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Decriminalize marijuana

The war on drugs has caused too much collateral damage: Even the ill face stigmatization by using an alternative to harsh pharmaceuticals.

June 07, 2009|Marie Myung-Ok Lee | Marie Myung-Ok Lee teaches at Brown University and is working on a novel about medical malpractice.

When President Obama was asked in March whether he thought legalizing marijuana could help solve the nation's financial problems, his answer was unequivocal. "No, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," he said. But his response is unlikely to quell debate on an issue that polarizes Americans. Even academic studies that purport to be unbiased arrive at very different conclusions. Here are three viewpoints on why the country should or should not decriminalize the drug.

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I'm on the phone getting a recipe for hashish butter. Not from my dealer but from Lester Grinspoon, a physician and emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. And not for a party but for my 9-year-old son, who has autism, anxiety and digestive problems, all of which are helped by the analgesic and psychoactive properties of marijuana. I wouldn't be giving it to my child if I didn't think it was safe.

I came to marijuana while searching for a safer alternative to the powerful antipsychotic drugs, such as Risperdal, that are typically prescribed for children with autism and other behavioral disorders. There have been few studies on the long-term effects of these drugs on a growing child's brain, and in particular autism, a disorder whose biochemical mechanisms are poorly understood. But there is much documentation of the risks, which has caused the Food and Drug Administration to require the highest-level "black box" warnings of possible side effects that include permanent Parkinson's disease-like tremors, metabolic disorders and death. A panel of federal drug experts in 2008 urged physicians to use caution when prescribing these medicines to children, as they are the most susceptible to side effects.

We live in Rhode Island, one of more than a dozen states -- including California -- with medical marijuana laws. That makes giving our son cannabis for a medical condition legal. But we are limited in its use. We cannot take it on a plane on a visit to his grandmother in Minnesota.

Even though we are not breaking the law, I still wonder what my neighbors would think if they knew we were giving our son what most people only think of as an illegal "recreational" drug. Marijuana has always carried that illicit tang of danger -- "reefer madness" and foreign drug cartels. But in 1988, Drug Enforcement Administration Judge Francis L. Young, after two years of hearings, deemed marijuana "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.

Beyond helping people like my son, the reasons to legalize cannabis on a federal level are manifold. Anecdotal evidence from patients already attests to its pain-relieving properties, and the benefits in quelling chemotherapy-induced nausea and wasting syndrome are well documented. Future studies may find even more important medical uses.

Including marijuana in the war on drugs has only proved foolhardy -- and costly. By keeping marijuana illegal and prices high, illicit drug money from the U.S. sustains the murderous narco-traffickers in Mexico and elsewhere. In fact, after seeing how proximity to marijuana growers affected the small Mexican village of Alamos, where my husband spent much of his childhood, I was adamant about never entering into that economy of violence.

Because Rhode Island has no California-like medical marijuana dispensaries, the patient must apply for a medical marijuana license and then find a way to procure the cannabis. We floundered on our own until we finally connected with a local horticultural school graduate who agreed to provide our son's organic marijuana. But given the seedy underbelly of the illegal drug trade, combined with the current economic collapse, even our grower has to be mindful of not exposing himself to robbery.

Legalizing marijuana not only removes the incentives for this underground economy, it would allow for regulation and taxation of the product, just like cigarettes and alcohol. The potential for abuse is there, as it is with any substance, but toxicology studies have not even been able to establish a lethal dose at typical-use levels. In fact, in 1988, Young of the DEA further stated that "it is estimated that ... a smoker would theoretically have to consume ... nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about 15 minutes to induce a lethal response." Nor is it physically addicting, unlike your daily Starbucks, as anyone who has suffered from a caffeine withdrawal headache can attest.

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