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The Case Against Medical Marijuana

Commentary by Greg Lewis /
January 3, 2005

There are two fairly well-defined positions that have emerged regarding the issue, under consideration by the Supreme Court of the United States of America, of whether the use of marijuana should be legalized for the treatment of certain medical conditions.

The first of these sees marijuana's limited legalization as, in almost all cases, the effort of so-called "stoners" (in contemporary parlance people who pretty much can't live without getting high on marijuana on a daily basis) to find a way to circumvent existing laws that criminalize the use of wacky weed so that they (the stoners), with the consent of their croakers (q.v., below), can stay high all the time with impunity. Those who oppose passing laws which legalize the use of marijuana in "medically" sanctioned cases are seen by those who favor such laws' passage as inflexible obstructionists (scare quotes intended to emphasize the rather cynical view taken by opponents of legalization to the validity of the term "medical").

The term "croaker" is Beat-Generation slang for "doctor." I first encountered it in the writings of William S. Burroughs. Its meaning has since the 1950s been narrowed somewhat to denote a physician who stretches prescription medication guidelines to insure that his or her patients do not have to endure existential pain beyond what contemporary drug mediation can guarantee is acceptable. Under the proposed new laws, I can't imagine marijuana becoming anything — at least in California — but a substance any croaker would readily prescribe for patients with the same sort of substance cravings Burroughs and his cronies flaunted 50 years ago, and for which their croakers provided relief by prescribing opiates when heroin (Burroughs' drug of choice) was in short supply.

On the other side of this issue are those who favor the blanket legalization of medical marijuana. The "medical" umbrella seems to be providing, for people who would ultimately remove any restrictions whatsoever on smoking grass, something of an entry-level platform from which they might leverage across-the-board approval of the use of boo to ameliorate pretty much any condition that might create stress in any human who tends to respond to "stressful" situations by freaking out. All of this is to say that, where the use of marijuana is concerned, the currently-enumerated "medical" conditions are designed to protect a sub-class of American citizens from coping with their lives in traditionally accepted (read "pharmacologically unmediated") ways.

In fact, if such legislation is allowed by the Supreme Court to stand, it will become not much more than an excuse for a bunch of pot-smokers of every ilk to do what abusers of the Americans With Disabilities Act and their attorneys have done: find ways to twist and subvert and otherwise undermine legislation designed to provide succor to a class of American citizens who are legitimately entitled to government-sanctioned relief from their afflictions so that the legislation in question becomes the instrument, in this case, for a bunch of stoners "getting over" at the expense of American taxpayers, who will minimally be presented with the bill for legal fees in the lawsuits that result from potheads' bringing actions against the state if they are denied, for any reason whatsoever, funded access to the drug which has been the foundation of their lifestyles for, in many cases, the past several decades.

But these arguments beg the real question, which has to focus on the consequences for human brain chemistry and, subsequently, human behavior, of the overuse of psychotropic substances. A psychotropic substance is one which, when ingested and absorbed into the bloodstream, interacts directly with brain chemistry to alter moods and behavior. Psychotropic substances can dramatically change the way we feel and the way we respond to our environments. Psychotropic substances are all potentially addictive, and marijuana is most assuredly a psychotropic substance.

Let me backtrack a bit. Hundreds of substances — from the caffeine in coffee to the nicotine in cigarettes to the alcohol in "adult" beverages — that many of us routinely ingest are psychotropic. Add to these innumerable prescription drugs, from antidepressants to allergy medications to painkillers to stimulants, and you'll begin to get an idea of the range of "acceptable" psychotropic substances tens of millions of Americans consume on a daily basis. And I haven't even mentioned so-called "street" drugs, from ecstasy to cocaine to heroin to marijuana, that millions more Americans use on a more-or-less regular basis.

What no legislation, and no public policy that I'm aware of, has ever taken into account is the biochemistry of drug use. While physicians routinely prescribe drugs that have jarring effects on human brain chemistry, they also routinely fail to acknowledge or to advise their patients that such drugs, although often suppressing symptoms of everything from allergies to depression, at the same time alter brain chemistry in such a way that the humans taking the drugs become more and more dependent on them and that their bodies and psyches are consequently less and less able to mount natural responses to their conditions. In other words, the greater the degree to which you rely on any sort of psychotropic drug to mediate between you and the events of your life, the less "human" you become.

THC, the psychotropic ingredient in marijuana, substitutes for the brain chemical anandamide, which plays a role in such important functions as memory, mood, appetite, and pain perception (just in case you were wondering why stoners can't seem to concentrate, can't recall what's happened from one moment to the next, and need to be constantly resupplied with munchies). But while no one is arguing that marijuana might not play some role in mitigating certain types of pain, becoming an habitual marijuana user has other significantly damaging side effects, including lethargy, loss of motivation, inability to focus, the aforementioned memory lapses, and, after prolonged use, difficulty in experiencing pleasure, among numerous others.

Legislation which broadens the scope of acceptability of our use of psychotropic substances — no matter whether the substance be marijuana or Paxil, cocaine or Ritalin (Ritalin, for the record, interacts to disrupt brain chemistry in exactly the same way cocaine does) — is legislation that expands institutional authority over what we accept as "human." This is to say that legislation which expands the acceptability and the legality of using psychotropic substances for the purpose of helping us cope with the physical or psychological pain of existence is legislation which contributes, ultimately, to the disaffirmation of our humanity, of our ability to experience fully what it means to be human.

This is not to say that I don't favor, for instance, the use of painkilling prescription drugs to ease the suffering of those who are in the final stages of a terminal illness. The use of painkillers for the purpose of making bearable another human's last days on earth is to me not only an acceptable but even an honorable application of modern pharmacology. Nor do I object to the short-term use of prescription psychotropic substances in times of crisis, such as enabling someone to bear otherwise debilitating pain while recovering from physical or emotional trauma.

Rather, at issue here is the legitimization of what has been regarded as a "street" drug for the purpose of ameliorating the suffering associated (at least anecdotally) with certain medical conditions. (Indeed, the evidence that marijuana is effective in reducing physical pain among its users is totally anecdotal to my knowledge.) Further, the issue involves adding yet one more psychotropic substance to the list of such substances that can be legally used to reduce our humanness, our ability to build the natural strength to respond to the events and conditions of our lives without biochemical mediation. It is, finally, for this reason that I would argue against the legalization of marijuana use for medical purposes.



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