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Jewish World Review May 17, 2001 / 24 Iyar 5761

Philip Terzian

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Waiting to inhale -- I AM perfectly happy to accept the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling that illness is no defense against federal prosecution for consuming marijuana. According to the court, "Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception" to the laws against controlled substances.

This is certainly plausible. The argument for so-called medical marijuana claims, at most, that smoking pot alleviates some of the symptoms of pain and nausea associated with cancer, chemotherapy and AIDS. It is entirely possible that the therapeutic properties of marijuana are illusory, a placebo, with no basis in scientific evidence. Certainly the "cannabis clubs" that have emerged in those states that have sanctioned the medical use of marijuana -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington - show very little evidence of humanitarian intent. They seem more like thumb-in-the-eye gestures to circumvent state and federal laws prohibiting pot.

But if we are to accept the argument that the medical virtues of marijuana are overstated, or even nonexistent, it is only fair to point out that the arguments for a federal ban on marijuana are equally exaggerated.

When federal laws to control pot were first enacted, early in the 20th century, marijuana was widely believed to cause all manner of mental and physical harm. Who, among the Baby Boom generation, has not guffawed at a late-night screening of Reefer Madness (1933), with its scenes of debauchery and fatal indulgence? The fact that marijuana swiftly acquired a vogue among jazz musicians, Hollywood types and bohemians of all creeds and races scarcely enhanced its image.

In time, of course, the conventional wisdom evolved: By the 1960s marijuana was seen as not so harmful in itself -- no more harmful, that is, than innumerable legal substances -- but the gateway to stronger, more destructive, opiates. Using the language later adopted by gun control and anti-smoking advocates, the federal government argued that a child who smokes marijuana will soon graduate to hallucinogens, cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, whatever. And of course, there are plenty of people who have experienced that sad trajectory.

But the scientific evidence is, yet again, equivocal. A social historian might argue that the widespread use of marijuana, leading to harder drugs, coincided with that period in our recent history (ca. 1965-ca. 1980) when drug use exploded in the general population. Adolescents graduated from pot to LSD to crystal meth because the culture encouraged experimentation. Was it the marijuana that prompted Jason to sample the stronger stuff, or the environment in which Jason subsisted?

It now appears obvious that social and cultural factors are to blame. Indeed, according to federal statistics, the United States seems to have a permanent pot-smoking contingent, which constitutes a little less than nine percent of the population. For these people, marijuana is not an introductory phase on the path to damnation but a "drug of choice." I wouldn't argue that what they are doing is good for them, or that parents and teachers are wrong to discourage interest in pot. But these people have freely chosen to indulge in an opiate which -- for reasons considerably more political than scientific -- is illegal.

For the record, I should point out that I, like former President Bill Clinton, sampled marijuana in my youth, and instantly disliked it. Unlike President Clinton, however, I did inhale -- and have ever since loathed the odor of the stuff and its particular effect, deplored the attendant "culture" (if that's the word for it) and avoided the company of potheads in general. I am blessed by the fact that my own drug of choice, bourbon, is not only legal but, like marijuana, comparatively safe when consumed in moderation.

This is not to say that children should be steered toward alcohol: Its benefits and dangers are evenly distributed, and abstinence is healthy, thrifty and wise. But why tolerate the drunk or lament the alcoholic while throwing the smoker of marijuana in jail? It is not science which informs our resistance to pot, or even common sense, but politics, habit and the natural instinct to enact into law the deeply-held conviction that father knows best.

In a free society, you shouldn't need arguments to make something legal, but instead, demand good reasons to make it illegal. Congress and the Supreme Court have both determined that marijuana has no medical properties. Fair enough. But neither do gin, sex, tobacco or chocolate, all of which can lead to excess and disaster. The drug war has failed not because drugs are irresistibly attractive, or efforts to indoctrinate the young are doomed to fail. It is, instead, a peculiar double standard that has earned a certain cynicism and contempt.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal