Nine years ago, a young Sacramento Kings star, Jason Williams, was suspended at the start of the NBA season for testing positive for marijuana. Williams was a big fan favorite at the time, and his suspension (the Kings were then a legitimate title contender) was a blow to the team’s chances in the upcoming season.
I wrote a column at the time about the incident, including in it the various reactions that were prevalent in the Sacramento community. In the pre-9/11 world of the year 2000, steroids had not yet emerged as the major issue they were soon to become, and marijuana use was still a significant federal crime, in spite of the passage by California voters four years earlier of the nation’s first “medical marijuana” law. (The same kind of law, permitting the use of marijuana with a health care professional’s authorization to combat the effects of illness or disability, has since been enacted in twelve other states.)
In the years since, the world has changed dramatically (just compare security at airports then and now if you need to be reminded), and views on marijuana use have changed perceptibly (with occasional news of use by professional athletes more likely to elicit a yawn than the community outrage that accompanied the news of Jason Williams’ use).
We know more about the effects of marijuana now than we did in 2000, but we still know (or acknowledge) precious little. Back in 2000, as I documented in my column at the time, the revelation that Williams was a “doper” led some to attribute the excessive number of turnovers he was inclined to commit to his use of the drug. Others (albeit far fewer) opined that in moderation the drug is no more harmful than a six-pack of beer.
Around the same time as the Williams suspension, a study reported in the Journal of Immunology concluded that smoking marijuana may put one at greater risk of contracting lung cancer than smoking tobacco and that the major psychoactive component of “dope,” tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), may promote the growth of other tumors as well. (Studies since then have linked smoking the drug to cancers of the mouth and throat.) The report, based on a study by the Jonsson Cancer Center at UCLA, raised significant questions about contrary claims that the use of marijuana may actually be desirable on medical grounds in certain instances.
With so much controversy continuing to surround this most ubiquitous of drugs (the word “weed” is certainly descriptive of its availability if not its effect), and with the Obama Justice Department recently announcing it will no longer prosecute medical marijuana users in states (like California) where such use has been legalized, it’s probably time to try, yet again, to shed a little light on the drug of choice of so many superstar athletes (and regular folks, too).
First, a little history: Marijuana (which is derived from the dried leaves and flowering tops of the hemp plant) has been around for a long time. In fact, for thousands of years it has been used as both a medicine and an intoxicant in many parts of the world. Laws against the use of the drug have existed for not quite as long. In the United States, state and local laws prohibiting its possession were first enacted in the early 1900’s. The first federal law against it was passed in 1937.
Dope use in the U.S. was “discovered” by the beat generation (its virtues were extolled by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) in the 1950’s, but it was during the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s when grass became something of a social phenomenon. It was first adopted by hippies, who “dropped out” by getting stoned, and then became part of the scene at rock concerts (think Woodstock), before it finally found what seemed to be a permanent home on just about every college campus this side of Bob Jones University. And, as those college students graduated and moved into mainstream society, they brought their dope with them, leading to pot-parties and other forms of casual use among many young (and, with time, not-so-young) middle-class couples.
And then came the “Just Say No” campaign led by Nancy Reagan, which seemed born of the rather retro idea that marijuana was indeed a “gateway” drug, meaning that it led, inevitably, to more serious abuses (with cocaine and heroin being the most commonly mentioned). As a direct result, for a number of years marijuana use may have leveled off (actual figures and statistics are somewhat problematic, since survey results on this question may not be reliable). With the emergence of the Millenials (of either the Gen-X or Gen-Y variety), however, the drug seems to be enjoying a resurgence, and its use and acceptance now may be higher (pardon the pun) than ever.
The strain of dope that is smoked by current users bears little resemblance to the relatively innocuous green leaves that stuffed many a joint during the “make love, not war” period of its former heyday. In response to the tremendous demand that exists, growers (annual revenue from this underground economy is estimated to be in the billions of dollars in California alone) have become highly sophisticated in their methods, creating crops that are bud-laden and resin-heavy. The THC concentration in these new and improved strains of the plant produces far more intense and sustained “highs” than boomers got from much greater quantities of the stuff a generation ago.
And what, exactly, is that “high” and what makes it so appealing? Is this drug capable of altering consciousness or of creating a physical addiction? Can it assist those suffering with disease or increase the risk of life-threatening illnesses? Does it enhance one’s perceptions or dull one’s senses? Is it the path to enlightenment or the road to ruin? What is the truth about this much maligned, misunderstood, mysterious drug?
According to the most currently-available figures, over a half million Americans are regularly incarcerated on illegal drug charges. Of this number, approximately twenty percent are imprisoned for violating marijuana laws. The annual cost of incarcerating these “criminals” is in excess of ten billion dollars! (Obviously, as a national policy, we take the issue of drug abuse very seriously.)
Here is a little relevant information (compiled in a 2000 report by the Justice Policy Institute, an organization committed to reducing incarceration for all crimes) to place this “primer on pot” in perspective: In 1986, 31 out of every 100,000 young people were in state prisons for drug offenses. By 1996, that figure had risen to 122 per 100,000. (More recent figures are not available, but are unlikely to be any lower.) Not surprisingly, states with the highest rates of imprisonment, the Institute’s study found, also had the highest rates of drug use.
So, what have we here? More than a full generation after it was popularized by the counter-culture movement of the sixties, marijuana continues to confound and perplex our society, even as it now enjoys perhaps its greatest degree of popularity amongst the mainstream of today’s youth and continues to be enjoyed (albeit perhaps not as frequently) by aging “baby boomers.” On the one hand, pot is reviled as a “gateway” drug, while on the other, it is deemed a social alternative to alcohol, producing a much less dangerous and much more enjoyable “buzz.”
Herewith then, some facts, scientific and medical findings, and “expert” opinions on the dangers and delights of the ubiquitous weed:
o Marijuana does not produce a physical addiction. Unlike tobacco, which contains the addictive chemical nicotine, and unlike heroin and cocaine, the repeated use of which leads to severe symptoms of withdrawal, thereby creating a physical need for the drugs, marijuana is “safe,” in that one will not become physically dependent on the drug. But …
o Marijuana use can most definitely create a psychological need, wherein the user becomes “hooked” on the desire for a high. (More on this point in a minute.) This more subtle effect may be irrelevant to the social user, but it is reason enough for concern in the minds of policy-makers, because …
o Marijuana is a mind-altering substance. Inhalation (or ingestion) of it creates a “high” in which the user experiences an altered sense of reality. The most common example of this fact is the “munchies,” which refers to the need that those high on marijuana develop for large quantities of food, preferably of the tasty/flavorful variety.
This heightened sensory awareness and sensitivity is one of the many pleasures attributed to the drug (and is also offered as a medical benefit in diseases such as cancer which rob sufferers of their appetites), but it also evidences the effect marijuana has on one’s mental alertness, because …
o There is clear evidence (both anecdotal and scientific) which suggests that the greater focus on the singular experiences or feelings that marijuana promotes also results in a loss of attention to everything and anything else. Thus, those on a marijuana high will often exhibit short-term memory loss, as in forgetting where one put one’s car keys (even though they are often in a very obvious place) or neglecting to change a baby’s diaper (even though the little one is crying loudly in the next room) or failing to pass on an important phone message to a spouse (even though the user took the message only five minutes earlier). Every regular marijuana user has experienced these or similar instances of “forgetfulness,” but they invariably accept the trade-off, because …
o Marijuana users claim that they see things more clearly when they are stoned. This aspect of the marijuana high may differ only in degree from that experienced by other hallucinogens (psilocybin, hashish, mescaline, LSD) or opiates (cocaine, heroin), but it is perhaps the single-most appealing effect of the drug. In simplest terms, marijuana users experience a sharpened appreciation for whatever they choose to focus on while they are stoned. Hence, users claim to have greater insights, more meaningful discussions, stronger emotional reactions, even better sex, while they are high. But, as with all artificially-induced states, …
o There is a sense of depression that follows the high, which has both a physical and an emotional component. Physically, the body has had a workout of sorts (most evident in the increased heart rate users experience) which is followed by a sense of lethargy that is palpable. Emotionally, there is often a feeling of ennui, probably due to the “return to reality” that is perhaps similar to that experienced in returning from a vacation. This depressed state passes quickly in most users, and some will claim they do not even experience it at all, but it can create the psychological dependency mentioned above. And, too, …
o There is now clear, scientific evidence, that marijuana is a carcinogen. As reported recently in the Journal of Immunology, smoking three marijuana cigarettes (joints) is equivalent, in terms of subjecting one to the risk of lung cancer specifically and to the development of malignant tumors more generally, to smoking a pack of unfiltered tobacco cigarettes.
Of course, with today’s highly-developed strains of dope, no one needs to smoke even one joint to get as high as one could ever want to be, but with many young people developing significant tobacco habits to go along with their use of marijuana and with many also undoubtedly smoking marijuana in far greater quantities than necessary to get high, the health factor cannot be ignored.
So there you have it. As much dope on dope as you’d probably want short of engaging in a little experimentation of your own. Should you choose that route, though, be advised that possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a citable (non-criminal) offense in California. And it is still a potential felony, regardless of the amount possessed (or, in all but 13 states, the medical justification) in the federal courts and in 23 states.