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Should it be legalized? 'Soon we will know'


by DR. JAMES L. GODDARD

Man has used marijuana both socially and medicinally for several thousands of years and yet today there is little scientific knowledge of its dangers or merits. In spite of our lack of knowledge, an estimated 12 million Americans have used the drug in recent years. Now we are in a near crisis caused by ignorance and the blanket of misinformation which governmental agencies have used to cover their ineptitudes.

One thing we know about marijuana is that it is definitely not a narcotic even though our federal laws (and most of our state laws) restricting its usage erroneously define it as such. The effects of the drug are variable, depending largely on the experience of the user, his mood, the quantity smoked or eaten, the potency of the plant and the form the drug is used in---leaf (grass) or resin (hashish). The drug effects sought by the user are a state of relaxation, an enhancement of sensory stimuli, particularly sound, an apparent expansion of time, a dispelling of the problems of the day. He may also experience a marked increase in appetite, a slight increase in pulse rate, a pronounced dryness of the mouth and throat, a sensation of heaviness of the extremities. He may even experience a mild period of depression and in some rare cases, an acute panic reaction which may lead to brief hospitalization.

Marijuana, unlike narcotics, does not produce tolerance, requiring higher dosages to produce the same effect. Nor does it produce addiction, which is true of narcotics. But this does not mean it is without its dangers. The principal danger is that one may become psychologically dependent on marijuana and, instead of coping with the everyday problems, withdraw through frequent use of the drug. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to this danger because of their limited experience and less well-developed habits of living.

Though marijuana has been the drug first used by 90% to 95% of heroin users in the U.S., there is nothing inherent in it to cause people to switch from it to the addictive and more potent drugs. Rather it is thought that personality factors are responsible. I find parents to be most concerned about this one facet of the problem, and the only reassurance I can offer them is that while marijuana usage has skyrocketed in the last decade, heroin addiction has increased only gradually.

Some of the questions we must answer are:
Does long-term usage of marijuana have harmful effects?
Does it affect the reproductive processes?
What type of treatment will be most effective in rehabilitating chronic marijuana users?
What conditions favor continuation of marijuana use as opposed to moving to hard drugs?
What kinds of educational approaches are most effective in reducing misuse?
Does marijuana affect human chromosomes?

Steps are being taken to obtain answers to these and other questions. The major support for this research comes from an element of the U.S. Public Health Service--the National Institute of Mental Health. Its program was initiated early this year, although limited studies had been supported in earlier years, and involves providing funds ($1 million in fiscal year 1969) and supplies of the drug in both natural and synthetic forms to scientists in institutions across the U.S.

Phase I of the program--assuring adequate supplies of the drug for testing--has been largely completed. Phase II--study of the effects on various animals--is under way. Parts of Phase III--clinical tests on humans--have been started. Answers to some of our questions will be forthcoming within a matter of months. Within two to three years, according to Dr. Stanley Yolles, director of NIMH, most of what we need to know will be available.

Our laws governing marijuana are a mixture of bad science and poor understanding of the role of law as a deterrent force. They are unenforceable, excessively severe, scientifically incorrect and revealing of our ignorance of human behavior. The federal and state laws should be revised to reflect the fact that marijuana is a hallucinogen and should be classified as such. The federal statutes should be repealed, and the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act should be amended to bring marijuana under the jurisdiction of that act, thereby automatically de-escalating the penalties for simple possession to a more reasonable level (a misdemeanor, with the judge being given considerable authority to adjust the penalty to more nearly fit the circumstances.) At the same time sufficiently serious penalties should be provided to handle the major traffickers in the drug. State laws should then be revised in conformance with a model law containing similar provisions.

I do not believe that marijuana should now be legalized, and the steps which I have suggested will not satisfy those who seek to legalize it. Their arguments are that the laws are not enforceable, that the use of marijuana is a private act and does not harm society, and that marijuana is less a danger than alcohol. These are attractive arguments but they begin to break down upon closer examination. First, although not precisely defined, law may have a deterrent effect. Second, although the use of marijuana is a private act, it has the potential to cause harm to society. One has only to visualize marijuana being more freely available and more widely used by adolescents who have not learned to cope with the problems of daily life, and it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that cannabism would become a societal problem. Our inability to keep cigarettes away from minors should serve as a reminder that we would not be able to keep marijuana out of their hands.

I know that my stand on marijuana may seem contradictory. If the known harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco are greater than those of marijuana, and those substances are legal, why do I not advocate legalizing marijuana? I believe that if alcohol and tobacco were not already legal, we might very well decide not to legalize them --knowing what we now know. In the case of marijuana, we will know in a very few years how harmful it is or is not. If it turns out to be relatively harmless, we will be embarrassed by harsh laws that made innocent people suffer. If it turns out to be quite harmful--a distinct possibility--we will have introduced yet another public-health hazard that for social and economic reasons might become impossible to dislodge.

As test subject puffs on marijuana cigarette, research psychiatrist at University of California applies electrodes to his head to monitor brain responses. Earphones record sensitivity to sound.


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