My brother lives on the opposite coast from me, and we’ve spent many holidays apart. One year, though, he visited for several weeks in December. On Christmas Eve, as things were settling down for the night, he told me he was stepping outside.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’m going in the back yard to smoke a joint.”
His casualness about it surprised me. But once the initial shock wore off, I was fine. Surprisingly fine. My brother, you see, does not fit the stereotype of a pot smoker. He’s not a hippie or some stoner who never bathes or lives on the street. He owns a house and has a steady job. He’s never had any legal troubles. He smokes marijuana to relax, get a little buzz, and feel good about life once in a while. He is a responsible user of marijuana.
I have never tried weed. There are several reasons for this, but mostly because I don’t want to tangle with its illegality. I do, however, enjoy wine. Typically, I will finish off two or three bottles a week. I drink wine for basically the same reasons that my brother smokes pot. We talked about it once, when he turned down a glass of Chianti. He said he much prefers marijuana. “Alcohol,” he said “just doesn’t do it for me.”
I worry about him, that one day he’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time and will be arrested just for preferring cannabis to alcohol. The reasons why marijuana is mostly illegal while alcohol can be purchased at your neighborhood store are complex and in many ways irrational.
What I don’t worry about is whether he’s on his way down the slippery slope to hard-core addiction. Because, while I know he’s had some youthful indiscretions, he’s not an addict any more than I’m an alcoholic.
Alcohol has its detractors. During the Temperance Movement, alcohol was considered the Devil in a bottle, to be wiped off the face of the Earth. Further back in history, however, beginning in pre-Christian times, alcohol was considered a gift from the gods. Society’s ambivalence over alcohol has led to a mish-mash of policies and a mish-mash of proposed solutions–medical, legal, psychotherapeutic, religious–that work at cross-purposes with each other.
After the repeal of Prohibition, government has, for the most part, stepped back from trying to dictate what we can and cannot drink, and rightly so, I think. In a free society, personal responsibility should be what dictates choice.
This same ambivalence seems to be spilling over to our feelings about marijuana, as evidenced by the new legalization in Colorado and Washington. Much is made of marijuana being a “gateway drug,” a term used for a substance the use of which allegedly will lead to more problematic drugs such as cocaine or heroin. But this view is not supported by any valid science, since a correlation between marijuana use and subsequent use of heroin or other drugs has not been established, according to psychologist Jeffrey Schaler. He goes on to say that, “it might not be that there is something in marijuana that causes a move to heroin, but rather that consumers are looking for the same thing in heroin that they derived from marijuana.” Even if there is a correlation, then, it cannot be assumed that one causes the other.
In fact, most studies have found that a vast majority of marijuana smokers do not become drug addicts or move on to harder substances. I guess this means that most can be trusted to be responsible users.
I realize that many will take issue with this view. To some, substance use equals substance abuse equals addiction equals disease. For others, these conditions are not all the same, and you can have substance use without it being substance abuse. Unfortunately, it’s hard to have a rational conversation about drugs when the terms mean different things to different people and there is significant disagreement over the underlying assumptions.
The regulated legal marijuana markets in Colorado and Washington are an important social experiment. And it has been a long time coming. If successful, it could loosen the restrictions on responsible pot use in many areas, such as athletics.
With some notable exceptions, getting a product off the black market and into the public eye is a good thing. At the very least, it provides greater choice for those who might otherwise turn to a substance that is less natural and more dangerous.
And I’ll raise a glass to that.