Take a couple of deep breaths and then read this closely: it isn’t dangerous to use marijuana.

July 5, 2008 | By | 28 Replies More

It is awkward for me to argue that adults have the right to smoke marijuana. Whenever I make this argument, I suspect that people think that my arguments constitute a thin and self-serving façade for my own personal desire to smoke marijuana.

I have never smoked marijuana, though, and have never desired to do so, even though I worked as a rock musician in the 70’s. I don’t know why I have never desired to use marijuana or any other street drug. Maybe it’s because I fear the loss of “control”—life is already a bit out of control, it seems. Perhaps I have been cowed by the existence of criminal laws prohibiting possession of even possession of small amounts. Nor do I smoke or drink. I try to find my personal high through things like talking with friends, exercising and by exploring ideas.

When discussing the potential legalization of drugs, personal prejudice and flimsy anecdotes have a way of driving the conversation. That’s why I wanted to say a few things about my own attitudes toward marijuana before preceding.

This topic of the illegality of marijuana arose at a gathering of acquaintances yesterday. For those opposed to legalizing marijuana I suspect that their main argument was that marijuana use is morally wrong. In “mixed company” (involving people for and against criminalization of marijuana), this moralistic argument is left unarticulated, however, because it is a rare day when a simple claim that something is “immoral” convinces anyone of anything. In such gatherings, then, “health” arguments often serve as proxies for this unspoken bigger battle. For instance, in my experience, conservatives embellish the health risks of marijuana to justify their moral concerns in the same way that they embellish the health risks of abortion (the claim is that “abortion increases the risk of cancer”) to justify their moral concerns in that area.

What’s ironic is that so many people who oppose the legalization of marijuana based on “health” arguments would NEVER refer to the much more serious health concerns pertaining to tobacco and alcohol to argue for criminalization of tobacco or alcohol. So it’s not really about heath issues, right? In fact, many of the people who want to keep marijuana criminalized personally use, if not abuse, tobacco and alcohol (including using alcohol to an excess) as do many of their friends and family members. We wouldn’t want to make criminals out of my good friend Bob or my Aunt Mary, would we?

Conservatives hammer the “health” issues in an attempt to drive a clear wedge between marijuana and those legal mind-altering drugs. They argue that marijuana is dramatically different than legal drugs and that this difference justifies turning marijuana users into criminals. I find it interesting that conservatives use this same tactic to concoct a wedge between human animals and all of the other animals in an effort to find a special place for humans, in an effort to lambaste scientific findings based on biological evolution.

I do want to engage in one more digression . . . . It is astounding to me that conservative churches raise huge alarms regarding the use of illegal drugs but often say nothing about legal mind-altering drugs. Consider this quote by Tim Wu:

Over the last two decades, the pharmaceutical industry has developed a full set of substitutes for just about every illegal narcotic we have.

It would seem, then that obedience to authority is a big factor in why many conservatives oppose drugs. Obedience is one of the well-documented pillars of conservative morality. Haidt’s approach dovetails with George Lakoff’s conclusions that the government metaphorically serves as a “strict father” to conservatives. This invites a chicken and egg issue. Is marijuana “bad” because the government says that it’s bad, or is it just “bad” and the government just recognizes this “truth?” The bottom line is that the government is certainly on board that marijuana is “bad,” and Wu/Haidt/Lakoff have given us reason to suspect that conservatives latch onto that government position to justify their own moral views. I suspect that this is exactly what is happening with regard to marijuana. The anti-marijuana folks are holding themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Now, back to my gathering of acquaintances. During our conversation, I heard from a proud conservative that marijuana should remain illegal because it is a gateway drug. However, tobacco has been well documented as a far superior gateway drug. I didn’t hear any of the anti-marijuana folks say anything about criminalizing that famous gateway drug, tobacco, so I was not convinced that this gateway “reason” to keep marijuana criminalized was genuine.

At the gathering, I also heard an argument that was new to me. I heard that people shouldn’t smoke because smoking marijuana “causes cancer.” I wasn’t aware that there was ever any solid evidence to support this claim. After hearing this claim yesterday, I did a bit of research. The evidence is overwhelming that there is no link between smoking pot and lung cancer (and see here). Nor does there appear to be any link between pot smoking and oral cancer.

Prior to yesterday’s discussion, I believed that the physical dangers of smoking marijuana were minimal, except for the danger of a police officer kicking down your door, at which point you would be called a criminal and then hauled away from your family and job, potentially for years. My belief was correct. There is almost no danger to the occasional use of marijuana. BTW, if you’re trying to find solid information on this topic, you’ll need to wade through dozens of sites that are merely advocacy groups that base their claims on anecdotes and personal prejudice. Here are a few sites that appeared to be relatively grounded in real data (and here and here).

For me, making marijuana available to medical patients is an even more compelling moral issue that far outweighs the risks of abuse. Here’s an organization that convincingly advocates for the availability of marijuana for pain relief by prescription. And check out this video featuring Drew Carey regarding the need/benefits of medical marijuana.

Is smoking marijuana a good thing? I’m not inclined to say yes anymore than I’m inclined to say that watching commercial television is a good thing. I certainly don’t like the image of people in responsible positions slacking off smoking lots of dope. For instance, I would be outraged if a surgeon was high while she operated on a patient. On the other hand I’m well away that many people have the urge to self-medicate using marijuana and that doing so brings them some peace of mind in our hectic and crazy world. To me, using marijuana is the moral equivalent of having a stiff alcoholic drink. It is also the equivalent of calling your doctor to get a prescription for anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs. Again, I don’t hear conservatives arguing that we ought to criminalize mind-altering prescription drugs.

I don’t want my children to get hooked on marijuana. I’m trying to teach them to make good choices regarding marijuana as well as good choices regarding dozens of other things (for instance, I don’t want them to become bigots or materialists or self-centered). If I raise them well, they will learn to make good decisions in all of these areas.

Criminalizing marijuana sends two messages. It says that marijuana is bad, which seems to be a strongly articulated position that is lacking in evidence. It also sends another darker message: it says that we can’t trust people to make good decisions. It’s an especially strange message to send, given the easily availability of marijuana, despite the expensive “War on Drugs” that is being waged by our government.

The main reason that I would decriminalize marijuana use by adults is that our non-ending “War on Drugs” is an utter disaster. What this “war” is doing to decent citizens is immoral and disgraceful. The drain on the economy is horrific. We arrest one American every 38 seconds on marijuana charges. It is utterly shameful what we are doing as a nation:

The FBI reported Saturday that the number of arrests for violations of the marijuana laws hit an all-time high of 755,186 in 2003. Despite a decade of marijuana law reforms and protestations by police chiefs across the land that marijuana is not a priority, that figure is nearly double the number of people arrested for pot in 1993. The number of people arrested on marijuana charges last year also exceeds the number arrested for violent crimes by more than 150,000.

With only a couple of hiccups, the number of people arrested on marijuana charges has trended steadily upward in the past decade, no matter which party controls the levers of government. The previous peak of 735,500 was recorded in 2000, with 724,000 arrested in 2001 and 697,000 in 2002.

To illustrate the scope of the problem, the number of those arrested for marijuana is more than the entire population of the state of South Dakota (pop. 754,844).

Here’s another informative link describing the disaster many people call “The War on Drugs”

With this information now at your fingertips, you can now do your own cost-benefit analysis. Think about it. Send this link to other people who might be interested in discussing this important issue.


Reason‘s Jacob Sullum, reviewing a recent report by the World Health Organization, indicates that it is naive to conclude that criminalization will reduce drug use.

[I]t’s striking that the lifetime marijuana use rate in the U.S. (42.4 percent) is more than twice as high as the rate in the Netherlands (19.8 percent), despite the latter country’s famously (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) tolerant cannabis policies. The difference for lifetime cocaine use is even bigger: The U.S. rate (16.2 percent) is eight times the Dutch rate (1.9 percent). Do these results mean that draconian drug laws promote drug use, while a relatively laid-back approach discourages it? Not necessarily; that would be a hell of a “forbidden fruit” effect. But one thing that’s clear is the point made by the WHO researchers: Drug use “is not simply related to drug policy.” If tinkering with drug policy (within the context of prohibition) has an impact, it is hard to discern, and it’s small compared to the influence of culture and economics.


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Health, law and order, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (28)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta:

    I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.

    Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”

    They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works. Take the case of Charlotte Figi, who I met in Colorado. She started having seizures soon after birth. By age 3, she was having 300 a week, despite being on seven different medications. Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to 2 or 3 per month.

    We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.


  2. Mike M. says:

    Erich – I am skeptical of Sanjay Gupta’s motivation behind his sudden about-face about marijuana as medicine. Call me a cynic, but could it be that Gupta has taken careful measure of the prevailing winds of current culture and thrown his support behind medical marijuana simply because he sees it now as a safe (if not wise) stance to take career-wise?
    I suspect he’s known all along about the benefits and benign effects of pot, but to declare it years ago may have been politically incorrect career suicide. He seems like a smart guy, but concern about his own image may be the main consideration behind his public proclamations. Smells bandwagonesque to me.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mike: I think you are spot on. His epiphany is long overdue based on information available for many years. The only thing that is new is that society is starting to question to wisdom of throwing hundreds of thousands of Americans in cuff just for trying to feel good, a feeling that has been legal all along, only if they used the substances peddled by Big Pharma or makers of alcohol. I don’t know why rational arguments are starting to work these days, but they are.

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