Will Henao doesn't see how a government that legalizes alcohol and cigarettes can justify marijuana prohibition.
Too much alcohol will kill you. Cigarettes can lead to cancer and heart disease.
"I have never in my life heard of anyone overdosing on marijuana," said Henao, 30, a local college student. "Cigarettes and alcohol have killed thousands of people."
A motorist can buy cigarettes and alcohol at a gas station. But anyone who buys marijuana can go to jail, along with hardened criminals. "You're locking someone up with a rapist, a killer, a child molester," he said. "Can you weigh it?"
Henao is among those who find the government's approach to marijuana "hypocritical," believing the plant should be legal -- regulated, restricted and taxed.
Columbus Police Sgt. Rick Stinson, the agent in charge of the regional Metro Narcotics Task Force, believes the riddle -- of why alcohol's legal and marijuana's not -- answers itself.
To which drug do underage users today have the most access? Alcohol, Stinson said. So, we've legalized, regulated, taxed and by age restricted access to alcohol. Has that kept youngsters today from getting it? No. Has that increased their access? Yes.
So the argument that marijuana should be treated like alcohol is an argument against itself, he said: "To me, that is as much of a reason why you shouldn't legalize it... . Alcohol is the most available legal drug our underage people have."
He believes marijuana physically can damage a user's brain. He tells the story of a young man who was in Columbus' conditional discharge program, which diverted small-time drug users from jail.
This youth had smoked marijuana since he was 9, having started with his father. He got arrested and was put on probation, on the condition he would not be jailed as long as he passed a drug test.
So he knew he would lose his freedom for smoking pot, and yet: "He couldn't stop smoking... . He just simply would rather have gone to jail than to quit smoking marijuana," Stinson said.
Muscogee County Juvenile Drug Court Judge Warner Kennon sees how families deal with a child's drug use.
He recalled one youngster whose drug screening showed cocaine. The youth maintained he never had used the drug.
But he had used marijuana. "The marijuana was laced with cocaine," Kennon said.
That's among the dangers of illegal drug use among the young: It puts them in the company of criminals.
"Children tell us where you have to go to get the marijuana, usually other things are available," Kennon said. "Oftentimes, if it's not laced with something else, they may end up getting something they didn't go to get to begin with."
Kennon said he opposes legalizing marijuana also because of the disruptions it can cause in an adolescent's family relationships and school work. Users often become lethargic, irritable and disobedient, subject to rapid mood swings.
The THC combo
The man in charge of the medical program at the Muscogee County Jail is Paul Morris. When those under arrest show signs of mental illness or drug abuse, they get a blood test -- if they give their permission.
Morris finds that, much of the time, the drug that shows up in their system is THC, the active agent in marijuana. But there usually is something else -- alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine.
Morris knows that people who are bipolar can set off a manic episode through drug use. He suspects marijuana can trigger that. He knows a combination of drugs can.
"Marijuana and alcohol combined make up 60 percent of the drug of choice for bipolar or mentally ill patients," he said. "The mentally ill have kind of a delicate balance, when they find that environment and the psychotropic therapy that allows them to function in society. The combination of the marijuana and the alcohol puts that balance off, and that's when they end up coming to jail."
Any mix of recreational drugs might kick off a manic episode, in which people act "like Superman on speed," Morris said. "You're really, really excited, really strong, really aggressive, inclined to take high risks." Marijuana and alcohol simply may be the most available drugs, explaining why they are the ones most often detected in tests.
Morris is not saying marijuana makes you mentally ill -- unlike the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which in citing the results of a study of depressed teens' drug use states: "Using marijuana can cause depression and other mental illnesses."
Released in May, the report titled "Teen Marijuana Use Worsens Depression: An Analysis of Recent Data Shows 'Self-Medicating' Could Actually Make Things Worse" cites a correlation between depression and marijuana use. It concludes "that marijuana use can worsen depression and lead to more serious mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and even suicide."
According to a World Health Organization report reviewing research to gauge "The Probable Effects of Cannabis Use," much of the evidence of marijuana's effect on mental illness is suggestive but not definite.
Citing various studies, the report states:
"There is suggestive evidence that large doses of THC can produce an acute psychosis in which confusion, amnesia, delusions, hallucinations, anxiety, agitation and hypomanic symptoms predominate. The evidence comes from laboratory studies of the effects of THC on normal volunteers and clinical observations of psychotic symptoms in heavy cannabis users which remit rapidly following abstinence."
A 2001 report on long-term cannabis use, from the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, was published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. It said a review of research on heavy marijuana users found only that they had some trouble learning new information. The study's senior author, Dr. Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, which oversees studies on using medicinal cannabis to treat diseases, concluded that extended marijuana use "results in selective memory defects."
Morris, the jail medical director, doesn't think an otherwise healthy, sane person who occasionally uses marijuana is much at risk: "I'm not a real fan of drugs of any type. But of all the drugs that I've seen, in and of itself, for a person who is otherwise healthy, marijuana doesn't really appear to cause a whole lot more problems than alcohol does... . I've never seen a guy, whose only issue is he smokes some joints every now and then, come to jail because he's become psychotic or his decision-making is just so bad because of the marijuana."
So Morris doesn't believe putting people in jail for it is worth the cost.
"What I feel is that we should go ahead and decriminalize it. Now, I'm against it. Even if it was decriminalized, I wouldn't touch it. And if it was decriminalized and my kids were smoking it, I might give them a punch in the nose. But I would do the same thing if I found them drunk.
"I grew up at the end of the '60s, through the '70s, went through the military. In the early '70s in the military, marijuana use was rampant, everywhere. At the end of Vietnam, it was just common. But you know, the only thing that I noticed was that people became a little more lethargic, a little less dynamic. I never saw people who became psychotic, who abandoned their children, who stopped working, who stole for it."
Stinson, the head of the Metro Narcotics Task Force, said there is more to this issue than private, individual marijuana use.
"If Bubba just grew a plant in his backyard and all he wanted to do was smoke it, and that's all there was to it, then the concept of legalization, decriminalization, might be OK," he said. "But when you start getting rid of some of the laws that govern drugs of any kind, then a lot of people ignore the fact that marijuana is a major cash crop."
Much of the money derived from smuggling marijuana into this country goes to drug cartels in Mexico, he said. "You're not talking about a guy who's got a marijuana plant in his back yard and he picks the leaves to get high. So you've got to be careful when you start giving them loopholes in the law that they can fall back on."
These days, possessing less than an ounce of marijuana is "almost decriminalized," he said. "It's a fine, almost every time. I think it's very rare for the system to be locking people up for any time on misdemeanor marijuana. It's not practical."
Pot vs. booze
Sometimes, those arrested for marijuana wind up being clients of the local public defender's office, headed by attorney Bob Wadkins. He represents people arrested for alcohol-related crimes.
"One of the things I think you have to consider is that if alcohol, which is definitely a drug, is legalized and controlled, why not marijuana?" he said. "It's just the preference of the country and the way people look on alcohol, and the way they look on marijuana, that makes it different."
Unlike alcohol, which was popular during the American Revolution, and tobacco, which colonists came here to grow, marijuana has the subversive legacy of a counter-culture drug. And much of the country still sees it that way -- "still views it as a subculture drug, as opposed to alcohol, which is universal," Wadkins said.
Does he see defendants who, beyond being arrested for violating the law, have their lives ruined by using marijuana?
"No, but that's not absolutely the case," he said. "You do see people who have used marijuana to the point that it's physically and mentally debilitating to them, but you don't see anywhere near the number of people that has happened to as you do with alcohol."
He isn't saying marijuana should be legalized: "I don't have an opinion one way or the other. Here's what I think: I think if it were legalized, you'd have a lot better control on it. It costs the public a lot less money in courts and everything else, and it would make money, possibly, and people are going to do it anyway."
Said Stinson: "You can't go after these problems we're having by legalizing them... . Before we start legalizing everything, why don't we start trying to stop it?" He believes marijuana remains a "gateway drug," something that leads people to abuse other, more deadly substances.
Said Morris: "My feeling is that, yeah, it's the gateway drug, but that's kind of a cliche."
He once told a law enforcement officer marijuana should be decriminalized. "He said to me, 'Well, then they're all going to be selling it to our kids.' I looked at him and said, 'They're already selling it to your kids, if your kids want it. We're not stopping any of it.' It is a gateway drug, no doubt about it. But, right now, if a kid wants dope in any town in the United States, it's available. So, really, I think the issue is to create psychological barriers with education and attitudes that say, 'This is not good for people who want to achieve.' "
Making marijuana legal won't end its funding of criminal enterprises or keep children from getting it, said Stinson:
"You've got to be real careful when you start just talking about the easy solution to the problem is just to make the law go away. I haven't heard a good solution on that yet. Until I hear a solution that answers these other questions, I wouldn't support that."
Pubdate: Thu, 23 Oct 2008
Source: Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus,GA)
Author: Tim Chitwood