The Cultural Dichotomy: In Defense of Marijuana Legalization

Last week, Paul Ingrassia wrote an article reflecting upon the social impacts associated with the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. While he did acknowledge that there are numerous economic benefits resulting from legalization, even conceding that the war on drugs was a failure, he portends that cannabis is a threat to public health and safety. We would, however, be remiss to look at this as a debate on the economic, medical, or social benefits of marijuana. His opposition highlights a larger battle in the U.S., a cultural dichotomy between conservatives and liberals, two camps that are locked in a fight for the ownership of our national ethos.

With each successive year, an increasing number of Americans support the legalization of cannabis. A recent CBS poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans are in favor of legalization. In a Gallup poll from 2015, 43 percent of respondents indicated that they have smoked cannabis; 13 percent report that they smoke cannabis regularly. This upward trajectory of support is reflected not only in the polls, but also in the number of states that have legalized the plant, 26 as well as the District of Columbia. Despite the vitriolic attacks from those on the right, it is fair to say that cannabis is not going anywhere: it is an indelible part of our cultural narrative.

The anti-legalization propaganda, whether from educational institutions, advocacy groups, or the government, has inculcated the public with the notion that cannabis is detrimental to public health and thus should remain a schedule 1 drug. This debate has been at the forefront of public consciousness for the past forty years, and yet the actual science eludes many. Cannabis is comprised of over 100 cannabinoids; the preeminent psychoactive compound is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). There are endogenous chemicals in our brain, endocannabinoids, which are responsible for, “keeping our most critical biological functions in balance such as sleep, appetite, the immune system, pain and more.” THC is effective in alleviating chemical imbalances in our brain as it mirrors the effects of endocannabionoids, thus bringing our body back into homeostasis. Incidentally, cannabis, as a psychoactive drug, targets the pleasure circuits in the brain, which creates a cannabionoid induced increase in our dopamine levels. This elicits a multiplicity of physical and psychological effects such as feelings of euphoria, an altered temporal and spatial awareness, enhanced creativity, and intense introspection. There are, however, some side effects associated with smoking cannabis such as paranoia, anxiety, headaches, and cottonmouth; however, these effects are ephemeral, they are abated with time and do not exacerbate any existing conditions.

Cannabis is not limited solely to recreational usage, or abuse, as some conservatives would suggest: it is nature’s most effective medicine. The evidence is incontrovertible, there are myriad medical benefits associated with cannabis. It has been used to effectively mitigate the effects of PTSD, epilepsy, chronic pain, insomnia, arthritis, dementia; it can cause cancer to go into remission. Moreover, it has been used to relieve symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Given the potent medicinal properties of cannabis, it is perplexing as to why there is such intransigence by those on the right.

I will concede that there are some respiratory side effects associated with smoking cannabis (some that are similar to smoking tobacco), such as bronchitis; however, they do not pose any long term health issues. Notwithstanding the potential side effects, we would be remiss to conflate cannabis with tobacco. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year.” The Annals of the American Thoracic Societysays, “Habitual use of marijuana alone does not appear to lead to significant abnormalities in lung function.” The report continues: “findings…do not suggest an increased risk for the development of either lung or upper airway cancer from light or moderate use…” This is augmented by a report from the International Journal of Cancer: “the results from our pooled analyses provide little evidence for an increased risk of lung cancer among habitual or long-term cannabis smokers.” The preponderance of evidence suggests that cannabis does not pose any risk to our health; thus, it is difficult to give any intellectual respectability to those opposed to legalization. They are propagating a vacuous and inchoate argument.

Even with the evidence illuminating the benefits of marijuana, some continue to believe that it is inherently dangerous. Let’s review a few figures. In 2014 25,760 people died from overdosing on prescription drugs; 17,465 people died from overdosing on heroin and cocaine; and 30,700 died from complications resulting from the consumption of alcohol (not including auto accidents resulting from drunk driving). How many people died from ‘overdosing’ on cannabis? Zero! There has never been a reported case of an individual overdosing from cannabis. And yet conservatives ask us to subscribe to their narrative that cannabis is more dangerous than both alcohol and tobacco. This is unequivocally false; it is an argument grounded in scientific ignorance.

Ingrassia points out that in Colorado there has been an increase in the rate of auto accidents post legalization; however, whether intentionally or not, he failed to highlight the leading causes of auto accidents. An estimated 88,000 people die from drunk driving annually, the result of inhibited motor skills. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism postulates that under the influence of alcohol, you are up to 380 times more likely to crash; texting while driving increases the likelihood of an accident 23 times; being drowsy behind the wheel accounts for a five fold increase in the likelihood of an auto accident, even missing as little as one hour of sleep can double the risk of crashing; and if are behind the wheel while high you are twice as likely. I am in no way condoning driving while high, nor am I disregarding the inhibitory effects of cannabis on our motor skills; rather, I am asking conservatives to look at the data objectively. If they were truly concerned about the safety of those on our roads, then their outrage would be directed at the alcohol industry.

Even with scientific evidence suggesting that cannabis poses no threat to public safety, or personal health, why are some conservatives vehemently opposed to the use of cannabis? I suspect that their concern is neither about the medicinal properties of the drug nor about recreational usage: they are more concerned with legislating morality, thus excoriating anything that they perceive to be inimical to conservative values. This highlights the cultural dichotomy between conservatives and liberals, between an uncompromising code of morality and freedom of thought. That is why under the Trump administration, in his appeal for a return to American Values, we can expect a more punitive approach to cannabis. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana”, he shifted the conversation from whether the drug should be legalized, to whether or not its usage is moral permissibility. By ascribing a moral dimension to the drug Sessions was projecting his own cultural values: smoking marijuana precludes you form being a good person. Psychoactive drugs transmogrify our perceptions of the world; they allow us to engage in deep introspection thereby challenging socially constructed models of behavior. It is the potency of the plant, the idea that it should be universally celebrated, its capacity to bring about expanded and emerging consciousness that alarms conservatives.