Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Understanding Marijuana

I’d like to write the next few blog posts about various issues related to the drug war and to marijuana policy. I would also like to discuss how religion plays a subtle, but prominent role in the formation and perpetuation of this war and these policies through the construction of sin as well as what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate alterations of human consciousness. I read a number of books on these topics and I’ll be writing about a few of them. Towards the end of this series of posts I’ll begin to weave the various authors and viewpoints together into a cohesive whole. I’d first like to start with a book called Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence by Mitch Earleywine. This is a great book to get us started because it offers an excellent survey of the current research surrounding marijuana as well as its history and uses. I’ll briefly summarize his points adding my own thoughts throughout.

History and Context
Marijuana originally spread from Taiwan. It was first used as a fiber then expanded its use to cloths, papers, food, various cosmetics such as soaps and oils and of course, for the alteration of consciousness, both recreational and religious.

Hemp fibers were likely the first in history. They decorated clay pots as far back as 8000 b.c.e. Linens first appeared in 3500 b.c.e., an entire thousand years before the emergence of cotton. Hemp fibers and linens were used to make bowstrings and ropes for ships in Russia, Greece, England and Italy as well as the Vikings. During the American Colonial period, England even ordered the colonies to grow hemp for this purpose but the colonies instead turned to a more lucrative crop: tobacco. After the civil war, hemp production in America sharply declined due to processing improvements of cotton. However, cotton has been criticized for a number of reasons. It yields less fiber per acre, requires more water and pesticides and causes more environmental harm. There are many current arguments to begin producing hemp again for these purposes on a much larger scale.

Hemp paper first appeared in the first century b.c.e. in China. It quickly spread to Japan and then to the Arab nations. It has been said that hemp may be more economical and more environmentally friendly than wood. The plant is ready to harvest quicker and it causes much less damage to ecosystems. Once again, modern arguments are emerging for the large-scale production for this purpose.

Industrial hemp actually contains as little as .15% THC. Those who oppose the manufacture of industrial hemp on moral grounds or because they don’t want people to smoke it and get high (we will get to this), cannot use this as an argument. You simply cannot get high with industrial hemp. It is very different than the marijuana people smoke to alter consciousness and should be treated as such.

Hemp was used for foods as well. Hemp seed porridge was found in ancient Russia, Poland and Lithuania. It contains “20-25% protein and contains healthy amino acids, minerals, calcium, potassium and essential fatty acids.”

Marijuana’s medical use began around 2737 b.c.e. It was used for a wide range of physical ailments including pain, seizures, muscle spasms, poor appetite, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, asthma and depression as well as labor pains, premenstrual symptoms and cramps. Even the United States Dispensary in 1868 declared that marijuana “improved appetite, sexual interest, mental disorders, gout, cholera, hydrophobia [?] and insomnia.”

Marijuana’s use as an intoxicant has a complicated past and present. Reactions to its use necessarily include the wide spectrum of reactions to “novelty, pleasure and the unknown.” We will return to this point in greater detail later. The Chinese it seems were the first to use marijuana this way around 100 c.e. The Taoists used it to “induce hallucinations.” This use was more religious than recreational, used in conjunction with other religious practices such as meditation and yoga.

Marijuana’s transition to illegal status is both complicated and simple. It is no secret that opium became illegal in the United States due to racism against Asians. Marijuana can be said to follow suit with comparable discrimination against Mexicans. Likewise, its illegality corresponds strongly with a general human tendency to fear the unknown and the different.

Cannabis became essentially illegal in the US in 1937 when Harry Anslinger championed the Marijuana Tax Act, which created high taxes and harsh sentences for marijuana. The harsh sentences increased with the 1951 Boggs Act. The dominant perspective of the time was said to be that marijuana use inevitably led to heroin addiction. This gateway theory we will see later is completely false.

General Research and Figures
A researcher named Hilts asked two prominent drug researchers in 1994 to rank features of six common drugs: nicotine, caffeine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol and marijuana. Features included the drugs ability to produce withdrawl, tolerance and dependence in the users. Both researches placed marijuana last in all three features. Another study had experts rank 18 drugs on how easily they ‘hook’ people and how difficult they are to quit. Marijuana ranked 14th behind nicotine (1st), alcohol (8th) and caffeine (12th). Only MDMA, mushrooms, LSD and mescaline ranked lower.

How we define drug addiction, dependence and abuse largely shapes how date is presented. The following criterions are the ones used. Their accuracy to an unbiased presentation of the evidence may be misleading. Nonetheless, here are the definitions and findings:

“Dependence” according to the DSM 4 is a collection of three of any seven symptoms: tolerance, withdrawl, use exceeds initial intention, failed attempts to decrease use or a constant desire for the drug, loss of time related to use, reduced activities due to drug use and continued use despite problems. All symptoms must create “meaningful distress” and occur within the same year. The drug user must require the drug to function and must make maladaptive sacrifices to obtain and use it. “Abuse” is defined in terms of four symptoms: interference with major obligations, intoxication in unsafe settings, legal problems and the consistent use despite problems. According to interviews conducted with over 42,000 people who had used marijuana in the last year, 25% qualified for a diagnosis of abuse and 6% for dependence. Abuse is much more common in rural areas and dependence is more prevalent in those persons with depression. 85% of people who used marijuana in the last year reported none of the problems, 15% reported one, 8% reported at least two and 4% reported at least three.

This current approach of using dependence and abuse definers may overestimate marijuana’s negative impact. The diagnosis may say more about the culture and its values than the actual negative consequences marijuana creates. Although problems are not common, a spectrum of 6% to 23% report some difficulties with the drug.

Gateways and Stepping Stones
Data do not support the idea of marijuana being a stepping-stone or “gateway” drug to harder, more harmful drugs. Marijuana and hard drugs do share some biological effects. “For example THC, opiates and cocaine all alter the dopamine system in comparable ways.” The cannabinoids however have their own receptor that does not react directly to drugs like heroin and cocaine. They are unique and should be treated likewise. This much is clear: “Physiological mechanisms do not explain any link between marijuana and the use of other intoxicants.”

The gateway theory simply does not hold up under basic critical reasoning. Of all 221 million adult Americans, 76 million have tried marijuana and 145 have not (2002 figures). Lets assume that the six million Americans who tried crack cocaine also tried marijuana. That assumption leaves us with the conclusion that 70 million people who have tried marijuana have never tried crack. “Thus the correlation between marijuana consumption and the regular use of these harder drugs in negligible.”

Health Effects
Earleywine says, “In general, the drug [marijuana] is incapable of creating an overdose. It can exacerbate the symptoms of some mental disorders but does not appear to cause them. Data fail to show any marijuana-induced changes in brain structure, but long term exposure to the drug alters the way the brain functions during complex tasks. People who smoke marijuana but not cigarettes have yet to show severe pulmonary problems like lung cancer or emphysema, but mild respiratory problems [do] appear.” Thus, in the tong term, consistent, lifelong use of marijuana can cause complication in performing complex tasks. This is it’s negative health effect. Compared to other legal drugs, marijuana’s “impact on health is minimal.” Said another way, “Cannabis seems to have fewer negative health effects than legal drugs, like alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco…”

Social Problems?
Arguments for marijuana’s illegal status often cite the social problems it might cause including “decreased productivity and performance in school, dangerous driving, and uncontrollable aggression”. Lets discuss these three topics independently.

1.     Performance in school and productivity

In terms of performance in schools, over a half a dozen studies reveal that marijuana users and nonusers have comparable grades in college. There is no difference in grades whatsoever. Some studies even found higher grades in marijuana users than nonusers.

High school however shows a different trend. Users do tend to have lower grades than nonusers. However, this is only the case with “heavy marijuana smokers.” But most heavy marijuana users earn lower grades prior to their marijuana use. This suggests that cannabis could not have caused their poor performance. “High school students who smoke cannabis heavily also tend to use alcohol and other illicit substances” as well. Causation in these instances is difficult to establish. The supposed link between cannabis and poor academic performance simply does not exist. Rather, heavy marijuana use follows a general “pattern of deviance”. Marijuana use does not cause people, or especially youth, to become depressed and unmotivated. Rather, depressed or unmotivated or unconventional people and youth may have a higher likelihood to choose to smoke marijuana.

The drug itself does not create deviance. There is no evidence for a marijuana-induced a-motivational syndrome. “Long term exposure to cannabis in the laboratory fails to show any meaningful or consistent impact on productivity”.

2.     Dangerous driving:

Many say or imply that marijuana contributes significantly to accidents. However, there is no data to support these conclusions. Marijuana does not increase the risk of accidents that cause injury, although it may increase the chances of other, more minor accidents but there is no data on this subject. In fact, drivers under the influence of marijuana tend to “drive more slowly, leave more space between cars, and take fewer risks”. In this way, marijuana is far different from alcohol, which clearly causes drivers to be more reckless and dangerous.

3.     Increased aggression:

The association between cannabis intoxication and aggression is unlikely. Marijuana users “do not show more aggression than people who receive placebos”. In fact, in some studies users occasionally show a decrease in hostility. Those that may fit the bill in this instance are more likely to be aggressive people who also happen to smoke cannabis.

The data in all three categories of arguments is in sharp and contradictory contrast to the dominant assumptions about the drug.

Law and Policy
Despite all this scientific evidence, marijuana remains illegal. Debates on its prohibition usually focus on moral and “pragmatic” issues rather than science and empirical evidence. “Moral arguments in support of prohibition generally portray the drug as unethical or corrupt”. Pragmatic arguments in support of prohibition, on the other hand, cite supposed health consequences, use by youth, and the gateway theory. My argument, that I will be writing much more about, is that in both instances of moral and pragmatic argument, the perspective comes from religious assumptions about sin and being dirty/unclean (both overt and covert – consciously and unconsciously).

More research is unneeded to change current law and policy. We have all the hard information we need to change the paradigm. However, this change is not going to come. Why not? Because the political climate, fed by subtle puritan religious assumptions will not change so easily. Earleywine says, “If anything is to change, it will have to come about in changes to the political climate, not to science.” The current laws and policies towards marijuana and the drug war in general may “reveal unspoken attitudes about the people who want to alter consciousness.” Some citizens may view people who want to change their consciousness in general or in certain ways as being evil or bad. These views, in my opinion, are the strongest determinants of cannabis policy, particularly as news of the drugs limited harm reaches everyone the public.

Everyone carries assumptions about thoughts, awareness and internal life. It is perfectly human to make these assumptions about consciousness. And to think that it should be a certain way. We all have stereotypes about techniques designed to alter thoughts and awareness. Both chemical, physical and mental activities can change consciousness. Mental activities for changing consciousness can provide good examples. Just examine attitudes about meditation, frequent prayer, and hypnosis. People who do not engage in these practices may see those who do as deviant in some way. Yet the activities remain legal. Perhaps because they cause no harm? Physical activities also change consciousness. Skydiving and bungee jumping remain legal. They are not harmless. But more people have died from these activities than from using marijuana. A few chemicals that alter consciousness also remain accepted. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol have established effects on thoughts and moods. Their toxicity is much higher than that of marijuana. Citizens seem to trust adults enough to let them use these drugs in a way that will not cause problems. Why is this privilege, on these grounds, unacceptable in regard to marijuana?

Final Thoughts
Earleywine concludes, “from a combination of economic incentives and a sense of justice, the world has slouched toward progress in appreciating diversity. [However} people are starting to respect each other a little more, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, occupation, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, or education. Many argue that this greater respect benefits everyone. We approach a point where people might tolerate others who think differently. Perhaps we could tolerate people who want to use marijuana without causing harm to themselves or others.” It’s a beautiful conclusion. And it’s true, there is more respect for diversity now more than ever in human history. The alteration of consciousness however retains subtle and intense assumptions that are not easy to perceive let alone change. How we go about this process is difficult to say. The political climate changes quite slowly as does the evolution of religious thought. But perhaps we are reaching a threshold; one where on the other side we can celebrate and enjoy different ways of experiencing the world in a non-harmful way. Perhaps we are on the threshold of openly celebrating marijuana and its effects on consciousness.

No comments:

Post a Comment