Monday, June 06, 2005

A Black Day in Green Land?

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 margin (O'Connor, Rehnquist, and Thomas dissenting; Scalia writing a separate concurring opinion) that the federal laws prohibiting marijuana override any state laws that might permit its use.

I support the legality of medicinal use of marijuana. I support the legalization of recreational use of marijuana. I support the continued legal use of marijuana for religious purposes.

However, from my perusal of the actual text of the decision, I'm not sure that the Supreme Court was wrong. Read the decision itself, please. You can gloss over on the details of Blahblah v. Yadayada; the substance of the decision is that the states cannot carve out a limited exception to the federal drug classification. It is (as the majority of the Court goes out of its way to note) the responsibility of the Congress to recognize the silliness of calling marijuana a substance with no established medicinal use.

The dissenters held that it was within the rights of an individual state to permit medical marijuana within its own borders, provided that it did not extend into interstate commerce.

The Congress has classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. That means that it has a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and no accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment.

High potential for abuse

It seems to me that the potential for abuse of a substance breaks down into the attractiveness of non-medical use, the dangers associated with non-medical use, and the risks of physical addictiveness and psychological habituation. Marijuana clearly rates high (no pun intended) on the first criterion. It's fun — kind of like getting drunk, only without the stumbling and puking and with a lot less hangover the next day.

The dangers of non-medical use of marijuana vary depending on the frequency of use and the timeframe under consideration. In the long term, smoking marijuana (as well as smoking other things, such as tobacco) increases the risk of various ailments such as lung cancer. More on that issue later.... The THC in marijuana also appears to cause long-term effects such as decreased sperm motility and poor short-term what were we talking about? memory. However, those long-term effects are mild relative to the long-term effects of non-medical alcohol use. The short-term dangers of marijuana are very similar to those for alcohol: impaired judgment (less so than alcohol), uncoördinated stumbling (much less so than alcohol), and giggling or staring vacantly into space (as opposed to getting into barroom brawls). That leaves addictiveness.

Marijuana certainly has an element of psychological dependence. On the other hand, another way of saying the same thing is that many people use marijuana as medication for certain psychological issues such as depression. (Such use remains controversial in medical and legal circles, but it is abundantly clear that many individual people consider it self-medication for depression.) On a physical level, though, marijuana is physically addictive. Yes, I said that marijuana is physically addictive. However, that's not the whole story. A friend of mine got his start on smoking pot at his parents' knees at the age of 4. He was a heavy user for 13 years before he quit cold-turkey at age 17. He experienced the textbook symptoms of withdrawal from tetrahydrocannabinol. Of all the marijuana users I have ever known, including some for whom sobriety was a brief break from near-perpetual stoner fog until they abruptly quit, I have never seen any other evidence of physical addiction to marijuana. Besides that, let's look at that issue in context — which carries greater risk of addiction: smoking a Marlboro while enjoying a whiskey and soda, or puffing on an unfiltered marijuana cigarette?

Accepted medical use

The Congress does not accept the medical use, but it is clear that many physicians do. At the very least, the issue is deserving of serious unbiased study. On August 14, 1970, Roger E. Egeberg wrote that marijuana should remain on Schedule I "at least until the completion of certain studies now underway" (see pages 10 & 11 of the majority opinion in Gonzales v. Raich). The studies in question were completed and turned over to President Nixon, recommending that marijuana be removed from Schedule I. Nixon gave the report the respect and credence it deserved had the report buried, where it remained for decades. Saying that marijuana has "no accepted medical use" is like saying that there is no evidence linking tobacco smoking to lung cancer.

Safety of use

Smoking marijuana increases the risk of lung cancer and other ailments. However, that risk can be dramatically reduced by readily available technology, like the Volcano vaporizer. Many of the components of marijuana smoke are products of high-temperature combustion; using a controlled-temperature vaporizer can allow for greater release of the desired active ingredients with lower levels of toxic, carcinogenic, or otherwise nasty crud. It is clear that there is an "accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment" in using a vaporizer.

So why Schedule I?

Politics. Nothing but politics. Seriously. Look at the facts, and tell me with a straight face that it is rational to allow cocktails and ciggie-butts but prohibit reefer. If you can do that, I want to know what you've been smoking.