Brian L. Grant MD
This is a fascinating article on a number of levels. The comments by readers as well as the article are illuminating. I come to it as a person who came of age in the 70s, trained in psychiatry and reside in Washington State. I also have an interest in medical anthropology which among other issues looks at cross-cultural health care systems and beliefs. Finally, I have a strong interest in medical politics and economics which are major drivers of policy and practice in US Healthcare.
Washington State is one where medical marijuana (cannabis) is legal and recreational marijuana will be legal in July with a rigorous permitting and taxation system. In observing the medical marijuana “industry” and practice in Washington, what has been clear is that it is a parallel system whereby anyone can obtain a prescription for medical marijuana and that a tiny minority have the sorts of diagnoses such as glaucoma, terminal pain, cancer, and the like that were invoked to justify medical marijuana in the first place. Furthermore, given the wide array of symptoms that may be “helped” by medical marijuana, most of which are subjective, such as pain and anxiety – there is not a person reading this post who could not receive authorization if they so choose. The dispensaries that provide pot use nice euphemisms such as “medicine” to describe cannabis, and “donations” as what one pays to receive their medicine. Whether one can obtain marijuana while declining a donation is not clear.
So in my view, medical marijuana at least in principle, if not in practice, is by and large a sham. It makes liars out of decent people who want to get high, have a good time, harm nobody in most cases, and perhaps relieve some real symptoms. Similarly, it promotes disingenuous behavior on the part of practitioners who prescribe it, some of whom are true believers, but all of whom are paid good money to write a script often based upon one visit with someone they will never see again.
Therefore, with reasonable reservations and concerns, one should be pleased to see marijuana become legal for recreational use. Like alcohol, which was touted during prohibition as having medicinal value as a way to access whiskey and other drinks and more, read here and here), marijuana as a medical substance has by and large been a back door to access by those who want to smoke it for its mood altering attributes.
There are many similarities between alcohol and marijuana. Both are substances that can alter one’s thinking and are psychoactive. Both can be sources of enjoyment and conviviality and both can and do cause harm. One is by and large legal and the other not and therein lies the problem. If we as a society wish to ban all substances and behaviors with potential for harm, the list would be long, not end with alcohol, and would certainly start with tobacco and include excessive caloric consumption and other quite legal and common substances. Unlike alcohol, or increasingly prescribed opiates, marijuana has little propensity for physical addiction and tolerance.
Relatively speaking, the end organ damage and aggressive behaviors that excess or chronic use of alcohol induce significantly outweigh the degree of harm seen in typical marijuana users. The numbers of those who use alcohol abusively with resulting damage to themselves or others is significant. Since marijuana use is generally defined as abuse per se, studies looking at actual damage from the use of marijuana need to focus on objective rather than regulatory criteria. Is marijuana harmless? Of course not. Dosages are imprecise as one smokes something with inconsistent intake and varying amounts of active THC. “Edibles” can be misused or accidentally fall into the hands of children. One can simply lack balance and overuse marijuana in lieu of more productive and useful activities, just as could happen with alcohol consumption. And the impact of smoking marijuana is of unknown concern as at least one study suggests that lung damage from typical use is not an issue.
Neither cannabis nor alcohol belong in the hands or mouths of children and make no mistake – increased access to either creates some collateral damage that non-use would avoid, just like opiates or the 70 MPH speed limit on the highways.
Interesting systemic questions include: What is the role of the health care system in deciding that it owns a portion of the human experience, or that something is a medical issue rather than a component of general life? What are the economics of the system and the impact of a substance like marijuana that can be easily grown and distributed outside of the pharmaceutical industry with no inherent barriers to entry other than access to sun or artificial light, soil, fertilizer, water and seed stock? Could there be an element of those in power wanting to maintain control of an income stream, resulting in criminalization, and restrictive regulations along with false or distorted claims of harm to control distribution and access?
Finally, what damage has flowed from criminality of cannabis? How many have died as a result of criminal and gang drug traffic? How many harmless individuals have been prosecuted and jailed for use or distribution of marijuana? How many of the judges, prosecutors, and jurors sitting in judgment on these defendants can with a straight face deny their own use of cannabis in their own lives at some point? What can we learn from countries like Holland where cannabis has long been legal?
We are about to embark on an experiment in Washington state, already started in Colorado, with legal recreational marijuana. The ultimate results remain to be seen. Whatever one’s personal views on legalization of cannabis, facts and data should inform both personal and government decisions on the policies and use of cannabis and other products. Unfortunately the subject is often polarized by advocates and opponents.