April 2015 Newsletter (vol.39)   >>   National Debate: Repeal or Reform Cannabis Laws

My whole life I thought ‘Marijuana’ was just one of many slang terms used in reference to the plant botanically known as Cannabis. Doing research for this article I discovered the word originated in the 1930’s drive to criminalize its use in the US. The Mexican Revolution started in 1910 and led to an influx of low-income immigrants who brought with them their favorite form of intoxication. They called the plant “mariguana” and “marihuana”. The spelling was later modified to “marijuana” and popularized by Harry J. Anslinger who associated the drug, in bigoted fashion, with groups of perceived undesirables in cities throughout the US, but concentrated in boarder states.



While few today may jump to this stereotype when picturing a typical user, we still have our ideas. But whether it is a basement full of teenagers or Chief Unser fighting off the effects of chemotherapy, chances are you have images come to mind when you hear the word. Ten years ago I believed marijuana use would eventually fade away. Now I wonder how long it will take before it becomes as common as beer. Depending on where you live (and the company you keep) it may already be common, if not legal. But should it be legal, and, if so, for what?



THE LAW: Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act Section 812 established five schedules of controlled substances, cleverly known as Schedule I, Schedule II, Schedule III, Schedule IV, and Schedule V. Nowhere in these Schedules will you find Marijuana. Trust me. I Tried. Ok, so since Marijuana is slang for Cannabis, I looked again. It turns out you must don your chemist’s hat, or whatever you wear when reading a list of active ingredients in an aisle of your local pharmacy. Doing this I found my quarry in Schedule I Section (c) (17): Tetrahydrocannabinols (THC). As defined by the Act, a drug or substance will be listed in Schedule I if:



  1. The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse
  2. The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States
  3. There is a lack of accepted safety or use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision



Cannabis contains more than one unique ingredient. In fact, scientists identified over 60 they call Cannabinoids. THC was first isolated and synthesized in 1964 and believed to be the most pharmacologically active. In medicinal applications it increases appetite and reduces nausea. Another ingredient, Cannabidiol (CBD), appears destined for stardom as the darling of the medical cannabis push. Extracted properly, low-THC CBD can be an appealing option for patients seeking an anti-inflammatory, anti-pain, anti-anxiety, and/or anti-psychotic with little or no psycho-activity usually associated with cannabis. The FDA has not approved the plant as medicine. It requires thorough studies involving hundreds, if not thousands, of subjects to determine the associated risks and benefits. Researchers must conduct more large-scale trials before a decision in favor of the benefits can be reached.



Very brief history: You can find a brief “marijuana timeline” on pbs.org that lists several noteworthy events and the year they occurred. Below are some of the entries I found noteworthy:



  • In 1944 the New York Academy of Science reported extensive research that concluded the use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use

  • In the 1960’s reports commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson found that marijuana use did not induce violence nor lead to use of heavier drugs

  • In 1970 Congress repealed most of the mandatory penalties for drug-related offenses imposed in the 1950’s

  • 1976 saw the beginning of the parents’ movement against marijuana with groups lobbing for stricter regulations and the prevention of drug use by teenagers

  • The 1980’s saw an escalation in Legislation targeting Drug Abuse and a “War on Drugs”

  • In 1996 Proposition 215 passed in California allowing the sale and use of medical marijuana



By 1961 Cannabis found itself globally criminalized. In 1971 President Nixon declared that America’s Public Enemy #1 was drug abuse. His War on drugs become something to rally around in a time of tremendous social strife. And so the WAR has continued. But what are the “battle” lines? Who is the enemy? What are the costs?



Vice Perspective: I was curious to know how Cannabis use compared to two common vices many Americans embrace, namely Cigarettes and Alcohol. I was SHOCKED by what I found. You see all the warnings and PSA’s educating the public of the risks, but people believe they have the right to live their own lives and deal with the consequences later. (Tobacco) According to the CDC, “Cigarette smoking causes about one of every five deaths in the United States each year”, a total of more than 480,000 deaths annually!! (I’m sorry, but the tobacco industry and their lobbyists appear to be more harmful than any terrorist organization.) If that number staggers you, let it sink in that of those, some 42,000 die due to exposure to second hand smoke. ONE is too many. Life expectancy for smokers drops at least ten years compared to non-smokers. (Alcohol) Again, according to the CDC, “Excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost EACH YEAR in the US from 2006 to 2010.” Not pretty.



So what does the CDC have to say regarding Cannabis use? I found a Surgeon General warning issued in August of 1982 listing harmful effects associated with Marijuana use. I confirmed from other sources that the CDC does not have a category for deaths caused by the use of marijuana. I did find the following quote on the CDC website, “Most people who use heroin in the US today used prescription opioids first”. Now there’s a problem! Searching other places I managed to locate articles and advertisements showing a zero mortality rate attributed to the use of marijuana. One on the PBS.org website stated it would be safe to assume lung damage would occur if smoking was the method used for marijuana intake, but no evidence of increased mortality existed. Hmmmmmm.



It appears we cannot associate a product’s legality with its safety. The prohibition of alcohol made life more dangerous than its use. It did not bring with it the social or economic benefits promised. So what are the effects of the Cannabis prohibition? Sixty percent of the Mexican drug cartel revenues come from cannabis. To date more than 70,000 deaths occurred in Mexico due to drug wars. Many of those were innocents, women and children. If you’re keeping score, that’s more lives lost than experienced by the United States in the Vietnam War.



Effects of WAR: What would a war be without a military? Let me introduce Special Weapons And Tactics – S.W.A.T. According to Wikipedia these are “law enforcement units which use military-style like weapons and specialized tactics in high-risk operations that fall outside of the capabilities of regular, uniformed police.” One would think that serving a warrant or making a misdemeanor arrest would be the work of uniformed police, but more and more this is not the case. In 2008 a package of marijuana was intercepted by a delivery service in Maryland. Police decided to complete the delivery and ended up killing two dogs and handcuffing a town mayor and his grandmother for hours before they realized they made an error. That prompted legislation requiring full disclosure of SWAT activities in the state. In the last six months of 2009, SWAT deployed 804 times in Maryland, an average of 4.5 times per day. Ninety-four percent of these were to serve search and arrest warrants. More than half of one county’s deployments were misdemeanors and non-serious felonies.



An enormous machine exists to combat illicit drugs in the US. The DEA alone employs over 10,000 individuals in 221 domestic offices and 86 foreign offices in 67 countries. Wow. Outfitting and operating a military requires money. Eighty-five percent of everyone who uses any form of illicit drug uses Cannabis exclusively. Repeat that. 85% of EVERYONE who uses ANY form of illicit drug uses Cannabis EXCLUSIVELY. Cannabis is the low hanging fruit of the drug war and as much of a cash crop to law enforcement as to growers and traders. In 2011 the US recorded 1.5 Million drug arrests and 43% were for marijuana possession alone. If police departments depend on numbers the same as any other organization, then “pot” busts provide the perfect avenue to success. The “machine” feeds on Department of Justice Byrne Grants and sometimes questionable seizure of money and property to make budget. Without it does the colossal drug fighting organization tumble?



Studies prove incarceration does not rehabilitate drug abusers, yet we continue to send them to prison. About 100 years ago President (and later Chief Justice) William Taft lamented that, “We live in a stage of politics where legislators seem to regard the passage of laws as much more important than the results of their enforcement”. I read somewhere that no effect of using Cannabis could be more harmful than jail time. Sorry President Taft, it’s still politics as usual.



Medical Marijuana: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “the term Medical Marijuana refers to using the whole unprocessed plant or its basic extracts to treat a disease or symptom. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not recognized or approved the marijuana plant as medicine.” They continue by saying, “However, scientific study of chemicals in marijuana, called cannabinoids, has led to two FDA-approved medications that contain cannabinoid chemicals in pill form. Continued research may lead to more medications.” If I could put sound effects into this article you would have just heard a needle scratch across the entire surface of an LP at high volume. Reread B, and C under the definition of a Schedule I controlled substance and ask yourself if something seems odd. The two FDA approved drugs referred to above are based on Cannabinoids, and both are used to treat nausea and boost appetite, mostly for patients undergoing chemotherapy and AIDS patients suffering from loss of appetite. One if not both of these medications are made from a synthetic form of THC.



Scientists continue to perform research and conduct clinical trials with marijuana and its extracts to treat a variety of ailments. These include: HIV/AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, inflammation, pain, seizures, substance use disorders, mental disorders, migraines, Glaucoma, Insomnia, muscle spasms, Lupus, Autism, Anorexia, and Cancer. Although momentum and support continues to grow in the court of public opinion, it may take a long time before the FDA changes its stance, and it all comes down to money. Let’s say the big Pharmaceutical companies do not champion the cause. Less than desired results on the existing medications may deter intense pursuit into this product. Can one assume that greater availability of Medical Marijuana, now legal in 23 states, Washington D.C, and Guam, greatly reduces traditional pharmaceutical demand? Could gains in medical marijuana approval realized at the state level actually slow pharmaceutical research?



No one I currently know has a use for Medical Marijuana. But that was not always the case. I remember the nights sitting with my mother many, many years ago, cancer ravaging through her body. I still hear her begging God to “make it be soon” so the pain could stop. Imagine saying that in front of your eleven year old. What I would have given to provide her relief! It was still some time before they hospitalized her in a room I was too young to visit. They filled her with needles and morphine and she eventually passed. We live in a different time now and different approaches exist. But does the suffering continue? Do patients have access to everything that could help them cope and/or recover?


I am greatly concerned with the process of law, rights, and "power of" versus "power over" the people. Do we live in a democracy or does money really rule? Are propaganda machines more powerful and convincing than science? Are people able to remain open-minded and educate themselves or do they rely on prejudices and/or outside influences? Where do you stand?



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