sons and daughters to treatment programs. This is not to deny that there is such a thing as marijuana dependence. According to The Lancet, "About one in ten of those who ever use cannabis become dependent on it at some time during their 4 or 5 years of heaviest use."

But it is important to realize that dependence on marijuana -- apparently a relatively mild psychological phenomenon -- is entirely different from dependence on cocaine and heroin. Marijuana isn't particularly addictive. One key indicator of the addictiveness of other drugs is that lab rats will self-administer them. Rats simply won't self-administer THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Two researchers in 1991 studied the addictiveness of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Both ranked caffeine and marijuana as the least addictive. One gave the two drugs identical scores and another ranked marijuana as slightly less addicting than caffeine. A 1991 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report to Congress states: "Given the large population of marijuana users and the infrequent reports of medical problems from stopping use, tolerance and dependence are not major issues at present." Indeed, no one is quite sure what marijuana treatment exactly is. As MacCoun and Reuter write, "Severity of addiction is modest enough that there is scarcely any research on treatment of marijuana dependence."

None of this is to say that marijuana is totally harmless. There is at least a little truth to the stereotype of the Cheech & Chong "stoner." Long-term heavy marijuana use doesn't, in the words of The Lancet, "produce the severe or grossly debilitating impairment of memory, attention, and cognitive function that is found with chronic heavy alcohol use," but it can impair cognitive functioning nonetheless: "These impairments are subtle, so it remains unclear how important they are for everyday functioning, and whether they are reversed after an extended period of abstinence." This, then, is the bottom-line harm of marijuana to its users: A small minority of people who smoke it may -- by choice, as much as any addictive compulsion -- eventually smoke enough of it for a long enough period of time to suffer impairments so subtle that they may not affect everyday functioning or be permanent. Arresting, let alone jailing, people for using such a drug seems outrageously disproportionate, which is why drug warriors are always so eager to deny that anyone ever goes to prison for it.

Fighting the Brezhnev Doctrine

In this contention, the drug warriors are largely right. The fact is that the current regime is really only a half-step away from decriminalization. And despite all the heated rhetoric of the drug war, on marijuana there is a quasi-consensus: Legalizers think that marijuana laws shouldn't be on the books; prohibitionists think, in effect, that they shouldn't be enforced. A reasonable compromise would be a version of the Dutch model of decriminalization, removing criminal penalties for personal use of marijuana, but keeping the prohibition on street-trafficking and mass cultivation. Under such a scenario, laws for tobacco -- an unhealthy drug that is quite addictive -- and for marijuana would be heading toward a sort of middle ground, a regulatory regime that controls and discourages use but doesn't enlist law enforcement in that cause. MacCoun and Reuter have concluded from the experience of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the Netherlands, twelve American states in the 1970s, and parts of Australia that "the available evidence suggests that simply removing the prohibition against possession does not increase cannabis use."

Drug warriors, of course, will have none of it. They support a drug-war Brezhnev doctrine under which no drug-war excess can ever be turned back -- once a harsh law is on the books for marijuana possession, there it must remain lest the wrong "signal" be sent. "Drug use," as Bill Bennett has said, "is dangerous and immoral." But for the overwhelming majority of its users marijuana is not the least bit dangerous. (Marijuana's chief potential danger to others -- its users driving while high -- should, needless to say, continue to be treated as harshly as drunk driving.) As for the immorality of marijuana's use, it generally is immoral to break the law. But this is just another drug-war circularity: The marijuana laws create the occasion for this particular immorality. If it is on the basis of its effect -- namely, intoxication -- that Bennett considers marijuana immoral, then he has to explain why it's different from drunkenness, and why this particular sense of well-being should be banned in an America that is now the great mood-altering nation, with millions of people on Prozac and other drugs meant primarily to make them feel good.

In the end, marijuana prohibition basically relies on cultural prejudice. This is no small thing. Cultural prejudices are important. Alcohol and tobacco are woven into the very fabric of America. Marijuana doesn't have the equivalent of, say, the "brewer-patriot" Samuel Adams (its enthusiasts try to enlist George Washington, but he grew hemp instead of smoking it). Marijuana is an Eastern drug, and importantly for conservatives, many of its advocates over the years have looked and thought like Allen Ginsberg. But that isn't much of an argument for keeping it illegal, and if marijuana started out culturally alien, it certainly isn't anymore. No wonder drug warriors have to strain for medical and scientific reasons to justify its prohibition. But once all the misrepresentations and exaggerations are stripped away, the main pharmacological effect of marijuana is that it gets people high. Or as The Lancet puts it, "When used in a social setting, it may produce infectious laughter and talkativeness."

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