Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Yup, one again the date is 4/20. As I understand it, a group of high school students would meet after school to smoke marijuana at 4:20.
This is post is not intended to be a lecture, and I certainly don’t want to sway opinion. These are just my thoughts on an increasingly popular recreational drug, and one that is becoming increasingly “legal”. Technically it is not legal. While states are legalizing it for pharmacological and recreational uses, the federal government still lists marijuana as an illegal narcotic. This means that, nationally, it is still illegal, they are not enforcing the law in states where it has been “legalized”. This is not unlike Amsterdam, where drugs were never really legal. Instead, the decision was made to simply not enforce the law. This made it easier to reactivate enforcement should they decide it was necessary since they were never really off of the books. In a way, they kind of did this in the past couple of years when they decided to enforce the drug laws for tourists, but not for citizens. This was because the country was being overrun by drug addicts wanting to visit just to take advantage of the lack of enforcement.
There are two things I like about the Amsterdam story. First of all, although I have never personally partaken of drugs (well, one; we’ll get to that soon) and would not even if they were legal, I still believe in people taking personal responsibility. Provided they’re not putting anybody else in harm’s way with their habits, people should have the right to do whatever they want (in my opinion) with their bodies. Yes, I’m that liberal. But, I’m also glad they’re making the drugs illegal for tourists, because frankly I’ve always wanted to go to Amsterdam, not for the drugs but for the culture and architecture. A few years ago, saying “I want to go to Amsterdam” was always taken as “I’m an addict”.
The one drug I did do was unknowingly. Not that I didn’t know I was doing it, but I didn’t realize it’s actually illegal. At the house I was renting a room many years ago in graduate school, we had helium balloons for some reason (no doubt, somebody’s birthday). Knowing what helium does to voices, a group of us were passing around balloons and talking funny. As it turns out, this is called “huffing”, and it does impair mental facilities, and it is illegal. I definitely felt the effects (and stopped when I got dizzy), but yes, I guess I can honestly say that I was illegally huffing helium.
Marijuana stimulates the same “pleasure sensors” as many other drugs, including alcohol. It stimulates brain cells to release dopamine, a chemical messenger that signals brain cells to expect a “reward”. Lack of dopamine has been linked to depression. The chemical structure of dopamine has an ethyl amine component, the same ethyl amine that is common in many narcotics. This is the part of the molecule that binds to the receptor sites of these pleasure cells. The rest of the molecule in narcotics both helps the drug traverse the blood/brain barrier and influences the strength which with the molecule binds to these receptor sites leading to the variances in potency.
In my role as forensic director for a police department in a state where marijuana is still illegal, I’ve burned a lot of marijuana. It’s funny, but I’ve known many police officers who actually would favor legalizing marijuana, as would I, but like me, they recognized that they had a job to do. They enforced the laws because they were the laws. If the voters organized to finally legalize it, I know there are many who would be happy to switch from enforcing possession to enforcing driving while impaired.
Therein lies a major problem, though. How do you define impaired driving? With alcohol, it’s quantifiable; if you have more than 0.08% of alcohol in your blood, you’re breaking the law. While this limit is somewhat arbitrary (trust me; you don’t want to see me behind the wheel with half that much alcohol), it is nonetheless a quantifiable number that can be tested and verified. It doesn’t matter when you drank, how much you drank, if your blood alcohol is over the limit, it’s illegal to drive. With marijuana, the story is different. THC and its metabolic derivatives have no such limit and stay in the body significantly longer than alcohol. This means that you could have smoked marijuana four days ago and you could still test positive even though the effects have long since passed.
But the thing is that it seems as if the negative effects of marijuana are far less dangerous than those of alcohol or tobacco. Being drunk tends to make people violent, while marijuana makes people act like they’re at a Grateful Dead concert. Yes, for some people there is evidence that it is a gateway drug, but it’s only about one in twenty according to the study I’ve read, but alcohol is also a gateway drug for some people. Yes, it can cause cancer, but not to the extent that tobacco can cause cancer. And yes, it can be addictive, but so is both alcohol and tobacco.
I have multiple friends who smoke marijuana, some in states where it’s legal, and somewhere it is not. One of my friends said that she smokes but doesn’t drink; it was a conscious decision that she would allow herself to do one or the other but not both, and she chose pot. I have another that struggles with chronic pain, and it helps him are more, and with fewer side effects, than pharmaceutical alternatives. A third is probably my favorite; a heavy pot smoker in her youth, she’s actually growing out of it. I had no idea as people got older this would happen.
So, no preaching. Make up your mind, but whether it’s pot or alcohol or some other substance, don’t put people at risk. Don’t drive under the influence even if it’s just helium and be prepared to accept the circumstances of your decisions, and we’ll get along just fine.