Marijuana: Can U.S. 'Just say no'?

by Warren Cole Smith/WNS, posted Tuesday, October 28, 2014 (5 years ago)

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Manitou Springs, a resort town at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado, takes pride in its weirdness and seems to adopt a flippant attitude toward marijuana use. A popular T-shirt plays on the town's elevation -- 6,412 feet above sea level -- by suggesting that "the whole town is high."

But now that Colorado's Amendment 64 has made recreational marijuana legal in the state, Manitou Springs is wrestling with just how weird and how high it wants to be, since the amendment allows towns to decide for themselves whether to have retail dispensaries.

Like Manitou Springs, many communities are grappling with how to handle marijuana. Since 2012, Washington state also has legalized it for recreational use, and medical marijuana is now legal in 24 states. Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia will vote on legalizing recreational marijuana Nov. 4.

Marijuana possession is prohibited by federal law, but the Obama administration has opted not to prosecute for possession of small amounts in states where pot is legal.

Moral and ethical concerns about pot use are changing. In the 1980s, critics derided the Reagan administration's War on Drugs and called Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign simplistic, but marijuana use among teens plummeted during that era. By 1990 four of five Americans thought marijuana should be illegal.

Today's polls, however, show that most Americans favor legalization. In Oklahoma, one of the nation's reddest states, Democratic state Sen. Constance Johnson is heading an effort to legalize marijuana with, she said, "Genesis 1:29 as the basis of this campaign." (Genesis 1:29 says, "God said, 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed ... upon the face of all the earth.'") Johnson, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, hoped to collect 160,000 signatures to put both recreational and medical marijuana on the ballot in November, but she fell short.

Johnson's debatable use of Scripture aside, other questions remain: Is marijuana safe? Do we know what will happen to its price (and therefore its demand) wherever it becomes legal? Is smoking marijuana for relaxation or recreation at home really different from having a glass of wine or, for that matter, cups of coffee that also can have a mind-altering effect?

Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council has examined these questions and concluded that marijuana should not be legalized because "marijuana is intrinsically hallucinogenic and is mind-altering in even the smallest doses." Today's marijuana has much higher levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient, than did marijuana available in the past, Schwarzwalder notes.

Among the 60-plus active ingredients in marijuana, some of them can have positive health effects in pill form, such as relieving pain or reducing seizures, Schwarzwalder acknowledges. He does not object to the use of medical derivatives of marijuana in carefully created compounds and for specific applications, "but there's a difference between taking a pill and smoking a joint. ... Medication taken in pill form is not hallucinogenic."

Schwarzwalder thinks carefully crafted public policy can allow medical uses of marijuana-based drugs while maintaining a firm stand on legalization, which both he and the FRC oppose. "We use opiates as pain relievers, but no one advocates the legalization of opium," he points out.

Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, takes a similar stance on marijuana. Legalizing recreational marijuana is ill-advised because it often can be a gateway drug to more dangerous substances. Marijuana also introduces toxic chemicals into the body and leads to crime and poverty, Duke has argued in Baptist Press columns.

Legal prescription drugs containing marijuana's pain relieving ingredient and taken in capsule form can benefit patients suffering from a range of medical conditions, Duke wrote, but the idea of smoking marijuana for medical purposes is questionable.

"The rush to decriminalization in the name of pain control or mental health cannot be justified," Duke wrote. "Most people who use marijuana to relieve severe pain combine it with stronger pain relievers because marijuana is not effective enough by itself. Furthermore, marijuana's pain-relieving ingredient has been available by prescription for years. A person can purchase Marinol -- right now -- with a doctor's prescription."

Marijuana-based drugs

Emergency room doctor Tom Minahan, after walking a long and difficult road with his daughter Mallory, opposes the legalization of marijuana but recognizes its potential medical uses.

Minahan, the father of four, is the medical director for two pro-life pregnancy care centers and is active in a California evangelical church who attests, "We take our Christian faith seriously." But Minahan and his wife Carrin found themselves in a faith-challenging situation when Mallory, now 11, had her first epileptic seizures at 14 months. "Over the next decade or more, we tried everything," Mallory says of giving his daughter a dozen drugs, sometimes three at once, to control or eliminate the 30-40 seizures she had each month.

Nothing worked, so the Minahans considered giving their daughter Felbatol, which has such serious side effects -- including a significant chance of death -- that it is truly a last resort. Minahan hated the idea of giving his daughter a drug that might kill her, and the doctor in him was aware of the Hippocratic Oath he had taken: "First, do no harm." But, he said, "I was at the end of the line. I remember driving to work one day praying, 'OK, God. I give up. Either fix her or take her home.'"

Before giving Mallory the drug, Minahan decided to attend a conference on cannabis and epilepsy at New York University where he "was surprised to find only a few tie-dyed people. Most of them were pretty normal." He learned about a strain of marijuana that is low in the hallucinogenic THC and high in CBD (cannabidiol), a non-hallucenogenic compound. Some people with seizures had success taking an oil made from that strain.

Minahan had concerns about the long-term side effects of the marijuana oil. That's one of the problems with allowing widespread marijuana use: The research on both health effects and societal effects is minimal. That may seem surprising since marijuana has been used widely for a half-century, and archaeologists have found cannabis seeds in Chinese and other tombs dating back at least 3,000 years, but large-scale and long-term scientific studies that meet rigorous academic standards are rare.

Yet for Minahan, the marijuana oil couldn't be worse than the seizures and drugs that had taken over Mallory's life. She had not been in school for three years. The constant worry and stress strained his marriage. So beginning in October 2013 he gave marijuana oil a try and "saw immediate effects." The frequency of seizures declined and Mallory started needing less of her other drugs. By July of this year, Minahan could say, "Mallory's had just one seizure in the past five weeks. She's back in school. We have our daughter back. We have our lives back."

Despite his experience, Minahan is "not a proponent of marijuana first. ... We don't need America stoned." He knows that so-called medical marijuana is often a ruse for recreational use and believes people should first exhaust conventional means before trying marijuana-based drugs. 

Even though Minahan opposes recreational marijuana use, he realizes that legalizing marijuana could help him indirectly by causing the price to drop. He currently pays about $2,000 per month for Mallory's marijuana oil, of which his insurance pays nothing. Legalization or even the less radical step of decriminalization -- a fine rather than jail time for possession of small amounts -- likely will cause a large drop in the price of marijuana.

But some experts say a drop in price will cost society more than it will benefit families like the Minahans. Among the costs of legalization or decriminalization are increased consumption, states Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and co-author of "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs To Know."

For states that opt to legalize marijuana, "it is reasonable to incorporate a sunset provision that makes the laws revert back to what they were before reform ... unless extended by the voters or the legislature," Kilmer said. He cited as justification for a sunset provision "the enormous uncertainty about the outcomes of policy changes and the strong possibility of unintended consequences."

Few states are following that advice. Neither Colorado nor Washington has a sunset provision in its legislation, and none of the provisions on the fall ballot has sunset provisions.

To legalize or not

Which comes back to Manitou Springs. On a cold night back in January, more than 200 people attended a heated city council meeting, the largest crowd in anyone's memory in this town of barely 5,000 people. At issue: Could recreational marijuana be legally sold in the town? Mayor Marc Snyder and others in favor said the tax revenue would be more than $160,000 per year, "very significant" for a town the size of Manitou.

Those opposed said the revenue projections -- though required by law -- have little basis in experience and will likely prove wildly inaccurate. Besides, opponents said, much of the money would have to pay for the problems pot sales would create. Because surrounding towns -- including Manitou's much larger neighbor Colorado Springs -- had banned marijuana sales, opponents said Manitou Springs would become a destination for marijuana tourism, a place people would come to get high. A few argued that smoking pot was just plain wrong.

The final vote of the Manitou Springs city council was 6-1 to allow retail sales, but over the summer enough voters signed a citizen petition that the question will be back before voters in November. Although Amendment 64 passed in 2012 with 68 percent of the vote, when voters have cast ballots on retail sales in their own towns, the pro-pot vote has been much lower. Mayor Snyder thinks the November vote -- even in this town that takes pride in its progressive posture -- "could be very close."

In the meantime, Manitou Springs' single retail store opened in July. About 75 people waited in the rain to get in. Among them: Kevin "Sarge" MacDonald, a Manitou Springs city councilman.

More than one local news report noted that the marijuana dispensary is conveniently located next to a Loaf 'N Jug, a Colorado-based convenience store chain. It seems unlikely, though, that a case of the munchies will be the only side effect of legalizing recreational marijuana.

Warren Cole Smith is vice president of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine ( and WORLD News Service. Used by permission. David Roach, Baptist Press chief national correspondent, contributed to this article.
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