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A More Benign Intoxicant?

The case for cannabis

By Joshua B. Lipson

Every election season, Harvard’s undergraduate population bubbles over with enthusiasm for Barack Obamas and Elizabeth Warrens—standard-bearers of the well-behaved, mainstream liberalism that sets the cultural tone on campus. Students will pledge fealty to the sixties’ hallmark ideals: grassroots creativity, self-expression, lifestyle experimentation. But contrary to popular imagination, they will continue to lead overwhelmingly conservative lives.

Nothing illustrates this principle more starkly than the strange reality of marijuana at Harvard: that is to say, it’s rarer than you might expect. On the campus where Timothy Leary once conducted lab experiments with much harder drugs, only 35% of 2012’s graduating seniors claimed to have ever tried marijuana—as compared to 47% of American college students, by the Harvard School of Public Health’s account. This is not for lack of intoxication, however. By contrast, a substantial 67% admit to drinking alcohol at least once a week, with 93% admitting to have tried the liquid drug at least once.

All things being equal, I’m struck by the profundity of the gap. We might do well to experience the graces of a plant thought widely to combat stress, increase empathy, and spur creativity. And unlike alcohol, marijuana is not known to precipitate violence, hangovers, or cirrhosis. Recall, this is not a case for decriminalization—Massachusetts has already done it—nor for legalization, which most well-trained Harvard liberals support in abstract, and which Washington and Colorado have already come to do. It’s a case for experimentation.

Quite reasonably, it is common for Harvard’s hard-drinking weed-abstainers to cite the legality argument: in most American jurisdictions, though alcohol consumption is legal after the age of 21, marijuana remains unambiguously illegal. However, the calculus is fundamentally different in Massachusetts, where strict laws on underage drinking coincide with the decriminalization of personal marijuana possession. The penalty on state books for possession of under an ounce is a maximum, seldom-levied fine of $100, grouping it as a civil offense among the ranks of such heinous crimes as distracted driving.  For the majority of Harvard undergrads who are under 21, smoking a joint is no more illegal than taking a shot of stinging cold Rubinoff. And frankly, it’s much better for you.

Without direct subjective experience of marijuana’s effects, it can be hard for us to avoid being tinted by the canards of Reefer Madness and grade-school prescriptions like “Just Say No.” Contrary to David Brooks’ pig-headed claims, marijuana alone will neither make you crazy, nor lazy, nor dumb. According to Lyons et al.’s 2004 meta-analysis of twin studies, regular users of marijuana showed no significant cognitive or psychological deficits compared to their abstaining twins. Additional research has suggested that beyond the short-term, marijuana’s ill effects are negligible and reversible. Moreover, as any average weed smoker could tell you, studies have suggested that smoking marijuana can actually confer short-term benefits in terms of abstract reasoning and pattern recognition. The lived consensus is clear: marijuana makes for a lucid, mellow, non-toxic experience.

And though teetotalers might have nothing to gain by this line of reasoning, marijuana is a safer substitute for alcohol—the intoxicant of official sanction at proper parties, receptions, and monotheistic rituals. Despite its ubiquity in agricultural and industrial civilizations, alcohol has always come with a distinctively dark side. On a routine basis, it causes hangovers, vomiting, and weight gain; when abused, it often spurs domestic violence, bar fights, and sexual aggression. On particularly bad nights, it can lead to a fatal case of poisoning.

Marijuana, rated as both less dangerous and less habit-forming than alcohol, carries none of these nefarious associations. In “The Third Chimpanzee,” Jared Diamond describes intoxication as a deep-seated, universal human phenomenon. If that is so, why not consider substituting out alcohol, at least occasionally, for something calmer, safer, and less addictive?

Harkening to its countercultural associations, the marijuana issue is finally a test of our open-mindedness, our ability to question authority. For what it’s worth, most Harvard students have a rules problem: as a Crimson mentor of mine once summarized it, “Harvard is a school made up of kids who sat in the first row of the class in grade school and probably ratted out those passing notes in the back. We got into Harvard by showing respect—nay, devotion—to social rules, and rebellion just isn’t in our blood.” There’s nothing inherently subversive about marijuana, yet substituting it for alcohol would be a near-harmless way to get Harvard students into the habit of occasional rule-breaking and convention-flouting. In a world packed with arbitrary injustices and limitations, you bet we need it.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. Follow him on Twitter @Josh_Lipson.

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