The American people want it — 94 percent, according to one survey.
In Memphis, the City Council, led by Berlin Boyd and Martavius Jones, recently voted to endorse a bill in the state legislature to legalize it.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis has been championing the cause in Washington for years and is currently sponsoring the CARERS Act, short for Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act.
Thirty-three states already allow it, including Arkansas starting later this year.
I’m talking about medical marijuana and, in some cases, marijuana period.
It’s a risky idea.
I’ll tell you why, but first a little background.
Most Americans of a certain age — including Bill Clinton and me — remember the ‘60s and ‘70s, when marijuana first became widely available. (Unlike Clinton, I freely admit that I inhaled).
Smoking weed back then made many of us mellow, silly, even euphoric, and gave others of us a sore throat, which is why I bailed out pretty quickly. It made all of us hungry, the fabled munchies.
And it made most of us think that marijuana was at worst an innocent vice. Which for most of us it was.
The active ingredient in the marijuana people were smoking back then —THC, short for delta-9-tetrahyrdocannabinol — was the equivalent of near-beer. In a 500-milligram joint, 5-10 milligrams were THC — about 1 or 2 percent.
These gauzy memories opened us to the argument that came along in the mid-1990s—namely, that marijuana has medicinal properties and carries no downside risk.
In 1996 California legalized medical marijuana — a term for the drug that surely represents one of the greatest branding efforts in history. By 2006, 10 states had followed suit, a number that rose above 30 last year when Oklahoma voted to legalize it.
Here’s the thing: “except for a few narrow conditions such as cancer-related wasting, neither cannabis nor THC has ever been shown to work in randomized clinical trials.” Those are the trials the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) insists on before allowing any drug onto the market.
That quote comes from former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson’s new book, “Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.”
Mental illness and violence? From using marijuana?
Unfortunately, that is sometimes the case. As Berenson shows with painstaking thoroughness, in the same quarter-century that medical marijuana legalization has swept the country, considerable research has been published suggesting not just that the drug’s therapeutic claims are overstated, but also that it poses serious dangers to some users and those around them.
In the words of a 2017 National Academy of Medicine (NAM) report summarizing this research, “Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses.”
To be sure, Berenson writes, “Marijuana use doesn’t cause aggression in everyone. Many users relax. But some become paranoid, and some of those have full-blown psychotic episodes,” leading to violent behavior.
To make matters worse, the NAM report adds, “the higher the use, the greater the risk.”
What changed to drive up the risks attending marijuana use — which, Berenson notes, research indicates may also induce anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder?
First, the marijuana now on the market, legally and otherwise, is not your father’s Mary Jane. It routinely includes not 1 or 2 percent THC but 25 percent or more — roughly the equivalent of drinking grain alcohol instead of near-beer.
Don’t confuse THC with CBD (cannabidiol), whose weak but demonstrated benefits in treating pediatric epilepsy are trumpeted by marijuana’s advocates. CBD is not marijuana but “one chemical of many found in marijuana” and hardly present at all in nearly all marijuana sold today. CBD oil, which is not mood-altering, is already legal with a prescription in Tennessee
Second, the “medical” aspect of medical marijuana has yet to be demonstrated. Most doctors, knowing this, won’t have any part of it. Instead, when states have voted to legalize it, a small number of “pot doctors” have typically set up clinics to write the prescription for almost anyone who comes in complaining about almost anything.
Oregon, for example, has about 10,000 doctors. Just 10 — one-tenth of 1 percent of them — accounted for 76 percent of all medical marijuana authorizations during the decade after legalization by that state.
Finally, because the legalization movement has made marijuana sound healthy, more and more people are using it. Casual use has risen moderately but daily intake — the most dangerous kind — nearly tripled from about 3 million users in 2005 to more than 8 million in 2017.
Currently, Berenson points out, “the United States has the loosest laws and highest rates of cannabis use among any major countries.”
In the states where medical marijuana is legal, its sale and distribution have become big business. And for those growers, dispensaries and investors who are making money in the booming new industry, medical marijuana legalization is the gateway policy.
High on the industry’s agenda — and that of the well-financed ideological groups that support its cause, including the George Soros-funded Drug Policy Alliance — is full-blown legalization of marijuana, a goal already accomplished in 10 states.
With what consequences? In Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — the first four states to make recreational marijuana legal — “murders and serious assaults rose faster than the national average, even after accounting for population growth,” reports Berenson. So did emergency-room admissions with marijuana-use disorder as the primary or secondary diagnosis.
Last month Consumer Reports offered new research showing that in states where recreational marijuana is legal, vehicle collisions rose 6 percent compared with adjacent states where it is illegal. A Washington State study found that marijuana-impaired drivers were more likely to have children in the car than alcohol-impaired drivers.
I know, I know: Alcohol abuse contributes to violence and car wrecks, too. But that horse is out of the barn. And at least no one is calling booze “medical.”
Scientific research doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. Conservatives hate it when scientists pile up evidence that the climate is changing because of human action. Liberals squirm when advances in early fetal viability undermine the idea that unborn babies are less than human (another column for another day).
In the case of marijuana, some studies suggest the opposite of what the culture and the political system have come to believe. As Berenson himself concludes, we need more FDA-quality research and those of us on both sides of the issue need to be open to changing our minds on the basis of the results that emerge. In particular, Berenson argues, “the government should drop its barriers to researching cannabis for medical purposes.”
Fortunately for Tennessee, there’s still time to hit the pause button.