Poor old Robert Mitchum – google him – must now be spinning in his grave as the long-running battle on the evils of marijuana seems to be coming to an end in what will be the latest victory for US common sense. Nice one Messrs Maher, McConaughey, Harrelson et al!
By Martin A Lee
The rise in marijuana’s popularity among American youth since the late 1960s coincided with a surge in diagnosed cases of Attention Deficit Disorder and its hyperactive variant, ADHD, a condition that Dr. Tom O’Connell likened to a “pediatric anxiety syndrome.” A retired thoracic surgeon and former captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, O’Connell had treated hundreds of wounded American soldiers during the Vietnam War. He came out of retirement in 2000 and began seeing medical-cannabis applicants in Oakland. Over the years, he would compile a database and analyze usage patterns of six thousand patients. His findings would challenge both prohibitionists and drug-policy reformers who concurred that reefer ought to be a no-no for under-twenty-one-year-olds. “Each side in the modern pot debate is wedded to its own fairytale,” O’Connell blogged. He bemoaned that reform leaders “were nearly as clueless as the Feds—and equally susceptible to doctrinaire thinking when it comes to adolescent drug initiation and usage.”
Why do some young people who experiment with cannabis become daily users? Are their claims of medical use credible? Dr. O’Connell found that the vast majority of medical-marijuana applicants were already chronic users before they walked through the door of the dispensary. (People who try marijuana and have an unpleasant experience generally don’t go to physicians for letters of recommendation.) The everyday smokers he interviewed usually had similar medical and social histories. O’Connell determined that the main reason young people smoke pot on a regular basis is because it is a safe and effective way to relieve anxiety and other mood disorders associated with insecurity and low self-esteem. Repetitive drug use usually entails a more serious purpose than mere recreation, according to O’Connell, who maintains that since the 1960s young Americans have embraced marijuana en masse to assuage the same emotional symptoms “that made anxiolytics, mood stabilizers and antidepressants Big Pharma’s most lucrative products.” “The need to self-medicate symptoms of adolescent angst is much more important than simple youthful hedonism,” O’Connell concluded. For America’s youth, cannabis was like catnip for a cat, a poorly under- stood but nonetheless efficient herbal means of navigating the ambient anxiety and frenetic complexity of modern life. The emergence of marijuana as the anxiolytic drug of choice and its durable popularity among tense teens and anxious adults made sense in light of scientific research that has documented the stress-buffering function of the endocannabinoid system.
Whereas activation of the body’s innate stress response (“fight or flight”) is essential for responding and adapting to acute survival threats, too much stress can damage an organism in the long run by depleting endocannabinoid tone. A compromised endocannabinoid system sets the stage for a myriad of disease symptoms and ups the risk of premature death. Chronically elevated stress levels boost anxiety and significantly hasten the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Emotional stress has been shown to accelerate the spread of cancer. Stress alters how we assimilate fats.
On a cellular level, stress is the body’s response to any change that creates a physiological demand on it. When a person is stressed, the brain generates cortisol and other steroid hormones, which, in turn, trigger the release of naturally occurring marijuana-like compounds (anandamide and 2-AG) in the human brain and body. These endogenous cannabinoids bind to primordial cell receptors that restore homeostasis by down-regulating the production of stress hormones. Marijuana, an herbal adaptogen, essentially does the same thing.
Twenty-first-century children are under assault from an unprecedented array of debilitating stressors, including junk food, electromagnetic radiation, information overload, and a noxious swill of eighty thousand unregulated synthetic chemicals, which wreak havoc on metabolism and brain development. The cumulative effect can be seen in skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, ADHD, autism, hypertension, depression, and strokes among adolescents. For all the talk about protecting the children, kids haven’t been faring very well in America. Among twenty developed nations, the United States and Great Britain ranked as the two worst places to be a child, according to a 2007 UNICEF study that assessed six criteria: material well-being, health, education,
relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people’s own sense of happiness. Economic inequality is socially divisive, emotionally stressful, and hugely damaging in terms of health outcomes, especially for the poor, who comprise 50 percent of the population in early twenty-first-century America. Massive in- equalities disgrace and sicken the United States. Extensive research has shown that health and social problems by almost every measure—from mental and physical illness to violence and drug abuse—are more prevalent in countries with large income disparities. With millions of stressed-out teens smoking pot, some parents are apt to at- tribute their children’s problems to marijuana’s malevolent influence. The adult temptation to blame the weed is reinforced by public officials who continually inflate the dangers and deny the benefits of cannabis. But U.S. authorities have long since forfeited any claim to credibility with respect to marijuana. The facts, meanwhile, speak for themselves: Carcinogens in our food, water, and air are legal; cannabis is not.
Marijuana prohibition is symptomatic of a deep cultural pathology. Its persistence as government policy is indicative of a body politic with a failing immune system, a society unable to heal itself. There is no moral justification for a policy that criminalizes people for trying to relieve their suffering. Reefer madness has nothing to do with smoking marijuana—for therapy or fun or any other reason—and everything to do with how the U.S. government has stigmatized, prosecuted, and jailed users of this much maligned and much venerated plant. Although men and women in many cultures have used cannabis for thousands of years, U.S. legislators and their international counterparts did not impose a global prohibitionist regime until well into the twentieth century. The first antimarijuana laws in the United States were primarily a racist reaction against Mexican migrants. Two decades after the federal government banned marijuana, the Beat writers introduced the jazz cat’s herb to Middle America, where cannabis tinctures and rubbing ointments were once widely available for multiple clinical indications. Adopted as a safe, effective, and medically unsupervised anxiolytic by millions of Baby Boomers during the 1960s, marijuana became the central focus of a deceitful and disastrous war on drugs launched by a Machiavellian president. The drug war that Nixon set in motion would escalate and metastasize under Reagan and his Oval Office successors.
Marijuana legalization has long been a “big tent” issue that galvanized activist energy on the left and the right, from antiglobalization protestors to free-market capitalists. The social movement that coalesced around cannabis contained components with opposite characteristics. The turf was fertile for strange bedfellows—pro-pot liberals embracing states’ rights, conservative libertarians begging for government regulation, ganja growers consorting with ex-cops, all united by their opposition to the federal government’s hyperbolic crusade against marijuana, the cheap hippie high that spurred America’s leading growth industry.
Recent demographic trends favor marijuana legalization. Nationwide polls consistently find that a huge majority of Americans think medical marijuana should be legal and that the war on drugs has been a failure. And more than half of adults surveyed support the legalization of marijuana for personal use. Younger voters were more in favor of ending pot prohibition than other age groups. The notion that weed should be regulated like wine is obvious to a growing number of folks who recognized that when it comes to marijuana, the public has been bamboozled on a grand scale. They understand that it’s irrational and hypocritical for the federal government to subsidize alcohol, tobacco, and dangerous pharmaceuticals, while prohibiting cannabis, “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man,” in the memorable words of DEA administrative law judge, Francis Young.
How long could a society endure such a venal and dishonest policy? For more than thirty years, the federal government has been dispensing government-grown reefer to a handful of medical-necessity patients, while the DEA, FDA, and NIDA pretend that marijuana lacks therapeutic value. Riddled with contradictions, federal policy ranks Schedule I cannabis as more dangerous than Schedule II crack cocaine. It makes no sense. Why is it legal for a drug company to sell THC (marijuana’s psychoactive component), but it’s not legal to get the very same compound by growing a plant in your own garden? What’s up with that? To ponder the history of marijuana in America is to embark upon a political landscape so illogical as to be perverse, a world where facts and votes don’t count and common sense is ignored, a world so full of paradox and doublespeak that you might need to smoke some of the good stuff just to wrap your mind around it all.
Martin A. Lee is the author of Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific, winner of the American Botanical Council’s James A. Duke Award for Excellence in Botanical Literature.