Marijuana: The Back And Forth Debate

By Cheryl Steinberg


Marijuana has been around since the dawn of time yet there seems to be no real “facts” about it. This is indicative of just how politically- and socially charged the topic is. Back in college, as a Sociology major and avid pot smoker, I chose to write my senior seminar research paper on marijuana, entitled The Sociology of Marijuana. I was intrigued by how over the years, this drug has undergone so many levels of acceptance and rejection, mostly for political reasons. I learned how, in the late 1930s, hemp (the marijuana plant minus the psychoactive drug, THC) was declared to be the “billion dollar crop of the future” (which was a lot more money at that time). And how, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, was figuratively in bed with the Dupont brothers who, also around that time patented a wood-pulping machine that could convert trees into paper. Because of this relationship, Hearst used his newspaper to launch an all-out smear campaign on hemp, spreading unfounded stories such as how Mexican immigrants were selling “the Devil’s weed” to school children at playgrounds. This had a huge impact on the prohibition of marijuana in America and the resulting lack of research on its medicinal qualities.

A brief history lesson in the cultural and medicinal usages of marijuana:

Marijuana has been used as an agent for achieving euphoria since ancient times; it was described in a Chinese medical reference traditionally considered to date from 2737 B.C. Its use spread from China to India and then to North Africa and reached Europe at least as early as A.D. 500. In 1545 the Spanish brought marijuana to the New World. In the late 1800s, some patent medicines contained marijuana, but it was a small percentage compared to the number containing opium or cocaine.

It was in the 1920’s that marijuana began to catch on. Its recreational use was restricted to jazz musicians and people in show business. Marijuana clubs, or “tea pads,” sprang up in every major city. These marijuana establishments were tolerated by the authorities because marijuana was not illegal and patrons showed no evidence of making a nuisance of themselves or disturbing the community. Marijuana was not considered a social threat.

Marijuana was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 until 1942 and was prescribed for various conditions including labor pains, nausea, and rheumatism. Its use as an intoxicant was also commonplace from the 1850s to the 1930s. For various social reasons such as class and ethnic discrimination, a campaign conducted in the 1930s by the now U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs sought to portray marijuana as a powerful, addictive substance that would lead users into narcotics addiction. In the 1950s it was an accessory of the beat generation; in the 1960s it was used by college students and “hippies” and became a symbol of rebellion against authority.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana along with heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug, i.e., having the relatively highest abuse potential and no accepted medical use. It remained that way until relatively recently, with new laws and loopholes allowing for the medicinal use of marijuana. This varies from state to state, with the spectrum ranging from mere de-criminalization,to “offenders” receiving only a slap on the wrist to allowing card-carrying growers and users grow marijuana and use it for medicinal purposes.

Weed Potency: Then and Now

As previously mentioned, marijuana cycled through several cultural movements: the jazz era, the beatniks and then the hippies of the counterculture. However, the weed of yesteryear is quite different (read: weaker) than that of today. With new grow and cross-pollination methods, genetic manipulation, and chemical additives, weed today is like a distant relative to its forefather; it is extremely more potent. Although depending on
the source, this is debatable. I know some “old heads” that say, from their experience, it is indeed stronger today than when they smoked it as hippies.

In the United States, pot, like heroin and LSD, is classified as a Schedule I drug. This designation means that, despite state laws, according to the federal government, it has no approved medicinal use and possesses a high potential for abuse. The only authorized source of marijuana for research is grown at the University of Mississippi and is controlled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which favors studying potential risks rather than benefits of cannabis. Cannabis’ illegal status also makes it difficult to find funding for research.

Medicinal Marijuana

It is hard to deny certain medical uses and benefits of medical marijuana. Today, it is used by those suffering from wasting diseases such as AIDS patients and cancer patients. Those undergoing chemotherapy find relief from nausea. Anyone suffering from migraines to menstrual cramps can seek a prescription for medical marijuana and fill it at any one of local dispensaries, which are opening up daily. A study at San Francisco General Hospital, conducted in 2011, found that the addition of marijuana reduced pain for patients already being treated with opioid drugs. When 21 patients taking either long-acting morphine or Oxycontin twice a day added inhaled marijuana via a vaporizer to their regime, pain was decreased by an average of 27 percent. The marijuana did not significantly alter the blood levels of the prescription drugs. This finding might prove helpful in combating the current epidemic of opiate overdoses in our country. However, it is important to keep in mind that there is little to no research about the trigger effect that marijuana may have on addicts/alcoholics in recovery. Some undesirable side effects of marijuana include increased heart rate, appetite and sensory perception and diminished coordination.

Psychological Issues and Self-Medicating

Marijuana has been noted to cause short-term memory loss, anxiety, paranoia and sometimes even psychotic episodes. There has been little research on its trigger effect on schizophrenia but, it is believed that marijuana use amongst adolescents with a predisposition to schizophrenia can be detrimental in the onset of the disorder.

Some users may experience anxiety and the sensation of panic when they smoke marijuana. There has been much talk of a correlation between marijuana use and psychological disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, and anxiety. However, it is not clear which precedes which. Often times, those already suffering from mental disorders turn to marijuana as a way to self-medicate – a more likely case. The concern however, is whether this is a safe way to treat such disorders or if it only serves to make matters worse.

Marijuana and Sobriety

Some addicts and alcoholics have tried the “marijuana maintenance” program, believing that they can simply smoke weed without going back to the harder stuff that they were using before getting clean. This rarely works however, because for those in recovery, the introduction of a drug in the brain releases their addiction all over again. This can be evidenced by the work of Dr. Kenneth Blum, who is most recognized for his work that identified a “reward gene,” (some refer to as the “alcoholic gene”) which makes the case for heritability of alcoholism and other addictions. The point being that, for those who identify as addict or alcoholic (including myself), our brains might be wired differently and so using any kind of intoxicating substance will set the wheels of our addiction spinning all over again.

Personally, I used to think that I could go back to only smoking pot after each bout of using the harder stuff – heroin and cocaine, my other drugs of choice. But, soon enough and without fail, I would be, as they say, off to the races. The literature used in 12 Step fellowships reminds us that “alcohol is a drug.” To that I say: and so is pot, for those who might be thinking, “But I can still smoke pot”. Being clean means abstaining from any mood or mind-altering drug. By that definition, using weed in and of itself breaks one’s sobriety. Many people think: “well, it’s natural; it’s from the earth”. But to the alcoholic/addict, it is as detrimental as alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or any other intoxicating substance.

Cheryl Steinberg holds two Bachelor degrees: Sociology and Spanish. She previously was a Social Worker but now works as an Addiction Specialist with Your First Step. Cheryl can also communicate in American Sign Language for those that are deaf.