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The upshot of pot

A practical look at marijuana laws and effects

The upshot of pot

A woman smokes a marijuana cigarette. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fifth and final in a series on the legalization of marijuana

In Greek mythology, Antaeus is the son of Gaea (Mother Earth) and Poseidon, the sea god. People thought he was invincible, but that’s because he kept his feet on the ground: Hercules discerned that secret and beat him by lifting him up so his feet never touched earth.

After working with our Caleb Team to produce four stories about powerful interests pushing for marijuana legalization, and two columns on the rise and fall of alcohol prohibition, it’s time for what we could call Antaeus journalism: grounded, concrete examination of what legalization is likely to bring.

The abstract reasons for legalizing marijuana are powerful. Marijuana-related arrests remove thousands of entrepreneurial men from their communities and leave them languishing in prison rather than home with their families—but a lack of arrests builds disrespect for law. Life is hard, so what’s wrong with chilling out with some pot, rather than getting drunk and raising Cain? Since people are buying anyway, why not tax marijuana sales and gain some revenue for schools? Selling alcohol and cancer-related tobacco is legal, so why discriminate against pot?

Let’s take a ground-level look, starting with THC, the ingredient that produces pot euphoria. Three thousand or so years ago an ancient Indian poem in Sanskrit gave Cannabis a mildly favorable consumer review: It “releases us from anxiety.” Even 50 years ago most cannabis was apparently low in THC—but in recent decades scientific breeding, enhanced soils, and more light have jumped the typical THC content.

Here are some consumer reviews on of recommended brands in which THC makes up at least 20 percent of the dry weight of the product: “I can’t feel my face … or my arms, or my feet, or anything for that matter.” “I feel like I’m in gravy and it’s a real good time.” “Went to a bar and confused a mirror for a window.” Even in the Netherlands, known for its freewheeling drug policies, a government committee report proposed putting cannabis with more than 15 percent THC in the heroin and LSD category.

Dr. James Avery, in a paper to be published in the Christian Medical & Dental Associations’ journal later this year, knocks down four myths associated with marijuana: that it’s not addictive, that no one has ever overdosed on marijuana, that no one has ever died from marijuana, and that we can protect young people and limit marijuana use to adults.

Avery, like many others, points out that today’s marijuana is different from what many older folks once smoked: “Today’s marijuana is a potent, highly hallucinogenic drug, so recreational use is fraught with danger. Only a few credible studies have been done (and hardly any with THC above 15 percent), but they provoke concern about the new marijuana. The higher the THC concentration, the higher the likelihood of first episode psychosis and schizophrenia.”

Avery notes, “Heavy marijuana use can damage brain development in youth ages 13 to 18. … Multiple researchers have all come to the same conclusion: the younger the brain, the worse the effects in both the short-term and long-term.”

Rob Holmes, who has been writing many of our weekly Compassion roundups on the WORLD website, interviewed doctors who are front-row watchers of Colorado’s legalization experiment. Karen Randall, an emergency room doctor in Pueblo, Colo., with a certificate in Cannabis Science and Medicine, says THC-boosted marijuana “is causing persistent psychosis and there is no recovery.”

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A genetic researcher works with marijuana plant tissue cultures in a Colorado lab (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Dr. Randall said the new marijuana is worse than the opioid epidemic because of the long-term unpredictable effects. Some synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as safe or legal alternatives to grown marijuana, but they affect the brain and endanger people even more. She notes that marijuana advocates said legalizing recreational marijuana would have positive economic effects, and it’s true that Colorado’s GDP has expanded by 1 percent because of revenue from legal marijuana sales, but that revenue doesn’t begin to pay the bill for the resulting social toll.

Dr. Ken Finn, a pain medicine specialist in Colorado Springs for 24 years who serves on Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council, sees no evidence that marijuana can help scale down someone’s opioid addiction: He says it’s contributing to Colorado’s opioid epidemic, as a “companion drug.”

Ironically, many on the political left who oppose “states rights” conservatives on most issues are adamantly decentralist on marijuana: Although federal marijuana prohibition remains in effect, West Coast states plus Colorado have led the way to states rights on pot, Northeastern states are catching up, and the times are a changin’ elsewhere as well.

Already, though, legalization is not turning out to be the tax bonanza and end of illegality that its promoters advertised. The Merry Jane website headlined one story in August, “Weed Is Legal in California, but the Black Market Is Alive and Well.” That’s because cities are placing high taxes on marijuana, and surveys show that nearly half of pot consumers don’t want to pay more for their marijuana just to be legal.

Legalization is not turning out to be the tax bonanza … that its promoters advertised.

NEVERTHELESS, IF THIS WERE A MOVIE, we’d see the marijuana legalization locomotive racing down the tracks, as some adults stroll across them without looking and some children use the tracks as a hopscotch court. A leaky prohibition of marijuana has lasted for a long time, and probably kept usage below what it would otherwise be, but support for that stand has eroded.

Pollsters this year are announcing that 2 out of 3 Americans favor marijuana legalization, but an Antaeus look shows ground-level complexity. For example, a University of Texas poll this year showed 23 percent of Texans favoring a legalization of pot in any amount, with 16 percent saying possession of any amount of marijuana should be illegal. Three out of 5 Texans were in the middle, with half of them wanting to legalize it only for medical needs and the other half wanting to legalize it only in small amounts.

This is reminiscent of views on alcohol prohibition a century ago. Scientific polling did not exist in 1918, but observers then noticed some Americans wanted a constitutional amendment prohibiting all alcohol use and others wanted no law against consumption. A majority may have been in the middle, favoring a ban on hard liquor that would still allow beer with a 2.75 percent alcohol content and the equivalent in unfortified wine.

That middling majority was surprised when Congress, after voting for the 18th Amendment, prohibited the sale of not only hard liquor but wine and any beer with an alcohol content greater than 0.5 percent. (Today, we call that nonalcoholic beer.) Resentment of total prohibition festered in the 1920s and gained force when the 1930s Depression left millions depressed. When Prohibition adherents still refused to compromise, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th.

Josh Edelson/AP

Paramedics attend to an unconscious man at the annual celebration of cannabis in San Francisco, Calif., on April 20 (Josh Edelson/AP)

Alcohol and marijuana do not have parallel usage. As Dr. Avery writes in his upcoming Christian medical journal article, “When Paul tells us ‘to not be drunk with wine,’ he is not arguing against wine, he is arguing against drunkenness. Therefore, Christians who drink might think they can apply the same principle to marijuana: I will smoke a joint daily with dinner but I will avoid getting high. [But] getting high is the sole intent of marijuana: … The thing we are forbidden by Scripture to do with alcohol is the only thing we can do with marijuana recreationally. It’s not like marijuana pairs well with beef.”

Discussing the political parallels is worthwhile, though. Legalization of medical marijuana only in most states was a good compromise, but it’s proving in many states to be only a stagecoach stop on the road to legalization for recreational purposes. Given the marijuana juggernaut now accelerating, Christians who maintain a total prohibitionist position are likely to be run over. Given that the greatest danger is with high-THC-content pot, as with high-alcoholic-content liquor, is there a potential rallying point that’s the equivalent of what 2.75 percent beer was in 1918?

We need more research on the effects of the new, potent marijuana. Researchers are learning that there’s money in studying weed. In fiscal year 2017 the National Institutes of Health supported 330 projects totaling $140 million on cannabinoid research, with many of them focusing on therapeutic effects. Some of those studies seem designed to push support for expanded marijuana legalization, so we also need studies by those skeptical of pot use that look hard at consumer safety.

Much remains unknown, but one thing we’ve learned in our marijuana series research is crucial to keep in mind: Pot will be big business. While NORML’s Keith Stroup (see sidebar) relishes the thought of small marijuana producers, the future is likely to be big corporations creating marijuana-infused edibles and soft drinks. Yes, craft beer is popular, but the history of granola may be instructive: Introduced 50 years ago by the Hog Farm commune as a healthy food, it’s now a sugary cereal that competes with Cocoa Puffs and Frosted Flakes.

Marijuana in the hands of liability-conscious Coca-Cola and General Mills might differ from the high-THC varieties that smaller producers might market. Laws now concentrate on how many grams of pot a person possesses, but the discerning question will be how much THC is in the pot. Can social and legal pressure restrain corporate marijuana from being as destructive as our pleasure- and profit-seeking would otherwise make it? If and when most of the United States goes pro-pot on demand, will those who now favor states rights allow conservative states to just say no? Will there be local and county options? How free will we be?

—includes reporting by Rob Holmes

Smoke on the Hill

by Harvest Prude

K Street is the classic lobbyist address in Washington, D.C. Offices often show innocuous tan carpet, white walls, filing cabinets, and a Keurig coffee station. But one K Street office also features a psychedelic poster with a funky ’70s-style font displaying the organization’s name: the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

NORML head Keith Stroup, 74, is long-limbed and clean-shaven, with snowy hair that reaches past his chin, large glasses, and hands that shake slightly. He isn’t boasting when he says the marijuana industry as it is today wouldn’t exist without NORML, or without Stroup himself. He calls himself the “Old Man in the Corner”: On the office wall are framed Playboy and High Times profiles about young Stroup that remind visitors how long he’s lobbied for pot.

John Duricka/AP

Stroup in his in office in Washington in 1971 (John Duricka/AP)

Stroup says his main goal when he graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1968 was to avoid the draft. Lawyers clued him in to a little-known loophole: His job offer, a spot on the National Commission on Product Safety, meant he could claim a deferment because his work for the government was “critical.” In 1970, with draft heat diminished, he founded NORML with the help of $5,000 from the Playboy Foundation.

Stroup thought legalization would take only 10-12 years. His efforts received an unexpected boost in 1972 when a commission appointed by President Richard Nixon recommended decriminalization. The next year, Oregon decriminalized marijuana, and 10 more states did so during the rest of the 1970s—but in the 1980s Ronald Reagan revitalized the War on Drugs, aided by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

Marijuana’s new advance began in 1996, when a California initiative legalized medical marijuana. Most other states gradually followed. Colorado in 2012 started the move to legalizing recreational use. Gallup polls now show almost 2 out of 3 Americans favor legalization.

Stroup says he has smoked marijuana every evening he’s been at home for the last 40 years. He pours himself a glass of wine, rolls a joint, and smokes while watching the news. He said the drug hasn’t affected him negatively, but he warns that memory impairment lurks “if someone smokes all day long.”

Stroup recognizes that Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco are pushing for legalization, and says on most issues big companies and NORML want the same thing, but he’d prefer “small marijuana,” with growers developing specialty blends. He hopes those with influence will “minimize major corporations and keep it as small business.” That seems highly unlikely.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Fri, 10/12/2018 07:03 am

    Pot alters a persons perception.  Why is it that those whose perceptions have been so altered now get to claim they are the only ones who can see clearly?  When we legalize the low grade pot and tax it what makes us think those who smoke it will pay more for less potent weed.  The black market distribution system is already in place and current lax enforcement because public perception is changing will become even more lax.  The result will be more powerful pot in more places with less enforcement and few tax dollars to show for it.  Also as more and more people become more and more altered where will the clear thinking come from.


  • TheAbundantLand
    Posted: Fri, 10/12/2018 12:21 pm

    As a former drug abuser, I disagree that the problem is more potent marijuana. People just end up smoking more if its less potent. We can and should take a stance of prohibition, whether it's popular or not. Even if its legal we need to maintain that in our personal life choices.

    The biggest problem with pot is that people feel capable while high. They are more likely to drive high, go to work or school high, make major life decisions high, or even try to do their taxes high (which I've seen a friend attempt). This snowballs into life wreckage. 

  • not silent
    Posted: Sat, 10/13/2018 02:33 am

    Since I come from a family with a lot of addiction-including several people who were specifically addicted to pot-I am leery of making addictive substances easier to obtain. However, since this train seems to have left the station, I have been pushing for proper labelling. I haven't been in a pot dispensary; but, from what I'm reading, pot almost seems to be treated like a health supplement-the labelling is not always consistent, there aren't always warnings or side effects, etc.  Also, when people talk about "marijuana" or "medical marijuana," at least in my state, they aren't always making a distinction between CBD, which is the part that doesn't make you high and is legal in all 50 states-and THC, which is the part that makes you high and is illegal on the federal level.  Since THC can be in gummies, liquid drops, etc, I guess it's not hard for kids to access these things. 

    I think that if marijuana is going to be treated as a medical substance, it should be labelled like every other medicine with dosage, side effects, interactions with other medications, etc.  If it is going to be a recreational substance, it should be treated like other recreational substances with warnings and age restrictions. Right now most people don't seem to be aware of the very real dangers.  As a recovering alcoholic, I do not consider CBD or THC safe options for me; but at least one church friend my age (middle age) who is a cancer survivor uses a very low dose of THC for pain as an alternative to opiods.  

  • AlanE
    Posted: Wed, 10/24/2018 12:04 pm

    In an nutshell, people are remarkably bad at discerning what is bad for them. Good theology helps us to understand why this is. But, the problems of living in a society where most people are running from Truth with reckless abandon remain.