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Marijuana Reconsidered

By Jared M. Fleisher and Tobias G. Snyder

Imagine that scientists at a major drug company announced the discovery of a new drug, clinically proven to be effective in the treatment of symptoms of glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and migraines, all with moderate short term side-effects and no long term ones. The drug has no potential for overdose and no risk of physical dependence. Now imagine that the United States government deemed this substance to be medically worthless, classified it with the most dangerous and addictive narcotics and, along with state and local governments, proceeded to spend over $30 billion a year attempting to eradicate it.

Sound bizarre? It is, but it also happens to be U.S. policy on marijuana. Since the administration of President Richard Nixon, America has put billions upon billions of dollars into the War on Drugs, with the lion’s share of funds allotted to fighting marijuana. There are over 20 federal agencies involved in combating cannabis and the combined cost to taxpayers is tremendous.

Yet there are few valid arguments as to why we should be involved in this fight; the justifications offered in support of marijuana prohibition crumble under scrutiny. Rhetoric has eclipsed logic, and the debate over the decriminalization of marijuana has devolved into a farce of political grandstanding and exploitation.

The Harvard Coalition for Drug Policy Reform is dedicated to reversing this trend by bringing logic and science to the forefront of federal drug policy. We believe that current discourse on the issue ignores the critical question of what is more harmful to society: marijuana or the battle to eradicate it. We also believe that an appeal to the facts answers this question conclusively.

In the words of the very commission convened by President Nixon to justify the prohibition of marijuana, “The drug’s relative potential for harm…and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.” This conclusion can be supported along several lines.

To begin with, marijuana has less potential for dependence and is less likely to induce withdrawal symptoms than alcohol, nicotine and even caffeine. It is considerably less harmful to the lungs than smoking cigarettes, not only because cigarette smokers tend to consume their product in much larger quantities, but also because cigarettes affect smaller airways in the lungs and thus do proportionately more damage. While there has not been a single death reported from cannabis, cigarettes kill 430,000 people annually.

With regard to its impact on the brain, the most pervasive myth about cannabis is that it permanently impairs memory and other cognitive functions. However, a 1999 study from Johns Hopkins University of 1,318 marijuana users over a 15-year period revealed no significant difference in cognitive decline between heavy users, light users and non-users. While marijuana users as a group scored more poorly than non-users on a battery of cognitive tests at the outset of another study, after 27 days of non-use the test scores of the two groups were indistinguishable. Granted, the ability to learn and recall new information is impaired while high, but the effects are neither long term nor irreversible. The myth that marijuana kills brain cells is as patently false as the claim that it induces violent or aggressive behavior.

The dangers of marijuana have been greatly exaggerated. These limited dangers must now be weighed against the social costs of its prohibition. The most damaging effect of marijuana prohibition is the denial of medicinal marijuana to those who need it. Marijuana dramatically reduces the severe nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy, relieves the unrelenting optic pressure that characterizes glaucoma and successfully induces appetite among AIDS patients who desperately need to eat. It has also proved effective in combating the symptoms of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and many other medical conditions. Unbelievably, the U.S. government has ignored these findings and classified marijuana as a Schedule I Drug, effectively stating that it has no potential for medicinal use. This classification is especially unwarranted as marijuana’s toxicity is minimal, particularly when compared with other commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals.

The economic and social costs of prohibition are also staggering. The government spends over $30 billion battling cannabis each year, yet despite this tremendous expenditure marijuana is as available as ever, with 89 percent of high school seniors reporting last year that it was fairly easy or very easy to obtain. It is not surprising then that 734,000 people were arrested on marijuana-related charges in 2000, 88 percent for simple possession. Such enforcement produces more harm than it prevents. It criminalizes large numbers of otherwise law-abiding people who have in no way impinged upon the liberties of others. Furthermore, it disproportionately affects America’s youth and minority communities, and the harm done to their futures far outweighs the harm of marijuana itself.

The government should base its policy on science and common sense. Marijuana must be decriminalized and made readily available for medicinal purposes.

Jared M. Fleisher ’05 and Tobias G. Snyder ’05 are officers of the The Harvard Coalition for Drug Policy Reform.

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