Monday, March 22, 2004The latest news from the Great White North: British Columbia is about to undertake a pilot program, modeled after a similar one in the Netherlands, to sell marijuana for medical purposes in pharmacies:
From the Associated Press in Toronto: "Currently, there are 78 medical users in Canada permitted to buy government marijuana, which is grown in Flin Flon, Manitoba. An ounce sells for about $113, and the marijuana is sent by courier to patients or their doctors.Is Canada going to hell in a handbasket, or taking a brave step forward? It's a bit of a tough call, and both sides of the argument could take counsel from the disciplines of philosophy and economics, rather than simply looking to medicine or the criminal justice system for guidance.
The Canadian government also has suggested it may decriminalize marijuana, a move criticized by U.S. drug and border agencies, which threaten more intrusive searches of cross-border travelers. Some patients report that marijuana alleviates the pain and nausea associated with AIDS and other diseases. But marijuana's status as a medicinal drug has not been formally approved, [Robin] O'Brien [a consulting pharmacist] said. 'There's no pharmaceutical company that's going to come forward to take it through the regulatory process because they can't get a patent on it, so it's kind of a limbo drug,' he said."
When I say "limbo" drug, I mean that for decades marijuana has been the most widely used non-regulated untaxed drug (read: sales provide no revenue to the government), trapped between tacit social and cultural acceptance and outward illegality. All of us know someone that uses or has used marijuana, and perhaps someone who has incurred the wrath of the legal system as a consequence.
But, is cannabis that much worse of a drug than cigarettes or alcohol? The physiological and psychological effects of marijuana fall somewhere in the continuum of tobacco and alcohol, both "legal" drugs. Although medical evidence shows marijuana has a lingering physiological effect, and THC and other cannabinoids remain in body tissues longer that nicotine and alcohol byproducts, "tar" from cigarettes can also stay in the lungs for months, even years, giving lie to the claim that cigarettes are somehow "safer" than marijuana. However, unlike tobacco and alcohol, both of which enjoy a privileged status by virtue of their longstanding accepted use in our culture and their taxability, marijuana has been uniformly criminalized, with penalties fluctuating between harsh to lenient depending on community, the status of the defendant, and the prevailing political climate.
Many opponents of legalization say that because marijuana is a so-called "gateway drug," it is crucial that we keep it illegal lest we imply social acceptance of "harder" drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Personally, I take issue with the idea that marijuana is a true "gateway drug," the conventional wisdom that once an individual tries marijuana, it is an inevitable slippery downward slope to full-blown hard drug addiction.
I think the truth is that marijuana shares this more obvious connection with harder drugs: unless cultivated at home, it is only available from (illegal) drug dealers, therefore if a person takes the trouble to find a dealer who will sell him or her marijuana, the "gates" are then open to sampling and purchasing other "hard" drugs from those dealers. The "gateway" effect of marijuana is arguably more literal than simply describing a lowered inhibition for trying illegal drugs in general.
So why has marijuana been the scapegoat of the legal system for years? Part of the reason is probably our work-oriented European-American culture's disdain for substances that make us want to work less, and for hallucinogenic substances in general, which carry an aura of paganism and "Third World"-ness. By contrast, legal drugs like cigarettes and tobacco have the all-American air of grit and virility, and function as complementary drugs that help us put our noses to the corporate grindstone and relax afterwards.
Tobacco the stress-reliever has helped the common worker survive the workday for generations, only relatively recently coming under fire for its health risks. Its use is perceived as tough, macho, virile and sophisticated - hence the stereotypes of the hardworking, butt-puffing businessman, soldier, and the "Marlboro Man."
Alcohol is a similar story. While booze doesn't help anyone get work done for the most part, it still serves the important economic function as end-of-the-day tranquilizer and lubricant of social discourse, helping smooth many a major deal following a two or three-Martini "business lunch." Up and down - light up, work; drink up, chill out. Repeat as necessary.
But, then there's marijuana - what images does it conjure? 1930's "viper dens," Afro-American Jazz and Blues, the 1960's and 70's eras of free love and "loose morals," all the way to today's Rasta and Hip-hop culture, "blunts" and "chronic" and indolent slackers. All these stereotypes all have one thing in common: they fly in the face of the "Protestant Work Ethic" and American majority culture, and I think this is the true reason marijuana carries such unacceptable legal and emotional karma in the United States. Would society as we know it collapse if marijuana was legalized? I honestly don't think it would.
By legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, we would automatically make the last weeks or months of life more comfortable for those people suffering from illnesses amenable to use of marijuana as an antiemetic, appetite stimulant or antianxiety agent. If we went further and legalized marijuana a la tobacco or alcohol, we would still have the problem of some people abusing marijuana as a drug that somewhat reduces their "social potential," but we could deal with that problem the way we deal with abuse of other legal drugs. Certainly, no one wants an additional social burden of substance abusers, but placing common marijuana users in prison is hardly an acceptable trade-off in terms of financial and social expense.
I also suspect that the number of actual active marijuana users would rise initially before leveling off and subsiding as some curious first-time users sampled the drug, while chronic users would remain chronic users, and still others would discontinue use as the drug loses its "outlaw appeal."
Do we need a new intoxicant on the market? Probably not, but the fact is marijuana has been on the [black] market for generations. While the same can be said of more addictive narcotics such as heroin and cocaine, the social effects of these "harder" drugs are far more detrimental than the recreational use of marijuana, which unlike alcohol and tobacco, does not produce physical addiction. Recent history has shown that levying harsh fines and prison sentences on individual marijuana users has not been an effective means of eliminating its use, regardless of the amount of tax money thrown into the "war on drugs." I believe increasingly stiffer penalties are a poor substitute for the potential tax revenue the legalization and regulation of marijuana could provide. While the U.S. does not have a full model in place for policy that could be implemented to regulate legalized marijuana (and current political trends are hardly favorable for such a shift), we have tobacco and alcohol regulation models as reference points.
Perhaps the true dynamics are these: Canada is using current American conservative policy as a leverage counterpoint - what else would explain the timing of that nation's recent implementation of such uncharacteristically liberal social policy change?
Meanwhile, the real reasons America continues to refuse to legalize marijuana are only partly ideological, but rather, appear to be economic in nature. Potential marijuana producers and manufacturers cannot patent or market the drug to generate sky-high shareholder profits as with proprietary pharmaceuticals, and our litigious climate would open these companies to untold future lawsuits - hardly an appealing incentive to corporate America. If corporations will not step in, who would grow, distribute and sell legalized marijuana in the United States? The government? Small farmers and growers' cooperatives? Would growers and distributors be offered agricultural subsidies or immunity from future lawsuits? Will someone start marketing McBlunts?