Two trends have been at work in American culture over the past few years, and not much attention has been paid to the tension between them. On one side is the push for greater public health, manifested in limits on soda sizes and a stigmatizing of cigarette smoking. In many areas, local governments have outlawed smoking tobacco in bars and restaurants and near building entrances, and PSAs trumpet the health risks of smoking. On the other side, a push for greater acceptance of marijuana is gaining ground, with cities and whole states legalizing weed despite federal laws outlawing it.
The pro-marijuana movement certainly has the momentum, with high-profile areas legalizing the drug as late as this past November. Against the current of public opinion stand William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education and federal drug czar, and Robert White with their recent book, Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana is Harming America.
Recent Stories in Culture
Their argument is clear from the subtitle: Bennett and White are seeking to point out all the ways that marijuana hurts people. Fighting the commonly held notion that weed is harmless, they work through a myriad of ways that weed affects people badly.
They know they are fighting uphill, so they start off their introduction by pointing to an article published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, the most prestigious and respected medical journal in the country, that points out the various impacts that weed has on users’ health. So as to emphasize the importance of the article, the authors actually received permission to reprint it in full at the end of their book.
Their arguments about the effects of marijuana ought to be enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that weed is harmless. Using weed can cause short-term memory impairment, and it has been linked to a higher rate of dropping out of school. It impairs bodily coordination and alters users’ judgment, making it dangerous to drive. It has been linked to psychosis, notably schizophrenia. It impairs brain development and has been linked to lower IQ. It lowers users’ levels of motivation. It can cause cancer of various types, much like cigarettes. It can hurt smokers’ hearts, too, again like cigarettes. And it can act as a gateway to harder drugs.
Marijuana’s effect on a developing brain is perhaps the most troubling of its consequences. Over 90 percent of marijuana users started when they were teenagers, at which point the brain is developing its various connections between neurons. Marijuana can permanently alter how the brain develops during this crucial time.
"[I]t is inexplicable that as the balance of public opinion has been moving toward the legalization of marijuana, the balance of science and medicine has been moving toward broad agreement on marijuana’s harms and dangers," the authors write.
Bennett and White take on many other aspects of the legalization debate. They show that "medical" marijuana is really a way to allow recreational use: in Colorado (before full legalization), 74 percent of medical marijuana users were male, and a very low percentage had permission to use the drug for cancer and AIDS. What’s more, there are a couple of FDA-approved drugs that use the active ingredient in weed, THC. Bennett and White point out that very few people arrested for marijuana possession alone go to jail, and they take on the idea that prohibition was a failure in the 1920s by showing that alcohol use did in fact go down during that period. (Talk about standing athwart history!)
If we take the logic of their argument to its full extent, we should severely restrict how much tobacco and alcohol are available, too, as alcohol and tobacco have many of the same effects as marijuana—and they effectively concede this point. "If anything, the argument that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than marijuana suggests that we should further restrict or make illegal alcohol and tobacco, not make legal something else that is already damaging," they write.
Bennett was a Republican-appointed office holder, and he and White attempt to deal with the obvious conservative arguments in favor of legalization. Their argument against the assertion of a state’s right to legalize weed is relatively strong (legalizing it has spillover effects into other states), while their argument against the libertarian assertion of individual rights is somewhat less convincing. "Outside of the limited medical usage that may need to be met, and which can have a federal protocol, at the end of the day the right [to use marijuana] is, simply put, a right to get and be stoned," they write. "This, it seems to us, is a rather ridiculous right upon which to charge a hill."
But freedom, if it is to be real, must generally include the right to do a lot of stupid things. Bennett and White argue that the government has a duty to protect people from bodily harm, but this duty doesn’t extend everywhere—life is dangerous—and much of the harm of using weed occurs in the individual.
The heart of their argument seems to be that any personal pleasure from using marijuana (setting aside the legitimate medical uses of marijuana, which could be accommodated through heavy regulation) is outweighed by the overall social costs caused by marijuana. Weed hurts individuals, which in the aggregate hurts society. There will be more high-school dropouts and more drug-addicted individuals, not to mention more traffic accidents, if we legalize weed, and so when legislators balance the need for freedom with the costs to society at large of exercising that freedom, the costs of legalization should outweigh the benefits.
This argument is not an absolute argument from principle. Bennett and White convincingly show that marijuana is not a harmless substance, and they lay out a strong case (if overstated at points) for how marijuana is deeply troublesome for individuals and communities. Their book is a valuable contrarian voice in the overall debate on marijuana, and it should temper any headlong rush toward legitimizing the drug.