Toward a Saner Drug Policy
As I was moving in, my neighbor was moving out. To
Humboldt County, to take up farming, he said. I imagined him in midlife
crisis, fleeing corporate clonehood in suburbia for hard work and
independence. And maybe he was, but I later heard that Humboldt County
is the cannabis capital of northern California. He may back up
his independence with booby-traps, firearms, and a distributor connected
to organized crime. Because it is a "controlled substance," a
commercial marijuana grower must associate first for business, and then
for protection, with criminals. It can get ugly. Nobody hikes unmarked
trails in Humboldt County, they say.
On the other hand, drug addiction is ugly, too, and according
to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., president of Columbia University's National
Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, "teens who smoke pot are 85
times likelier to use drugs such as cocaine than those who have never
done so." (Wasington Post, 17 Feb. 97).
I don't doubt that statistic. But what does it mean? Does
anyone know who these kids are, and what motivates them? I suspect not.
And I suspect that the pot-hard drug connection is more complex than the
Consider that a growing body of evidence indicates that
addictive, impulsive, and compulsive disorders — including alcoholism,
substance abuse, smoking, compulsive overeating, attention deficit
disorder, Tourette's syndrome, and pathological gambling — may have a
common genetic basis. According to an article in American Scientist
(Blum, Cull, Braverman & Comings, March-April 1996) some people have
a "Reward Deficiency Syndrome" (RDS) in which inherited chemical
imbalances occur in brain mechanisms that enable us to derive feelings
of pleasure and well-being ("reward") from everyday activities like
being safe and warm with a full stomach. Such imbalances blunt reward
feelings, or even convert them to discomfort, anger, or anxiety. Now, by
doing things to obtain the "reward" feelings, a normal individual
engages in behaviors that further his or her survival. A pathological,
RDS person, on the other hand, may engage in compulsive thrill-seeking,
or may tinker with illegal drugs in an amateur attempt to adjust his or
her neurochemistry to something he or she can live with.
In other words, it isn't the pot. It's the people. Most kids
who try pot don't go on to harder drugs. Most don't even stay with pot —
it tastes bad, it smells bad, it burns your throat and lungs and makes
you cough. The high one experiences — ranging from slight
euphoria/relaxation to a complete inability to concentrate on anything,
to really bizarre and unpleasant sensations if your pot has been laced
with something (illegal substances lack government quality control
mandates) — simply isn't worth the inconvenience.
It's hard to believe that anyone would like that sort of thing,
but if your natural neurochemistry is uncomfortable for you, the pot
high may be an improvement. And for a certain number of people, it may
be not enough of an improvement. I think these are the people who go on
to try harder drugs, to which some large fraction of them become
As individuals, they each would be much better off working with
a psychiatrist to use prescription drugs in a controlled manner to
achieve a consistent feeling of normal well-being. They would be much
more likely to succeed than by tampering with their neurochemistry on
their own, and they would be much less likely to fall afoul of the law
But as a society, what are we to do? Currently we criminalize
marijuana, even though the evidence indicates that it can't be much more
dangerous that tobacco and alcohol combined, and even though there is a
growing body of evidence that is useful in controlling nausea in
chemotherapy patients, and wasting in AIDS patients (Science News, 22
Mar 1997). Moreover, since our current laws insure that only criminals
grow pot, we are simply insuring that the profits from marijuana go
tax-free to organized crime, just like liquor profits did during the
Prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s.
It's time to stop the reefer madness, and legalize marijuana.
It doesn't harm people that much compared to things we already accept
like cars, cigarettes, or booze, it doesn't lead people to hard drugs
who aren't going to try them anyway, and it doesn't make anybody feel
good enough for the rest of us to get jealous. Maybe we can even use pot
to wean cigarette companies off tobacco. We can even have standardized
reefers with known dosages, so people can know what they are getting in
order to avoid driving while under the influence. And maybe we use the
tax revenue from the profits to fund the efforts to control the use of
drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, etc., that do much greater harm.
That's the short-term solution.
The long term solution is to fund research to develop drug and
genetic therapies for Reward Deficit Syndrome, so RDS people can feel as
good as the rest of us, while still contributing to our society, or at
least while not disrupting it. Then, after we have taken their revenue
stream, it will be easier to go after the illegal drug suppliers who
haven't already found something better to do.
Now you may wonder about the absence of God-talk and
moralizing, since this is after all, a church. Well, as I said once to
one young addict, "I can't even begin to talk to you about God if you're
high. Elijah passed up the earthquake and the whirlwind to listen to
the still, small voice... and if you're high, you just tuned it out."
That goes for you whether you abuse substances, or just get your kicks
from controlling other people's behavior.