This is something I've been meaning to write about for a while now, and something that I've been asked to write about several times in the past year especially given the current pro-pot climate in the state I live in, Colorado. Instead of writing out a lengthy post, I'm going to try to hit some of the high points (no pun intended) in the questions people have asked me about safety, use, abuse and more. When the law first went into effect here in Colorado, I wrote a long post about what the law actually meant. You can read it here if you want. I've written about it in other contexts a few times, and will try to cite some of those posts as this continues.
First, let me preface everything that follows by saying two things. One, I have never used marijuana personally. I've been what I would consider marijuana adjacent, in other words, around people smoking, but not directly inhaling myself. In all likelihood, there wasn't enough in the air around me to ever experience a contact high (one of the great misconceptions about marijuana is the phenomenon of the contact high, which actually requires exposure to a whole lot more smoke than most people understand). Two, I am generally in favor of legalization of marijuana for a laundry list of reasons totally unrelated to any using I haven't done. To some people, I'm considered an anomaly because they can't understand why someone who admits to not using a drug would be in favor of legalization, but I can assure you that I have my reasons. Some of them are as follows:
- making drugs illegal doesn't make them go away
- people have used marijuana for thousands of years
- it is mostly harmless in most situations
- there are legitimate health benefits
- I object to the criminalization of possession and use of drugs
- I have worked in prosecution in the past
- our jails are full of non violent drug offenders
- if people need help to overcome addictions, they need help, not jail
- tax revenues
Having said all that, I want you all to know that I do my best to present the most accurate and objective information here, particularly when it comes to drugs. If you find something flawed with my reasoning or would like to disagree, please feel free to do so, just keep it civil. I'm going to thank you in advance for that.
Okay, so let's get to the actual subject matter at hand. If anyone has additional questions or concerns, please feel free to add them in the comments or on my Facebook page and I will try to get to them. I've sort-of become a resident expert on the topic just because I have a legal background and live in CO.
Classification of Marijuana
Marijuana defies classification unlike many other drugs because it has such a wide range of effects. It is considered both a depressant, meaning that it decreases transmissions in the nervous system and a hallucinogen, which means that it can alter perception, thought, emotions and consciousness.
Under the DEA, marijuana is a Class I controlled substance, which is reserved for the most dangerous substances in the nation. You'd probably be interested to know that cocaine is a Class II. Tell me how that makes sense exactly? The classification of marijuana has been a highly politicized event, and there really isn't much evidence to support lumping it in with the other substances considered Class I. This classification also dramatically limits medical research, as does the fact that marijuana is derived from plant sources that cannot be patented (essentially giving Big Pharma no incentive to do exhaustive research because they can't be assured patent protection down the road...welcome to our jacked up system). There is talk of possibly having it reclassified given the current trend of legalization.
Benefits of Marijuana Use
The conventional wisdom tells us that it mellows most people out and causes increases in hunger.
There is a large and growing list of medical benefits associated with use as well, which is why marijuana is legal in many more states for medical usage than for recreational usage. Use has been long recommended for cancer patients in particular as it can alleviate pain and increase hunger in patients whose appetites have been diminished by treatment. It reduces nausea and vomiting as well. I'll vouch for the awesomeness of this first hand as it made the final weeks of my father's life much more pleasant and manageable. Plus, he ate a lot of peanuts when he was high.
Many people with AIDS and other conditions benefit in the same ways as cancer patients, as can anyone with a condition that gradually worsens over time. Patients with chronic pain, glaucoma, nerve and muscle disorders can benefit from use as well. One of the most exciting new developments is in the treatment of seizure disorders, particularly in children. The cannabidiol is extracted, most of the THC removed (which is what creates the "high") and children who were out of other medical options are able to resume normal seizure-free (or at least severely enhanced) lives because the seizures stop entirely or decrease in frequency and significance. Parents are now moving to Colorado from all over the country to seek this treatment for their children. It is also being used in some patients with multiple sclerosis.
This article cites some of the lesser known, but documented benefits of marijuana.
- can stop HIV spread in the body
- slows Alzheimer's
- slows cancer spread
- pain reliever
- can help with opiate addiction
- can help depression, anxiety and adhd
- can treat epilepsy and Tourette's
- can help with neurological damage
- can prevent blindness from glaucoma
- can lower insulin levels in diabetics
There are probably a heap of other potential medical benefits that we just don't know about yet because it is an area sorely lacking in adequate research.
Risks of Marijuana Use
In most medical cases, the benefits of marijuana use far outweigh the risks, and so we tend not to worry about them as much. Much concern has been raised, however, over the safety of marijuana use in the recreational community. Some of these concerns are legitimate, some are unfortunately fueled by misinformation in the media.
First, marijuana is a hallucinogen, and people can and do react to it differently, even people who use it frequently. The nature of the drug is to be heavily varied, and shops here locally sell countless different varieties, all with slightly different concentrations of the compounds that make the drug a drug. Some people can become delusional and paranoid on it and their behavior can be altered as much as their minds. It does not work as just a depressant in all situations, and users should be aware of the potential it has in this capacity. I know quite a few people who had horrible experiences with it, particularly on their first try.
There is a case here locally of a young man who recently consumed six times the recommended amount in the form of an edible, then began shaking, screaming and throwing things before jumping off a hotel balcony to his death. As quick as the media is to tie his death directly to marijuana use, it needs to be emphasized that he used far more than he should have. It also bears mention that consuming six times the legal limit of alcohol could kill someone, as could consuming six times the recommended amount of several other legal prescription drugs. Even Tylenol is lethal in amounts we wouldn't ordinarily consider that dangerous.
There is another case here locally where a man who consumed a joint and an entire edible shot and killed his wife. Again, quick to blame the marijuana, many are overlooking several important issues: he had violent priors, he was taking other medications at the time which could have interacted, the police took over 15 minutes to respond (she was on the phone with them saying he was tripping and threatening for 13 of those minutes). But, yeah, let's just blame the pot.
Second, there are long term risks that are fairly well documented. Long term exposure can affect memory and concentration, particularly when used long term by children and adolescents. It can also affect growth in children and adolescents. Though many people believe that marijuana is not addictive, it can be for approximately 10% of those who use it. It can trigger or worsen certain mental health conditions, namely psychosis, depression, suicidal thoughts, and possibly schizophrenia. Some studies have shown that frequent use tends to result in people having poorer job outlooks throughout life as well as higher obesity rates.
Third, it can be associated with certain cancers, though the connection isn't solid in many cases. Many components of marijuana are considered carcinogens and in some ways they are even more dangerous than the compounds in cigarettes because people tend to inhale deeper and hold it longer than with cigarettes, plus joints are not filtered. Smokers tend to use cigarettes more frequently and consistently than users smoke marijuana though. Far more common than cancer diagnoses are chronic lung problems that develop simply because of the damage that inhaling smoke repeatedly can do.
Fourth, the risks of marijuana use during pregnancy and the effect on the fetus aren't as clear as we would like to think. Many women continue to use it throughout pregnancy, particularly for the benefit of nausea suppression, but there do appear to be slight risks of developmental problems. It does seem clear that marijuana use during pregnancy is safer than cigarette smoking or alcohol use, but it is not without risks.
Misconceptions About Marijuana Use
There are many people who make the argument that marijuana is a gateway drug, meaning that it pushes individuals to try other, more dangerous drugs, many of which are far more addictive. It's not, and this has been documented time and again, yet the argument still keeps being raised.
There were fake reports all over the internet within days of legalization here that several people had died over overdoses. It's just not true. There has never been a documented death from overdose. Ever.
Some here insisted that legalization would dramatically increase the crime rates. The opposite has happened, and crime rates have actually gone down.
Many cases in the media discuss marijuana as a factor in crimes without addressing other contributing factors, one of the biggest of which is that marijuana can be laced with other substances, particularly in areas where it is still illegal. I draw the parallel here between a person who consumes an alcoholic beverage intending to consume alcohol, but is unaware that someone has slipped something into it. In these cases, the person is intending to smoke pot, but not intending the expose themselves to whatever else might be mixed in.
Another issue that arises frequently is that people are concerned with users driving under the influence and wanting to know what the criteria are for declaring someone unable to drive. As with literally any other substance that people use to alter themselves in any way, driving under the influence is illegal. It has always been illegal. It is illegal to drive on prescription medications, on cough syrup, after alcohol use, after using any substance, legal or not, which impedes your judgment. The fact that marijuana is now legal doesn't legalize driving under the influence. That law remains the same, and in fact is probably even stronger now in this respect because they are looking into setting specific limits to determine intoxication, as exist currently with alcohol.
One area that is discussed frequently in the media, and misunderstood by many people, is whether use can result in you losing your job, even now that it is legal here (and in several other states for medical usage). The answer is, so far, yes. Employers can drug test you and can demand clean tests as a condition for employment, regardless of whether the substance is legal or not. The issue of whether medical marijuana users can lose their jobs is actually being litigated now in the state and the results of that case could have far reaching effects because it involves not just the issue of employer rights, but of health care privacy.
Other Miscellaneous Topics
I was asked if there is a difference between vaporizing and smoking marijuana. Vaporizing marijuana isolates the chemical components that create the high but eliminates many of the toxins that one would be exposed to during smoking. At least one study has shown that vaporizing elicits the same level of benefits while dramatically reducing the risks.
The issue is a bit complicated by the presence of e-cigs on the market now, but those work differently than marijuana vaporizers do. E-cigs are considered a replacement for regular cigarettes, but still can trigger nicotine addiction and may expose users to harmful inhaled metals. They are not currently regulated, so the facts about safety aren't as clear as they should be.
Another question came in about my personal views on marijuana, namely whether I would use it now that it is legal and how it's legalization has changed what I will teach my kids. First, I have to say that I might use it in the future. I might not. I can't honestly say what I will do. I'm not necessarily opposed to trying it, but I haven't found a compelling enough reason to in the past (even though there were plenty of opportunities). I don't know. I know that there are specific medical conditions that would push me to try it faster if I developed any of them, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend using it to other people in those circumstances.
As for my children, they already know what marijuana is and have known for many years. They know that my father used it. We did not hide his pipe or supplies, though he did smoke it outside (as he did with cigarettes). They were told from the beginning that it was just like any other medication he took related to his cancer, that there was a reason he needed it and that it helped him. I never saw it as more complicated than that. Now that it is available recreationally here in the state, I am fully aware that my kids will likely be presented with many opportunities to try it. My perspective as a parent is this (and it hasn't changed with legalization): treat it as a drug, understand that it is a drug, that it is not guaranteed to be safe, that it can affect you differently than other people. If they want to try it, I wouldn't necessarily tell them not to, but would not seek it out on their behalf (outside of medical reasons). Once they are of legal age, I hope that they treat it like alcohol, with an understanding that it can be abused, that they need to ensure that they are in a safe place to try it, that they may not drive while under the influence, that they need only try a little at a time if they choose, and that they can call me 24/7 and I will be there without question. Marijuana doesn't concern me nearly as much as other drugs do, and those will have far more caution attached to them.
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