Beyond the High: The Implications of Marijuana Law Reform

‘Young people, I understand this is important to you, but you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace – maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana.’

Listening to President Obama’s words, I bristled in mild offence. And for the next few months brooded, as brooders tend to do.

 

Me, Me, Me: Personal Importance

From a purely selfish perspective as a regular user, legalization is of course a major issue. Why shouldn’t I be able to share with friends this social relaxant within the privacy of our homes? Why can’t I choose weed as a recreational alternative that will (for once) spare my future self the discomforts of a hangover, or as migraine medication with minimal side effects? Why can’t drug policies be based on empirical data, with legality based on quantitative individual and societal harm?

This is folly. By which I mean, complete and utter bullshit.

Dismissing the personal for a moment, though, let us discuss cannabis in relation to the broader issues of the economy and jobs, to war and human lives.

 

Economic Benefit: The Green Rush, Jobs and Public Expenditure

For generations, individuals have smoked marijuana regardless of its prohibition – have in fact been smoking more since the days of Reefer Madness. The only meaningful impact legality has on the demand and supply of cannabis is determining the type of economy in which transactions take place: formal or underground.

A Happy Taxman

The greatest benefit of legalization – as in the benefit which most affects society as a whole – lies in the collection of taxes. While the amount won’t save a national budget, it still increases the provision of public programs and services – exemplified by Colorado’s Amendment 64, which requires that the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenue be appropriated into the public school capital construction assistance fund.

In 2014, Colorado collected 47 million dollars in tax revenue – 10 million of which was transferred to the fund.

Jobs (omg)

If implemented on a federal level, a legitimate cannabis industry could be a significant contributor to the economy in general – much akin to the alcoholic beverage industry responsible for over $170 billion in annual sales and 3.9 million jobs. Legal marijuana creates jobs for service-sector workers as cannabis cafes and dispensaries become as chic as wine bars and wineries – and creates investment opportunities at every step from manufacturing, distribution, retail, and ancillary products and services such as quality-testing laboratories.

A Socio-Economic Effect: Women and Marijuana

The birth of a completely new industry also means the opportunity to bypass labour-market inequalities. It means the chance to build higher-management structures from bottom up, as opposed to infiltrating and reforming existing ones. And that’s exactly what female entrepreneurs have been doing in the developing cannabis industry: increasingly assuming leadership and CEO positions.

While one industry may not be enough to close the gender gap at the executive level, it certainly makes a difference – and makes for heartening progress.

Hemp: The Versatile Industrial Plant

Perhaps the sector for which federal legalization in the U.S. (and the decades-overdue repeal of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act) will make the greatest economic difference is agriculture. The Cannabis plant isn’t limited as a mind-altering substance. As a fast-growing and relatively cheap plant with a long list of potential products, cannabis can be a lucrative cash crop for farmers.

Hemp is used as:

  • fiber similar in texture to linen, with historic uses as clothing and ship cordage
  • construction material producing durable, breathable and insulated housing when combined with Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
  • a natural weed killer
  • composite material for automobiles
  • a high-protein food source with seeds rich in magnesium, zinc and iron
  • animal bedding
  • paper
  • and biofuel, though there are cheaper alternatives such as wastewater.

Most importantly, cannabis is a sustainable and renewable resource requiring little pesticide and no herbicide – and actually absorbs heavy-metal contaminants and other impurities, improving soil quality.

When it comes to hemp, everyone wins.

 

Medicinal Benefit: A Magic Green Tree

The versatility of cannabis exceeds industrial uses. Medically speaking, marijuana is nature’s frickin’ miracle.

Cannabis compounds have the potential of becoming effective treatment for the following conditions:

And yet, despite the plethora of data indicating therapeutic use, the U.S. maintains cannabis as a Schedule I drug with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses, and has condemned paraplegics, individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and the terminally ill to prison for growing their own medicine.

 

Political Benefit: A War on Fellow Humans

The hypocrisy and outright injustice of prohibition isn’t limited to patients.

Individuals have been stripped of health coverage, separated from their children, incarcerated for entire lifetimes without parole, and executed in their own homes during surprise pre-dawn drug raids – all for using or distributing a substance less detrimental than a bottle of Chianti.

Made every day in the name of the war on drugs: heavy-handed measures and violations of human rights.

Yes, frequent use of marijuana is not without its risks – most notably a small yet discernible effect on short-term memory, working memory and attention skills. No, it won’t increase crime rates. And no, Mr. President, you can’t just dismiss the gravity of the issue.

When cannabis was initially criminalized in the U.S., it was done so against the advice of the American Medical Association; against the tenets of science and empiricism. The sheer economic and human cost of the insensible public policy – for which lies and propaganda were key instruments and which was only implemented to serve the funding agenda of a single politician in the 1960’s – isn’t just asinine. It’s a moral outrage.

Yes, legalization is about fighting for the right to use mind-altering substances; a behavior exhibited by our species since recorded history. But it’s also so much more. As a direct result of prohibitionist policies, human lives are adversely affected – and too often extinguished.

The Term ‘Stoner’ as Analogous to ‘Feminist’

With the reform of marijuana laws must come a corresponding revitalization of social perception. As advocates of cannabis seek to carve out a new and socially legitimate image of the substance and that of its users, many have understandably attempted to distance themselves from the word ‘stoner’.

I fully embrace it.

It could be argued that the term ‘stoner’ is analogous to the term ‘feminist’; though perhaps it is as an individual who identifies with both groups that I perceive similarities. Both are subject to lingering stereotypes, which while not always hateful are nonetheless misconceived. Both have proponents, those who support the group’s basic principles, hesitate to publicly associate with the term for fear of either social stigma or more grave repercussions.

By stringent definition, a feminist is a proponent of gender equality, and a stoner is a habitual user of marijuana. There is a need not necessarily to reclaim the word and certainly not to reject it, but to expand upon it. Although the 2014 “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” campaign by Fawcett Society and Elle UK was sullied by its ethically questionable use of sweatshop manufacturers (the issue of which opens a whole different can of worms), its core intention was commendable and resonating: to demonstrate that those who identify with an ideology come in various shapes, sizes, and genders.

Similarly, cannabis, as the most widely used illicit (no longer illicit in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Washington D.C.) substance in the world with 38% of the populace in the U.S. and 40% in Canada admitting to experimentation, is enjoyed by vastly different individuals, not limited by gender, ethnic background, profession, or level of education. A homemaker and parent may look to cannabis to alleviate his or her chronic back pain. A corporate lawyer may choose a joint over a glass of wine to alleviate stress. A novelist may take up vaporizer in hand when confronted with that mortal enemy, writer’s block.

The key is not to project animosity and fear towards the word itself but to make evident the diversity of the individuals with an appreciation for the Cannabis plant and its medicinal, recreational, and creative uses. Instead of allowing the word ‘stoner’ to become the focus of controversy, let it instead become assimilated into colloquial usage; let it be taken at face value.

I adore weed. Whether I relate more to the iconic Tommy Chong or the ambitious young women at Cannabrand (or a combination of the two) is a secondary matter. By virtue of mutual appreciation for marijuana, we are all united. We are kindred.

My name is Hayoung Terra Yim: advocate for equality, reader of books, assembler of words, drinker of fermented grapes, and smoker of dried Cannabis leaves. I am – as my friends so affectionately describe – a huge stoner.

 

A Cannabis-Induced Feminist Awakening

“Never mind.”

A phrase uttered with increasing frequency under specific circumstances: at large social gatherings, high out of my mind.

Though marijuana may not be a reliable truth serum (as it was briefly used in 1942 by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services in the interrogation of prisoners of war), it can certainly render its user more loquacious–more liberal than they otherwise might be with their speech. And the words that so liberally and so often flowed from my stoned lips happened to be of a distinctly feminist nature.

I have made strong comments on the Key-and-Lock analogy (which proclaims, “If a key can open a lot of locks, then it’s a master key. But if a lock can be opened by a lot of keys, it’s a shitty lock”–glorifying male promiscuity and villainizing female promiscuity in one fell swoop) and its inherent perception of women as passive recipients of sex and as prizes to be won, at a friend’s potluck. I have heatedly discussed the misguided perception of penetration as a dominant act and its repercussions for male rape victims (an outrageous lack of social recognition or support) at what was supposed to be an enjoyable night of movies and pot brownies. I have pointed out that referring to the vagina as a “Penis Wallet” is as patriarchal as referring to the penis as a “Vagina Stand” would be matriarchal, ruining what was intended to be a lighthearted joke at a party. I have incited an argument with less-than-subtle feminist undertones with Grandma over Christmas dinner.

I have since learned that inciting debates on gender equality and our constantly improving yet deeply rooted patriarchal society is not the most appropriate conduct in many social environments, and that doing so has the potential to alter interpersonal relationships. A friend now appears to walk on eggshells in my presence, inclined to mistakenly assume that I am raising a socio-political issue whenever I speak. And I’ve no doubt lost standing as Favorite Grandchild.

Initially, the cause-and-effect connection between my cannabis-use and feminist speeches left me perplexed. What could possibly explain the relationship? Then, I recalled a crucial passage from Martin Booth’s Cannabis: A History, which asserts that marijuana “does not create anything new but embellishes what already exists,” bringing abstract thoughts and feelings to the surface and helping convert them into coherence.

Learning about feminism in university, though deemed fascinating and important, never provoked any revelation of self-identity. It is through pot that I have uncovered the strength of my own convictions: that a man or a woman wishing to be a homemaker and stay-at-home parent should be able to do so without their gender setting limitations or expectations; that ponytails and pink are a hairstyle and color for males as much as for females, should they feel so partial; and that despite the achievement of legal and workplace equality, entire industries dominated by certain genders–such as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and nursing sectors–indicate systemic trends and merit closer examination of cultural grooming.

It is under the influence of cannabis that I have realized my identification with Third Wave feminism; and it is this cannabis-induced epiphany that reinforces my love for the substance.

As if I didn’t love it enough–as in wholly and profoundly–already.

 

* Originally featured on Ladybud, the top women’s lifestyle and drug reform magazine!

Cannabis and Non-Affective Psychotic Disorders

The literature on the relationship between marijuana use and psychosis has been best described by Time magazine in 2010: it’s complicated.

Various studies have attempted to investigate the connection between the two variables to rather confounding results, including “circumstantial evidence” that individuals afflicted by schizophrenia are more likely to abuse drugs including cannabis and that “only a very small proportion of the general population” using cannabis develop psychosis; all of which warrant further research.

It is through the media and public discourse that this already convoluted relationship becomes even more difficult to understand. A follower of the debate on cannabis and its association with non-affective psychotic disorders, I observe a disconnect in communication. It is as if many prohibitionists and reformists are talking about completely different topics: CAUSATION and EXACERBATION.

No, cannabis does not cause psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Numbers have shown that despite fluctuations in marijuana usage, there has not been a concurrent variation in the instances of schizophrenia, largely debunking claims of a causal relationship. There exists, however, an unsettling association between marijuana usage in existing patients of psychotic disorders and severity of symptoms and timing of onset. Several of the studies were conducted with relatively small sample sizes and so demand future investigation, yet are sufficient to recommend present caution.

One of my core principles is to share that which I appreciate – whether art or food or experiences – with those dear to me. One of the things I appreciate most in the world happens to be cannabis. From close friends, I ask that they at least try it, just as I’ll ask that they try oysters (a travesty, to miss out on the tender, slippery treat; like an intense and delightful shot of the ocean). If their experimentation leads to ultimate dislike, I never attempt to dissuade them; I will always respect individual preference or lack thereof. They simply need to try putting it in their mouth once.

The only exception to sharing my appreciation for cannabis is if the friend in question is genetically prone to schizophrenia.

Marijuana and Tobacco: A Subjective Comparison

With a steady increase in the number of governments implementing marijuana law reform into their political agendas, it is only natural that cannabis be compared to alcohol and cigarettes. As with any pot enthusiast, I rejoice in reading research findings that indicate the relative safety of marijuana in contrast to the socially and legally acceptable substances of ethanol and tobacco. However, cheerleader-esque triumph is replaced with more sober considerations upon closer examination of the drugs in question.

A vice-riddled creature, I am a user of all three substances. Cannabis is used to enhance perspective and the physical senses; to intensify appreciation of food and of art. Alcohol is used to complement meals (a full-bodied Barolo with meat dishes, a citrusy Sauvignon blanc with pasta and seafood, and beer of all types with anything deep-fried) and to render the labyrinth of expected conduct at large social gatherings more navigable and enjoyable. Tobacco was used as a means of obtaining peer acceptance as a teenager and gradually as a source for immediate stress relief. All three are used as social stimulants: for reasons beyond comprehension, collective substance use increases camaraderie and can strengthen or even forge friendships.

The fundamental discrepancy between these substances lies in that I no longer wish to smoke cigarettes. After no less than a dozen escape attempts, I have relinquished hope of quitting completely, establishing a new standard of smoking only occasionally (defined as less than two cigarettes a month) with the intention to set more realistic goals and to reduce the frequency with which I disappoint myself with failure.

I know all three are “not healthy”. I know that excessive marijuana can diminish my short term memory. I know that excessive alcohol can damage “nearly every organ in the body”. Most of all, I know that smoking cigarettes increases mortality rate by about 300% and decreases life expectancy by “at least 10 years”; that this little white stick is literally killing me. Despite awareness of such staggering dangers and of the atrocious behaviour of tobacco companies (i.e. Philip Morris International suing the Uruguayan government to avoid educating consumers of risks through graphic informative packaging.), I still cannot stop. I am able to withhold from alcohol (though I admit that it is difficult to say no at celebratory occasions and that it would indeed be pleasant to have a glass of wine or pint of beer with most meals). I am capable of abstaining from marijuana (a beloved substance which I believe improves the appreciation of art and life) for weeks with no symptoms of withdrawal. But I am unable to say there will ever be a day when I am completely free from nicotine. Even if I successfully “quit”, the addiction will remain; a poltergeist forever lingering in the shadows, a parasite lying dormant deep within the body.

Such horrifying addictiveness and plethora of health repercussions make for a nasty combination, best described by the World Health Organization as “the single most preventable cause of death in the world today”, responsible for more deaths than “tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria combined”.

At the moment, all attention is centered on cannabis: its legal status, its health and sociological effects. Assuming, however, that the government and the courts adopt an evidence-based approach, I truly hope that the dialogue on drug policy reform eventually extends to tobacco; that there be future consideration of increased regulation and taxation, of its inclusion as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act (Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in Canada), and of the establishment of licensed tobacco dispensaries as opposed to ready availability in every gas station and convenience shop.

But, I suppose, one step at a time.

How Cannabis Could End a North American Epidemic

Yet another way in which medicinal cannabis could save lives: as a substitute for painkillers.

Opioid overdose has been described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a national epidemic. And contrary to lingering stereotypes, death by overdose on opiates isn’t exclusive to recreational use of illicit substances. Victims include patients who gradually developed an addiction to prescription painkillers (the most popular of which include Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin) and either failed to follow proper instructions or resorted to illegal alternatives – namely heroin – once prescriptions had run dry.

With the prescriptions and sales of painkillers having almost quadrupled in number since 1999 in addition to existing prohibited drug use, it seems almost cause-and-effect logic that the FDA reported overdose deaths as today’s “leading cause of injury death in the Unites States – surpassing motor vehicle crashes.”

The most tragic part of this public health issue is that such casualties are entirely preventable.

Research has consistently revealed the following methods of prevention:

In regards to prescription-related overdose, perhaps the most effective and practical method would be to prescribe an alternative to opiate painkillers, preventing patient addiction and misuse from the outset. One medical alternative is – wait for it – cannabis: a natural substance with analgesic, pain-relieving properties recognized since the second century AD in China.

A time-series study revealed that states legalizing the medicinal use of cannabis exhibited a “24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate”. Yet legalization remains a contentious issue.

The lack of government adoption of such fact-based provisions is not only disheartening – instilling a sense of repugnance towards the lengthy and at times backwards bureaucratic process as well as towards deeply rooted prohibitionist attitudes – but also cruel, standing idle in the face of so much empirical evidence, in the face of so many unnecessary deaths.

As citizens wait for evidence-based drug policies at the federal level, victims of opioid overdose may be added to the list of casualties of the war on drugs.

A Distinction on Cannabis: Relatively Harmless vs. Relatively Less Harmful

Following the debate on cannabis, two general tendencies can be observed of opponents and proponents: of the first to cast marijuana as a dangerous and immoral substance, prescribing prohibition; and of the latter to herald its medicinal benefits and relative safety in comparison to the legally and socially acceptable substances of alcohol (ethanol) and tobacco, advocating reform.

The first is easy to dismiss, as with the irrational tantrums of a child accustomed to getting their way. One only needs to conduct a basic search to uncover a plethora of scientific research refuting the claims of prohibitionists, including that marijuana acts as a gateway drug to harder substances and causes psychosis and apathy.

The latter is more concerning. In the heat of the debate, from an inherently defensive position of the underdog, it can be enticing and even natural to focus solely on affirmative information. In this, however, quotes extracted from statements and studies may be incomplete in context.

Cannabis enthusiasts celebrated the findings of a Cambridge University study which “failed to reveal a substantial, systematic effect of a long-term, regular cannabis consumption on the neurocognitive functioning of users who were not acutely intoxicated.” The empirical refutation of claims that marijuana renders its users stupid is a reformist victory – but omitting that the “two exceptions were in the domains of learning and forgetting […] indicating a very small but discernible negative effect” issues a subtle yet significant shift in context.

Enthusiasts and reformists also exulted when Cathy Lanier, Washington D.C. Police Chief as well as former recreational user, contradicted the perception of cannabis as a dangerous substance inducing violence and societal harm, emphasizing that “Alcohol is a much bigger problem.”

Such a statement from a major law enforcement actor amounted to a huge gain to the reform movement and has accordingly been reproduced throughout the Internet. However, the chief’s full quote includes an additional four words which seem to have been largely overshadowed yet which raise a crucial distinction: “Still, it’s not healthy.”

Marijuana is significantly less harmful relative to the legally and socially acceptable drugs of alcohol and tobacco, but it is not harmless.

In terms of medicinal uses, marijuana is nature’s goddamned miracle. The recognition of its analgesic properties dates back to the second century AD in China and today, cannabis has been approved by various governments “for treatment of central neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis” and of cancer pain. Research has highlighted cannabinoids as potential therapeutic treatment for Alzheimer’s, glaucoma, and migraines, and has underscored their anti-tumor and anti-proliferative properties, inviting further cancer research.

Nonetheless, marijuana is not without its own risks and repercussions. Heavy use can negatively affect working memory and verbal recall; a consequence experienced first-hand as a frequent recreational user. The list of synonyms at my command seems to have been shortened (Diminished? Reduced? Abridged? … Utterly destroyed?), though the effect can be reversed with a month-long abstinence.

Sociologically, heavy use of cannabis is correlated with depression.

Correlation in the social sciences, while it in no way signifies causation, can be deeply suggestive. When people in large numbers exhibit the same behaviours, the trend can indicate something about underlying conditions. Nevertheless, a similar association exists between depression and “binge-watching” behaviour on streaming services such as Netflix. Watching television for continuous stretches of time and/or smoking pot (the combination of which coincidentally harmonizes like salt and caramel) does not cause depression. The studies may indicate that individuals exhibiting symptoms of depression may look to external sources to alter moods. Television is entertainment, but can be a source of addiction. Marijuana is medicine, but it is also a habit-forming drug with its own risks.

Regardless, the dangers of cannabis are miniscule in comparison to those of alcohol and tobacco. As the INSERM Collective Expertise Centre reported in 2001, heavy alcohol use “triggers high morbidity and mortality rate due to cancer, liver disease, adverse effects on the central or peripheral nervous system, cardiovascular diseases, or abnormal development in children exposed in utero.”

“Nevertheless,” the report points out, “the consequences of alcohol intake on health depend on individual consumer susceptibility, on its pattern, and above all, its level of consumption.” With both weed and booze, health and sociological effects are determined by intake volume and frequency. Tobacco is a whole other story.

No, marijuana does not cause psychosis, lead to the use of more dangerous drugs or decrease motivation. Yes, its medicinal and recreational use ought to be legalized, regulated and taxed. But as with all things in life, recreational indulgence should be done in moderation. Heavy regular use (at least 5 joints per week) not only may have negative effects on short term memory but also may reflect emotionally and/or chemically compromised decision-making abilities.

What is of utmost importance is that the individual’s decisions, however poor or healthy, be fully informed decisions – not piecemeal.