Change -- even change you can believe in -- rarely comes easily.
If Americans lose their cool over the president encouraging students to study, imagine what they'd do if someone suggested legalizing marijuana.
"We can't even get a primary seat belt law passed," said Rep. Charlie Roth, R-Salina. "We can't get a smoking ban in Kansas."
Allowing the use of marijuana ( or cannabis ), even for medicinal purposes, doesn't appear to have much support among public officials in Kansas. Locally, Saline County Sheriff Glen Kochanowski said he believes relaxing the rules would be ill-advised. Saline County Attorney Ellen Mitchell, who was deep into preparing for the third murder trial of Cameron Nelson, expressed skepticism. Salina Police Chief Jim Hill didn't return a call seeking comment.
And Kansas Attorney General Steven Six said he would oppose it if the Legislature ever brought it up.
"The use of marijuana can lead to the use of other harder, more serious, drugs," he said in an e-mail, via a spokesperson.
Actually, the ( scientific ) jury is out on the gateway question, argues Denise Kandel, a member of the faculty at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, in an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January 2003.
While some researchers believe early marijuana use puts users at greater risk for other drug abuse and dependence, Kandel questions the conclusion.
What doesn't appear to be in dispute is that marijuana use is associated with the use of other, harder, drugs. But so is tobacco and alcohol use.
"Very few individuals who have tried cocaine and heroin have not already used marijuana," Kandel writes. "The majority have previously used alcohol or tobacco."
Even so, there has been a faction that believes criminalizing marijuana use diverts criminal justice resources that would be better spent in other areas. In particular, they have lobbied for allowing medicinal use of marijuana.
Today, 14 -- mostly western -- states allow medical use of marijuana. Colorado is the closest, and is joined by New Mexico, Montana, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii. To the east, medical use is allowed in Michigan, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine. Maryland allows medical need to be a mitigating factor in criminal cases for possession.
States that allow medical use of marijuana typically limit its use to a specific set of ailments, require that it be prescribed by a doctor and allow only small quantities to be accumulated.
But changing state law doesn't make it entirely legal to use marijuana, even if your doctor prescribes it. That's because federal law still prohibits marijuana use and possession.
"You have kind of a conundrum of sorts in legalizing something that is still illegal," said Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.
The Effects of Drug Laws
But setting aside the political hurdles and legal trapdoors that would complicate any decriminalization plan, there are questions about how great the benefits would be. Conventional wisdom is that enforcement of drug laws has filled prisons to overflowing. Easing drug laws, the argument goes, would free up that space for violent criminals.
But the Legislature already has taken steps to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison. Senate Bill 123, which took effect in November 2003, provided money for treatment and community corrections programs as alternatives to prison.
A review of 18,430 inmates in Kansas prisons at the beginning of 2006 shows that a third had an active drug conviction. But only 2 percent were in on a drug charge that referenced marijuana.
In Saline County, the community corrections program managed 378 cases in the past year, of which 51 -- about one in eight -- were marijuana related.
Yes, It Is Addictive
Proponents of decriminalization sometimes point out that marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States and question the actual harm of using marijuana. Some argued, for instance, that it really isn't addictive. Medical researchers now know that it is.
"For many years, the scientific community had been reluctant to acknowledge the dependence potential of cannabis because certain types of experimental findings were lacking," wrote Alan Budney and Brent Moore in a paper published in 2002 by the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. "In contrast, the past 10 to 15 years of clinical and basic research have produced strong evidence demonstrating that cannabis can and does produce strong dependence."
The authors go on to note that marijuana's addictive properties are not as intense as those of other commonly abused substances.
"Cannabis has a substantial, albeit lower, rate of conditional dependence ( 9 percent ) than substances such as alcohol ( 15 percent ), cocaine ( 17 percent ), heroin ( 23 percent ), or tobacco ( 32 percent )," they wrote.
When it is smoked, its effect on the respiratory system is similar to tobacco use but at much lower doses.
"Habitual marijuana use is as injurious to the epithelium of the large airways as regular tobacco smoking, despite a much smaller daily number of marijuana than tobacco cigarettes smoked," wrote the authors of a paper on the respiratory consequences of marijuana smoking that was published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
Effects on the Brain
Marijuana's capacity to alter mental states is, of course, one of its primary attractions. What the long-term effects of regular use are on cognition isn't entirely clear. A study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that when users are high on marijuana it increased the time they took to complete some tasks and made them act more impulsively, but had "no effect on accuracy on measures of cognitive flexibility, mental calculation, and reasoning."
The study further concluded that these immediate effects were diminished in experienced marijuana users.
Regardless of what researchers have found, officials interviewed for this story were skeptical that Kansas will move to decriminalize marijuana any time soon.
"I think the Legislature is too conservative to even contemplate it," Roth said.
Some question the benefits. Advocates of legalizing medicinal use of marijuana say it is very effective for certain pain management, particularly in cancer patients.
Brungardt said the Legislature heard testimony on that subject.
"Most of the testimony we heard was that all those things that are desirable are duplicated by other medicines," he said. "In fact, the other medications are superior."
Kochanowski doesn't see the benefits outweighing the drawbacks.
"You're going to have people playing the system ( if medical use is allowed )," he said. And too often chemical abuse has disastrous effects.
"I have seen families broken, I have seen careers ruined because of a person's desire to use any kind of drug," he said.
It's Tough to Deal With
He rejects the suggestion that legalizing it would free law enforcement up to pursue other criminals.
"I have a hard time looking at decriminalizing something just to make things easier for everyone," he said. "What, do we decriminalize drunk driving? Do we decriminalize rape because it's too hard to deal with?"
He noted that the Legislature is exploring a statewide smoking ban.
"We're trying to control smoking and tobacco use," Kochanowski said. "Now we're wanting to make this legal? Where are we going?"
By DUANE SCHRAG
September 20, 2009