While the Trump effect has hidden this reality, last November marijuana had its biggest night at the polls ever, with seven states easing restrictions on the drug through ballot initiatives.
On most fronts, the culture wars have been fought in courts and bureaucracies in a most undemocratic fashion. Marijuana is different. Here, referendum-based changes in policy have passed with relatively little controversy because most people just don’t seem to care. Of those who do care, pot activists are the more vocal and motivated group. Also, frankly, arguments against legalization are often logically flawed and tone-deaf to the milieu of marijuana.
My years as a Southern Californian, a student at a “No. 1 party school,” an employee of many fast food establishments, a musician, and now a social worker, have furnished me with a more-than-passing familiarity with weed culture. I’ve dealt with smokers from all walks of life, young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural, black and white, skinny and fat, frat boys and hippies and thugs (oh my!). I’ve spent days educating troubled teens about marijuana’s harmful effects, only to find myself in a cloud of someone else’s weed smoke at a gathering that same evening.
Based on my experiences, I think both sides of the debate are missing the mark. While marijuana’s surface-level effects appear more benign than its detractors suggest, its unintended consequences run deeper than its advocates like to admit.
Liquor and Weed are Apples and Oranges
A common and compelling talking point from the legalization crowd is simply this: Alcohol is a drug with established risks, yet still legal. Marijuana is also a drug, with arguably milder risks, but not legal. How does this make sense?
In terms of potential short-term effects, this analysis is surely correct. Alcohol, if abused, contributes to all manner of instability, violence, crime, poor decision-making, dangerous driving, fatal overdose, and general mayhem.
Marijuana’s immediate effects, as comedian Katt Williams so eloquently summarized, are “hungry, happy, sleepy.” Overindulgence in cannabis may result in an empty wallet, an overfull belly, and a wasted weekend. But that admittedly doesn’t compare to an alcohol binge. As advocates love to point out, “Nobody ever overdosed on weed.”
By this measure, we could argue for legalizing all kinds of things. Alcohol is more physically harmful than cocaine. Its detox process is worse even than that of heroin. It fuels more violence than PCP. If we’re setting booze as the bar for acceptable risk, and opening the door to anything beneath that bar, we might as well all slap “Legalize Everything” stickers on our bumpers.
But this line of reasoning is misguided. Alcohol is socially and legally accepted not because of its benign nature, but rather its place of prominence throughout the history of Western civilization. Since time immemorial, liquors and wines and ales have been used to melt tensions and build bonds, mark celebrations and consecrate rituals. Dangerous or not, it is a part of our heritage.
My tenth grade English teacher once remarked that if alcohol were a new drug hitting the street, it would be illegal, and that is undoubtedly true. But it isn’t. When we drafted our drug policy, you might say it was great-great-grandfathered in. The same can’t be said for marijuana.
There are other differences as well. Mind-altering substances don’t always lend themselves to side-by-side comparisons. Their effects are different in nature and trajectory, apples and oranges. It’s quite possible to drink socially, for instance, while I’ve yet to meet the man who uses heroin in moderation. So let’s move on from alcohol and examine marijuana use on its own merits.
Put Down the Pipe
The long-term effects of marijuana use paint a much darker picture than advocates would have us believe. Studies link cannabis use to onset of schizophrenia and other manifestations of mental illness. I’ve known people who lived happily as potheads for long stretches, only to have paranoid mental breakdowns down the line.
Further research suggests a substantial decrease in IQ related to long-term use. Cranial scans of chronic users reveal significant alterations in brain structures. Damage to both short and long-term memory is well-known. The negative impact is greatest for teens and young adults, the very people most at risk for using. The harm done by marijuana is real, and may not be apparent until it’s too late. There’s also still a lot about its effects we don’t know, which should frighten us.
I don’t want to be too dismissive of weed’s short-term effects, either. The drug’s surface benignity is partly what lures so many into long-term abuse. It doesn’t make users nauseous or volatile while high, or hung over the next day. It’s an easy habit to pick up because it doesn’t seem at first to come with a high cost. A marijuana high is often fairly simple to conceal, enabling users to get stoned as they go about daily tasks. Thus, cannabis has the potential to sneak in and dominate one’s life in an especially insidious way.
Even “hungry, happy, sleepy” over a long period of time can be destructive. We’re all familiar with the image of the pothead as a fixture on the couch, watching cartoons and drooling all the day long. I’ve seen enough of these types to confirm this isn’t urban legend. People I’ve known have dropped out of school or missed out on good jobs because they couldn’t be bothered to put down the bong.
Marijuana has both acute and residual effects, and these become the normal state for habitual users —“permastoned,” as the smokers say. They may be basically functional, but experience constant low energy, faint anxiety, and dulled minds that impair their ability to operate in the world. A few months or years of this can seriously impede one’s potential.
In a strange role reversal, normally progressive weed advocates often respond to these points by appealing to personal accountability. “Well, if they’re prone to mental problems, they shouldn’t be smoking in the first place.” “If they can’t smoke weed and still handle their business, that’s their own damn fault.” “The problem is with the person, not the drug.”
As much as my ears delight in the rhetoric of responsibility, I also recognize that clearly, some people don’t have the ability to control their marijuana use. Others, even if they aren’t completely derailed, will still become lesser versions of themselves. We need to think about them, too. Life already has enough built-in pitfalls without an expanded and legitimized marijuana culture luring people in.
What Happens Long-Term If We Legalize Marijuana?
But just what are the effects of marijuana legalization on society in the long-term? The truth is, we don’t know. In Colorado and other states, the experiment is still too new to judge if its fruits are sweet or sour. Preliminary results are inconclusive. Unintended consequences are a given, but as with any major shift in cultural norms, we can only speculate on the future.
So let me speculate. I wouldn’t anticipate a quick and dramatic impact, but rather changes more tectonic in nature—subtle at first, profound over time. Initially, patterns of use may not change that much. Former pot enthusiasts were already using, and those averse to it won’t change their minds right away.
But with legalization comes increased availability and reduced stigma. Those with no previous ties to the drug market will now have casual cannabis access. Law-abiding but curious types will try it out. Social circles will mingle. Usage will surely spread as habits tend to do. Workplaces will eventually relax their drug policies to adapt to a newly THC-infused labor force. So even within professional settings, pot may be normalized.
As adult use increases, teens will follow suit, spurred by both greater exposure and access. Kids will raid their fathers’ marijuana jars just as they used to do their liquor cabinets. Those who like what they find will only be a fake ID away from fueling their habits at will. Underage dealing will persist, and patterns of substance abuse will solidify still earlier in life. Because the effects of marijuana are less pronounced than those of other drugs, and given the proliferation of “edible” THC products that can be consumed inconspicuously, in-school stoners will multiply.
With overall growth in marijuana use will come an increase in its aggregate negative effects on the population. We probably won’t see crime waves, spikes in traffic accidents, or junkies roaming the streets, as some have speculated, because that’s not what pot does. Rather, we can expect the results of a collective decrease in motivation and ambition.
There may be higher dropout rates and lower average levels of professional and academic achievement. Civic engagement will likely drop, both because that takes effort and because cannabis doesn’t tend to foster attachment to social institutions. Habitual smokers are too content in their own worlds to involve themselves with the larger one around them.
Physical and mental health will suffer. Despite legalization, marijuana won’t entirely lose its countercultural associations, and therefore, the “gateway drug” effect will still be an issue.
That’s Not To Say the Status Quo Rocks
To be sure, most of these problems won’t be new, and may not reach epidemic proportions. But they will be strengthened and, perhaps worst of all, entrenched. Legalization preemptively thwarts any serious effort to curtail the harms cannabis causes. Hapless potheads will now be operating entirely within their legal rights, and their dealers will never run dry. The primary victims, as ever, will be minors and those prone to addiction and mental illness.
None of this should be interpreted as defense of the status quo. The state-federal tug of war over drug policy creates a “Who’s in charge here?” situation that’s not good for anybody. Fighting illegal substances with purely punitive measures has been less than successful.
The “medical marijuana” system has been a joke, although I don’t rule out the drug’s potential medicinal value if properly applied. Addictions treatment nationwide leaves much to be desired. The pot issue is complex, and I hope to see the states keep experimenting with different combinations of law enforcement, treatment, diversion programs, education, and other strategies to combat the marijuana market.
But wholesale legalization won’t make our problems go away. It will only deepen their roots.