Do Americans need one more bad habit?

This is an argument that prohibitionists often use on message boards, news article comments, and other forums where cannabis policy is debated by the public. However, the question is fundamentally flawed because it is based on false assumptions. Specifically, the phrase “one more bad habit” implies that:

  1. it doesn’t exist already, so that if we re-legalized it there would suddenly be a new intoxicant on the market that we’ve never had available before;
  2. its use is “bad”;
  3. its use constitutes a “habit”;
  4. its use would be aggregated with existing “bad habits” and would not replace or mitigate them; and
  5. we have a legitimate right to question the habits and proclivities of our neighbors, to judge those habits and proclivities, and to decide which will be allowed and which will not (assuming that these habits and proclivities do not involve acts of force or fraud against others, which use of legal cannabis by adults clearly does not).

I take issue with every single one of those implications, and at least two of them have been ruled out by scientific data.

Cannabis is here to stay

Cannabis is already one of the most popular substances in use in this country, with over half of Americans having tried it at sometime and about 16% of Americans admitting to continued occasional or regular use. Re-legalizing won’t “add” anything; on the contrary, it will subtract the many harms caused by prohibition. These harms include imprisoning millions of Americans for cannabis-related activity, militarizing our police to fight cannabis, which is an unstoppable foe, subsidizing organized crime by handing them a lucrative market on a silver platter, depriving patients of a natural and effective herbal remedy based on fears that have no basis in science, and outlawing an entire environmentally friendly industry in domestic hemp products, again because of fears that have no basis in science.  (For a full list, see my recent post on this topic.)

And cannabis is not new. Several of our founding fathers used cannabis either recreationally or medicinally, including such important luminaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Ben Franklin. (Madison credited it for giving him the ability to “envision a new nation”; he is if you will recall the author of our Constitution.) Cannabis was until relatively recently sold over the counter in apothecaries all over the country. Commercially rolled and packaged cannabis cigarettes were marketed by Grimmault and Sons as a remedy for asthma. Cannabis has been part of human culture for at least 4000 years.

How bad is cannabis?

Cannabis use is a lifestyle choice made by millions of Americans. Some use it for purely recreational purposes, other for medical reasons or religious reasons, and still more for the perceived health benefits. For example, there is a growing community of people who insist that they derive significant health benefits by drinking the raw juice of the plant. Such a preparation cannot get one high, because contrary to popular belief raw cannabis has quantities of THC that are too minute to have a psychoactive effect. (What it does have is Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa), which when subjected to heat can be converted to THC. This is why people who are seeking the high always subject their cannabis to heat, usually by smoking, vaporizing, or cooking it.)

Regardless of what motivates people to make cannabis a part of their lives, it cannot be truly considered a bad habit unless it harms them or limits them in some way. And while it is possible to find people for whom this is true, most adults are mature and intelligent enough to set limits on their use of the herb. Cannabis is one of the safest substances on earth, and is virtually impossible to take a lethal dose. It has never been proven to cause short- or long-term health risks when used in moderation by adults. Even when used chronically and heavily it is not associated with poor health. It appears especially benign when compared to many legal substances which truly are bad habits. To wit:

1. Alcohol is toxic. Too much can kill you, and for people who are addicted to alcohol too little can also be lethal. But even one drink is poison and will kill some brain cells. That same drink will also lead to impaired driving; even if under the legal limit a driver who has consumed alcohol is several times more likely to be involved in an accident than someone who is sober. Long term heavy use destroys not only the brain but also the liver and can lead to numerous other health issues. It is estimated that 10% of all deaths in the USA are alcohol-related.

2. Sugar is bad for your teeth, bad for your waistline, and contributes to obesity, which in turn increases the chances of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. People who consume too much can acquire a psychological dependence on it. Consumption of sugar can wreak havoc on your metabolism, causing an immediate increase in energy quickly followed by an energy-draining crash. Sugar also has no nutrition, so every calorie is a wasted one.

3. Like alcohol, drinking too much water will kill you and so will too little. Water also poses a drowning hazard; even a shallow puddle can drown someone who is unable to lift themselves free. According to the CDC, from 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 347 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents, which is another death almost every day.

Cannabis does not cause any of these problems. Study after study has failed to find the “smoking gun”, an actual harm that is caused by cannabis use. The closest is an indication in some studies that cannabis use by minors can lead to negative outcomes such as poor academic performance and general under achievement. But even these studies fail in every case to establish causation, and it could very well be that kids who are poor academic achievers or under achievers in general may just be predisposed to liking cannabis. In any event, nobody (except maybe in Texas) is suggesting that cannabis should be legal for kids, and in fact re-legalizing it and regulating it are viewed as a way to reduce access to cannabis by teenagers. (Prohibition obviously does not have that effect.) And there are no studies proving that cannabis causes harm to adults when used in moderation.

Is cannabis addicting or habit-forming?

Most studies agree that cannabis is not addictive. Many addiction specialists will argue forcefully that this isn’t true, but they are hardly objective witnesses; their livelihood depends on court-ordered addiction treatment for cannabis consumers caught committing a cannabis-related offense. Fifty percent of the addiction treatment industry’s revenues come from cannabis consumers, of which less than 10% are seeking help voluntarily. The majority of the remaining 90% are either there by court order or by the order of some other authority figure, such as a parent or an employer.

Whether or not one considers cannabis addictive or habit-forming depends on definitions and statistics. Clearly, for the majority of people, it is neither. Most cannabis users use cannabis only occasionally. Many have tried and didn’t like it and never had it again. (One of those guys didn’t even inhale!)  Addiction is defined by the DSM as compulsive use despite negative consequences. By that measure a lot of substances are addictive. Most people however consider “addictive” substances ones that are truly difficult to give up, such as nicotine which is fiercely addictive. Under this more traditional definition, cannabis is not addictive, since the withdrawal symptoms are mild and largely go unnoticed. Indeed, most people just grow out of frequent cannabis use once they hit that phase of their lives where they are just too busy. Those that do not are using cannabis to mask or alleviate more serious issues, be they physical or emotional.

Cannabis use in context

One of the assumptions of the “Do we need one more” argument is that cannabis would be added to the intoxicants already in use, exacerbating the problems of drug and alcohol abuse. However, statistics and anecdotes abound that indicate otherwise. In medical cannabis states, enactment of medical cannabis laws has led to a decrease in prescription narcotic use and a decrease in traffic fatalities due to alcohol. Both of these indicate that people are switching from more dangerous substances to the benign herb. This does not add to the problem of drug abuse in America; it subtracts from it.

Subtracting from it further is the impact of re-legalization on the black market (which in DC is now called the harris market). Assuming taxes and other operating expenses are not kept artificially high, a legal and regulated market in cannabis can damage the black market which could result in a ripple effect on the black markets of other drugs, since cannabis is often the flagship product that lures consumers into the drug dealers’ lairs. And, without an indifferent black market in cannabis, minors will find it harder to obtain cannabis. At a minimum it will be much more uncommon for teenagers to find cannabis often enough to develop the sort of heavy, chronic usage pattern that is associated with negative outcomes in teens. Of course it is still too early to tell if re-legalization will actually have this effect; careless parents could easily offset a reduced black market. But early indications are that kids in Colorado are using cannabis less now than prior to re-legalization.

About Freedom

The idea that we have a legitimate right to question the habits and proclivities of our neighbors, to judge those habits and proclivities, and to decide which will be allowed and which will not runs contrary to our democratic principles and to our system of government. It is in fact totally un-American to question the lifestyles of our neighbors or to try to interfere with them, assuming that they do not involve acts of force or fraud against others. The consumption of legal cannabis by adults clearly does not. However, cannabis consumers, like other Americans, should make every effort to be good neighbors and to not let their activities infringe on their neighbors’ lifestyles. This means using air filters to ensure indoor gardens do not cause the whole block to smell like a cannabis farm, keeping cannabis smoke out of adjoining apartments and yards, keeping all cannabis away from kids, and otherwise being respectful of people who do not wish to participate in cannabis consumption. In this way cannabis consumers can continue to hold the moral high ground.

One of the prices of having the freedom to choose your own path in life is that you have to let your neighbors have their freedom too, even when (especially when) they choose a different path than yours. This seems to be the one fact that prohibitionists cannot grasp.

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