Mental Health Matters: The great marijuana legalization debate (opinion) |

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Mental Health Matters: The great marijuana legalization debate (opinion)

Andrew Whyman

Andrew Whyman

This is the fourth in a series on Drugs and Drug Prohibition. Today’s column focuses on cannabis or marijuana.

Marijuana, a remarkably resilient plant, has accompanied mankind’s journey in populating the planet from the Neolithic period to the present. Aside from the frozen tundra of the far North, the plant has flourished since the dawn of agriculture over 10,000 years ago.

The stems and stalks provided cloth and cordage; the seeds, protein and fatty acid; the roots, leaves, and flowers used in rituals, as medicinals, and as a euphoriant or recreant.

In today’s world, cannabis is virtually everywhere, from single plants, grown indoors or out, to industrial size grows.

Marijuana does not cause violence or criminal misconduct. And, shouldn’t freedom-loving Americans have the right to put what they want in their own bodies when no one else is harmed?

In America, criminalizing this ever-present plant over the last hundred years has had virtually no impact on production or consumption, even as it has earned a central role in expanding the criminal justice system.

Every year there are more marijuana possession arrests than all violent crimes. The FBI reports that in 2014 there were nearly 800,000 Marijuana law violations representing almost one-half of all drug arrests. Near 90% of those Marijuana arrests were for simple possession.

These numbers cost the taxpayer about $3 billion per year in enforcement costs alone.

OK, you say, but marijuana possession arrests are no big deal. Just a warning, a slap on the wrist, right? Not so fast.

Most likely if you are arrested for Marijuana possession you will be handcuffed, placed in a police vehicle, transported to jail, fingerprinted, photographed, and jailed for 24 or more hours after which you are arraigned by a judge in a courtroom, and ultimately earn a permanent criminal record.

And now that you have a criminal conviction, it can be difficult to vote, to obtain educational loans, to get a job or maintain a professional license, to secure housing, or adopt a child. In other words, that marijuana arrest at 22 or 33 can ruin your life.

But surely, if Marijuana possession is a crime, it must cause great harm to the user and to the community, right?

Wrong. National Commissions and elite scientific organizations in America and elsewhere have almost universally concluded that the harms due to Marijuana are mostly negligible, occasionally moderate, and rarely of major consequence.

Start with an expert committee report of 3,000 pages from the then British colony of India in 1894: The Indian Hemp Commission found no link between Marijuana and crime or insanity, no evidence linking moderate use with injury, and indications that excess usage was the exception, not the rule. The Commission concluded that, “The suppression of the use of Hemp (Marijuana) would be totally unjustified.”

In 1944, the La Guardia Report, the work product of a committee at the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine, concluded that “Cannabis is a mild euphoriant, and prolonged use of the drug does not lead to physical, mental, or moral degeneration.”

The Wooton Report of 1968, a comprehensive study by the British Parliament advisory committee on Drug Dependence, concluded that “Cannabis [is] very much less dangerous than opiates, amphetamines, and barbiturates, and also less dangerous than alcohol [and] it is the personality of the user rather than the properties of the drug, that is likely to cause progression to other drugs.”

Also, “the long-asserted dangers of cannabis are exaggerated, [and] the law [criminalizing use] is socially damaging if not unworkable.”

In 1972, three countries issued reports, the Shafer Commission in the United States, the Le Dain Commission in Canada, and the Baan Commission in the Netherlands. The Canadian and Danish Commissions recommended legalization or decriminalization of Marijuana.

The Shafer Report was the most comprehensive Marijuana review ever conducted by the federal government. It concluded, “the most notable statement that can be made about the vast majority of marijuana users — experimenters and intermittent users — is that they are essentially indistinguishable from their non-marijuana using peers by any fundamental criteria other than marijuana use.”

Moreover, “Neither the user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety.”

So, where does this leave us? Mankind has been romancing cannabis for its euphoriant, medicinal and mercantile properties since the dawn of civilization. The War on Drugs is a charade; the real war, the one costing millions of lives, is on American people who use drugs.

Marijuana does not cause violence or criminal misconduct. And, shouldn’t freedom-loving Americans have the right to put what they want in their own bodies when no one else is harmed?

So, do the harms caused by criminalizing this weed outweigh any theoretical or potential harm caused by its use? You decide.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at