This Doctor Says 'Yes' on Legal Pot

On November 2nd California voters can take the first historic step toward reversing a 70-year-old mistake. Ending the war on marijuana is more than just an opportunity -- it is a civic responsibility. As a clinical psychiatrist, I see the social ills and psychological devastation that can result from all manner of substance abuse. But given marijuana's potential risks compared to those of alcohol, tobacco and harder drugs, and the failure of our drug policies, my conscience compels me to strongly support Proposition 19.

The national ban on marijuana was instituted with good intentions in the 1930s, based on exaggerated health concerns and fabricated stories of violent behavior under the influence. The reality? For most of my substance-abusing patients, I am far more concerned about their consumption of booze than pot. Put simply, cannabis resembles the legal drugs much more than the illegal ones, and all drugs are potentially harmful. Lest you think this is a fringe opinion, the great majority of physicians I know agree. Prove it to yourself by asking your doctor if he or she thinks pot is more or less of a public health concern than alcohol.

This is not to say that cannabis is innocuous. Pot smoke, like all smoke, contains irritants and carcinogens associated with combustion, and its use may pose some risks to the user -- such as dysphoria and impairment of concentration. But by and large the health effects associated with alcohol, which include pancreatitis, gastritis, cirrhosis, permanent dementia, and irreversible physiological dependence, are far more severe. In healthy but reckless teens and young adults, it is frighteningly easy to consume a lethal dose of alcohol, but it is almost impossible to do so with marijuana. Further, alcohol can severely impair judgment, which results in violence, risky sexual behavior, and greater concurrent use of hard drugs. As one blogger noted in an online debate: "Drunks tend to get loaded and grab the car keysStoners lock the door and call Papa John's"

Cannabis has long been maligned as a "gateway" to more serious drugs. That is not borne out in practice, except that buying marijuana on the black market often exposes consumers to dealers also pushing the hard stuff. In this way, the "gateway" argument is one in favor of legalization. Proposition 19, by treating marijuana like alcohol, could lead to a decrease in consumption of more dangerous drugs, because cannabis could be purchased at a liquor store with alcohol rather than on a street corner with heroin and crack.

Although the public health arguments are enough to justify the passage of Proposition 19, today's fiscal crises make it a no-brainer. Today, California and the nation spend billions on the enforcement of marijuana prohibition, with nothing to show for it but a legal system clogged with unlucky marijuana consumers. Pot use remains widespread. With the legalization of cannabis, the government could use a new marijuana "sin tax" to address more pressing economic problems. Hyperbolic rants about the evils of marijuana can give way to a more focused and realistic public education about its true risks, such as heavy use and subsequent loss of motivation among underage users at a critical phase of development.

Forget the antiquated dogma and judge marijuana prohibition on its own merits. If you still believe that cannabis should be illegal, then you must logically support the criminalization of alcohol and tobacco. If you agree that such an infringement on personal freedoms is impractical and un-American, then you must conclude that the only rational approach to cannabis is to legalize, control and tax it. On November 2nd, California can lead the nation forward by voting "Yes" on Proposition 19.


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