Marijuana is a psychoactive drug made from the dried leaves and flowering parts of the hemp plant. It is one of the most strictly classified illegal drugs in the United States. Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug, which defines it as having “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use. Marijuana is thus classified more severely than morphine and cocaine, which as Schedule II drugs are also banned for general use but can be prescribed by doctors. It is illegal to buy, sell, grow, or possess marijuana in the United States. Marijuana probation comprises a large part of the federal government’s War on Drugs. Police made 600,000 marijuana-related arrests in 1995. Four out of five arrests being for possession alone. Under federal and state laws, many of which were strengthened in the 1980s, people convicted of marijuana offenses face penalties ranging from probation to life imprisonment, plus fines and forfeiture of property.
Also, criminal justice efforts, the federal government, state governments, and local communities spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on preventative programs. Programs such as, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), in which local police officers visit schools to teach young people to abstain from trying marijuana and other drugs. Public controversy has been growing over the two assumptions, high abuse potential and no legitimate medical use, that underline marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug. In turn, disputes over the abuse and medical potential of marijuana have shaped differences of opinion over public policy. Many of those who question one or both of these assumptions about marijuana have advocated a full or partial relaxation of the government’s blanket prohibition of the drug, while those who accept these assumptions generally are opposed to any full or partial legalization of marijuana.
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Supporters of marijuana’s continued prohibition argue that the drug is easily abused and can lead to numerous physical and psychological harms. Short-term health effects of the drug listed in Marijuana: Facts for Teens, a publication of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), include memory loss, distorted perception, problems with learning and coordination, an increased heart rate, and anxiety attacks. Long-term effects, according to NIDA, include increased risk of lung cancer for chronic marijuana smokers and possible damage to the immune and reproductive systems. In addition, marijuana opponents argue that many users attain a psychological dependence on the high that marijuana can create. Such dependence can result in stunted emotional and social maturity as these users lose interest in school, job, and social activities.
About 100,000 people each year resort to drug abuse treatment programs to end their marijuana addiction. Some commentators also view marijuana as a “gateway drug” drug that can lead to the abuse of other dangerous and illegal substances, including cocaine and heroin. Critics of U.S. marijuana policy argue that the dangers of marijuana have been exaggerated. They contend that many, if not most, users of marijuana suffer no lasting harm, do not move on to other drugs, and do not become addicts. Some surveys on marijuana use in America have shown that nine out of ten people who have tried marijuana have since quit. Researchers working with rats have found that marijuana is a far less addictive substance for animals than cocaine or heroin.
Pro-legalization activist R. Keith Stroup summed up the views of many who oppose marijuana prohibition when he asserted before a congressional committee that “moderate marijuana use is relatively harmless far less harmful to the user than either tobacco or alcohol.” Whether or not marijuana, as a Schedule I drug, truly has “no currently accepted medical use” is also a matter of public controversy. In November 1996, voters in two states, California and Arizona, passed referenda that legalized marijuana for medical use (these developments and the actions of other states have no impact on marijuana’s federal status as an illegal Schedule I drug). Supporters of the California and Arizona initiatives maintain that marijuana is effective in alleviating the symptoms of medical conditions such as AIDS, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis.
Unreliable evidence of marijuana’s efficiency, advocates claim, comes from AIDS patients who have used marijuana to restore appetite and cancer patients who have smoked it to combat nausea caused by chemotherapy treatments, often as a last resort when legally prescribed medicines have failed. Those who contend that marijuana has useful medical purposes call for the federal government to at least reclassify the drug as a Schedule II substance that can be prescribed by doctors. As stated by Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard University psychiatrist, marijuana’s continued prohibition as a Schedule I substance “is medically absurd, legally questionable, and morally wrong.”
The California and Arizona referenda legalizing medical marijuana were strongly opposed by prominent federal government officials, including the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Barry McCaffrey, who criticized the measures as being “dishonest” and asserted that marijuana “is neither safe nor effective” as medicine. Opponents argue that marijuana “is neither safe nor effective” as medicine. Opponents argue that the very concept of medical marijuana is absurd because it is not, like most modern medicines, a synthesized chemical whose composition can be accurately manufactured and controlled. Instead, it is taken from a plant and consists of four hundred chemicals whose exact composition varies with each “dose.” Also, they argue, marijuana’s claimed medical effectiveness has not been demonstrated by clinical trials. Marijuana’s psychoactive properties may make people feel better, contents Robert L. Peterson, a former Michigan drug enforcement official, but that “does not make a drug a medicine.”
Marijuana opponents maintain that better legal medical alternatives to marijuana exist, including Marinol, a pill available by a physician’s prescription that contains THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana. An additional concern voiced by many is that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes would send the wrong message to America’s youth. “At a time when our nation is looking for solutions to the problem of teenage drug use,” asks Thomas A. Constantine, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, “how can we justify giving a stamp of approval to an illegal substance which has no legitimate medical use?” Whether or not marijuana’s possible medical advantages outweigh its potential harm is a central question in current debates about this controversial drug.
- Zeller, Paula Klevan. Focus on Marijuana. Frederick, Md.: Twenty-first Century Books, 1998.
- Schleichert, Elizabeth. Marijuana. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1996.
- Gottfried, Ted. Should drugs be legalized? Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.
- Shapiro, Dan. Mom’s Marijuana: Insights about living. New York: Harmony Books, 2000.
- Bock, Alan W. Waiting to Inhale: The politics of medical marijuana. Santa Ana, Calif.: Seven Locks Press, 2000.