Seven Reasons To Change Your Mind

By Andrew Looney


After posting our plans for Stoner Fluxx last week, I expected to get an earful. So far, I've only got one really negative email, but I'm sure his questions are being asked by others among my readers, so I've once again turned my reply letter into an essay.

Dear H:

You wrote: "Granted, I haven't read the studies that you so frequently cite, and I haven't used marijuana myself, so you will probably write off my opinion as just one more uninformed person."

For starters, I'd like to thank you for writing. And no, I'm not going to ignore you... I'm much more interested in attempting to change your viewpoints. Since you seem to respect my ideas on other topics, and since you acknowledge yourself to be inexperienced and uninformed on this matter, I've made a point of writing you a very detailed response. I hope you'll return the favor by reading all of this, and trying to keep an open mind as you do. I'd like to start with a little about my background, then I'll respond to your points one by one.

You may find this hard to believe, but I was once just like you. I used to believe that all drug use was evil and that the laws against drugs were a good idea. The Andy Looney of 1983 could easily have written the letter you just sent me. But a few years later, I woke up. I took an honest look at the realities of drug prohibition, and I realized I was wrong to support it. And the more I've examined the matter, the more I've realized just how wrong I was. (I guess that's why I'm so passionate about this... I have the zeal of a convert.)

Even with the "drugs are evil" attitude I totally had in college, I still became friends with many people who smoked pot. And over the course of the past twenty-some years, I've been studying these stoners and their habits. Gradually, my viewpoints softened, until one day when I totally changed my viewpoint and even took a trip to Amsterdam so that I could find out for myself what it was like to smoke pot in a place where it's not forbidden. Afterwards, I posted a big series of articles, which I called "Stoners in the Haze." This was in 1997, and since then, I've met a lot more pot-smokers. People I would never have imagined could be stoners have come out to me, confiding secrets they haven't even confessed to their parents... and the more I hear of their viewpoints, the more convinced I am that our society's attitude about this drug is 180 degrees from where it should be.

Specifically, I've come to the following hard-to-believe conclusions:

1) Marijuana Isn't Deadly
2) Marijuana Doesn't Make You Lazy, Crazy, or Stupid
3) Marijuana Does Have Non-Medical Benefits
4) Stoners Cause Fewer Problems Than Drinkers
5) Stoners Are Safe Drivers
6) Prohibition Is Deadly
7) Prohibition Is Unconstitutional

I would imagine that you're fuming with disbelief at a few or even all of these claims, but I'll attempt to back them up, with my own observations, and with quotes from various studies and researchers.

1) Marijuana Isn't Deadly

You wrote: "Marijuana is likely to be exactly as bad for you as cigarettes, with studies having been performed that suggest that it has even larger amounts of carcinogens."

Exactly which studies would those be? I thought you said you hadn't read the studies? But never mind, I'll assume you are correct: I'm sure there are some studies which have concluded that marijuana contains some scary chemicals. I'm also sure you can find a lot of scary chemicals in the foods we eat every day. The point is, what are the actual mortality rates?

Tobacco kills over 400,000 people every year, and alcohol kills at last half that. But how many people die each year from smoking pot? The answer appears to be zero. I haven't heard yet of a single death being linked to pot use, and believe me, if the anti-drug crowd could find one, we'd have heard about it.

So your basic premise, that weed causes cancer just like cigarettes, is apparently incorrect. People have been smoking pot for thousands of years, but no one has ever died because of it. Meanwhile, people who use alcohol & tobacco are dying off by the hundreds of thousands each year. This is what I'm talking about when I say that marijuana is clearly less harmful than tobacco.

Here's a quote from a noted researcher to back up what I'm saying. Mitch Earleywine, (author of "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence") had this to say in an interview regarding his research into the dangers of smoking pot: "One of the things I went into writing the book thinking was going to be a big problem was lung cancer and lung disease, but as it turns out, people who smoke marijuana -- and only smoke marijuana -- don't seem to have elevated rates of lung cancer."

The bottom line is, the numbers just aren't there when it comes to claims that smoking pot is harmful. I know it doesn't make sense -- I'm with you in thinking that logically, it should be unhealthy to deliberately inhale the burning vapors of anything -- but if it really is dangerous, then where are all the dead potheads?

Like I said, I know this doesn't seem logical. I've spend a lot of time trying to figure this conundrum out, and eventually, I figured it out. It's the nicotine! Cigarettes contain a deadly poison. Marijuana doesn't.

Did you know that nicotine is so poisonous you can use it to make a powerful insecticide? I was amazed by this quote, which I found in one of Alison's gardening books ("Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles," by Ellen Sandbeck): "Cigarette butts can be soaked in water to make an extremely toxic bug spray. Nicotine is a very powerful poison that can kill just about any living creature." Nicotine is so deadly, in fact, that it's the active ingredient in many insecticides used routinely in the horticultural industry. (But you'd never know that without doing some research, since it's usually sold under more marketable trade names.)

Well, if you can kill bugs with nicotine-laced water, then of course it follows that smoking something containing nicotine would cause gradual death! Marijuana on the other hand has been shown to have a remarkably low toxicity. The only way you could die of a marijuana overdose would be for a 10-ton bale of it to fall on you.

Studies and researchers are coming to the same conclusions as me. I was reading just today about results from two new studies, one here and one in Sweden, which are finding no link between cannabis use and death. Dr. Stephen Sidney, associate director for clinical research at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in California, said of the results from these studies, "Published data do not support the characterization of cannabis as a risk factor for mortality."

2) Marijuana Doesn't Make You Lazy, Crazy, or Stupid

You wrote: "I have known several people who have recreationally used marijuana, and none of them are better off for having done it."

How so? Exactly how has pot messed up their lives? And who are you to judge whether or not it has benefited them? Have they said to you, "Gee, I really messed up my life by smoking pot," or is this just your opinion? In what specific ways have these friends of yours suffered by smoking weed?

If your answer has anything at all to do with run-ins with law enforcement, I'd like to remind you that those problems wouldn't exist if pot were legal. If you say other drugs were involved, then you're changing the subject. (Don't even bother suggesting that stupid "gateway drug" theory with me... that's just guilt by association, and it doesn't hold water.) Finally, if you try to claim it's made them lazy or unproductive, I'm not going to believe you.

I have come to reject the "motivation-killer" argument as just another government lie. As I've said, I know many stoners. There are some, it's true, who are lazy and never seem to be doing much with their lives. I also know plenty of other people who never smoke pot and still do nothing in particular with their lives. America is a nation of lazy sit-on-the-couch-and-watch-TV type people, and it's not because they're all a bunch of stoners. To say that smoking pot *causes* you sit on the couch and do nothing is no more valid a claim than to say smoking pot will make you a great artist. Either is possible, but that doesn't mean there's a correlation.

I understand where the stereotype comes from... certainly, the relaxed feeling you get from marijuana can make lying on the couch very enjoyable. But the idea that you'll want to do nothing else is simply not true. Just consider another stereotype: the stoner who's come up with what he thinks is a brilliant plan, and is running around searching for paper clips, rubber bands, and an old egg carton. Now, you may think his idea is silly, and indeed, it may be... but you can't say he's just sitting on the couch doing nothing.

A lot of people smoke pot. A lot of people are couch potatoes. Some are both. The point is, most couch potatoes who smoke pot would probably be couch potatoes even if they didn't smoke pot.

Show me a lazy stoner, and I'll show you someone who's simply lazy. And if they try to blame their problems on their use of pot, to me that just means they're unwilling to take responsibility for their own shortcomings. Some people will always look for something else to blame their problems on.

The proof of this is in the existence of vast numbers of *successful* stoners. You can't see them, of course, because they're smart enough (and motivated enough!) to keep this aspect of their lives carefully hidden. But they're out there... and for many years now, I've been seeking them out and talking to them.

Some of the stoners I know are also some of the most busy, productive, and successful people I've ever seen. It's hard to maintain the belief that pot makes you lazy when you talk to busy and successful people, who are accomplishing all sorts of things with their lives and yet also, somehow, smoke pot every day. (Far from being an impediment to their achievements, I have to wonder if their pot-use isn't somehow *helping* them in those accomplishments... but I'll get to that in the next section.)

So who are all these successful stoners I speak of? They are computer programmers and scientists and engineers and musicians and artists and parents of well-behaved kids, and public servants and plumbers and lawyers and business-owners and web developers and every other type of person you might meet. Our society is heavily infiltrated by deeply-closeted pot-smokers. Despite everything we've been made to believe, about how any recreational drug use will destroy your life and leave you a worthless bum in the gutter, the truth is that pot-smokers are very easily able to conceal what they do from others, even their co-workers, friends, and loved ones. This fact alone should be able to undo the lies spun by the drug warriors, but it is rarely refuted, since the successful but deeply closeted stoner rarely speaks up to refute anti-drug propaganda. To do so would be to risk blowing the cover they work so hard to maintain, and which, because of our draconian drug laws, they MUST maintain. Even Carl Sagan decided it was smarter to keep his fondness for weed a secret, rather than jeopardizing his career by speaking out... his essays, praising pot's effect on creative thinking, were released only after his death.

I believe that most of America's pot-smokers are responsible adults who work hard at their jobs every day and smoke pot in the evenings or on weekends to no one's detriment. These people deeply resent being called lazy, but they dare not speak up to defend themselves. To do so is to risk being exposed and losing their jobs, custody of their children, their own freedom, and even (thanks to our insane "asset forfeiture" laws) their homes and personal belongings. So the lies go unchallenged most of the time, except when brave people like me speak up on their behalf.

After listening to the viewpoints you've shared with me in your letter, I find it surprising that any stoners you know would have been willing to admit to you that they smoke pot. I myself have been repeatedly surprised to learn how many clean-cut, professional, responsible people secretly partake, at least occasionally, of weed. Many have confided their secrets to me only because I've become an outspoken critic of the drug war and they feel they can trust me. I feel certain there are stoners you know personally who make a point of keeping you in the dark about their secret indulgences.

Because pot doesn't actually ruin one's life, it's really quite easy for smart and careful stoners to keep what they do a secret. The only way to find them is with drug testing, and even that isn't reliable, since smart and careful stoners also know lots of ways of beating a drug test. (Just pick up any copy of High Times magazine and read all the full-page ads for ways of getting around drug-testing, including synthetic urine and anatomically-correct devices for depositing it in a sample cup, even if someone is watching you pee.)

As for other claims the drug warriors make, about pot making you insane or stupid, I have again concluded that these are just lies. The whole "reefer madness" concept has long been discredited, and as for the idea that pot-use destroys your mind, I personally know a number of people who've been smoking pot every day for decades and who seem, at least to me, perfectly sound of mind. In fact, the person whom I consider to have the best memory of anyone I know has been a stoner for over 30 years. It certainly hasn't affected his memory.

Many studies have attempted to show that pot use has some sort of negative impact on brain function, and from what I've seen, they have yet to find anything compelling. To quote only from the most recent study I've read about, Dr. Igor Grant of the University of California's San Diego School of Medicine said "I suppose we expected to see some differences in people who were heavy users, but in fact the differences were very minimal." The study, whose results were released in July, compared the abilities of 700 regular adult pot-smokers to 484 non-users and found no significant differences in their test scores.

3) Marijuana Does Have Non-Medical Benefits

You wrote: "If marijuana does have a medicinal value, it should be used solely for that. Nothing else."

First of all, there's no "if" about it. Marijuana definitely has medical value. I personally know people for whom it provides pain relief unmatched by any prescription drug currently available. In particular, I've seen marijuana work wonders in the treatment of debilitating migraine headaches, and I have every reason to believe other claims of medical usefulness are valid.

But if pot does have other positive benefits, why should we not be free to pursue them? Why should free adults not be allowed to smoke pot if that's what they choose to do? Who are you to declare that it has no other legitimate uses when you yourself have never even tried it? I'm sorry, but I've talked to a great many people who smoke weed, and I put far more stock in their opinions of it than in yours.

To quote Bill Hicks, "I think drugs have done some good things for us, I really do, and if you don't believe that, then do me a favor: go home right now and take all your albums, all your tapes, all your CDs, and burn them. That's right, burn them. Because you know what? The musicians who made all that great music, which has enhanced your life all these years... they were all REALLY high on drugs."

Of course, he's exaggerating a bit... I'm sure there are some musicians who've given us great music without having used drugs. But I wonder if they aren't few and far between. And I certainly have to accept the fact that my all-time favorite group, the Beatles, were in fact, drug users, and that their greatest albums (in particular Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) simply wouldn't be what they are if the Beatles had just said "no."

There's an inventor I know who says that many of his ideas might never have happened if he hadn't been smoking pot. He says the mind-expanding nature of getting stoned makes it easier for him to think outside the box and thus come up with clever new ideas. I think he even has patents on some of the inventions he came up with while stoned.

I know of a registered nurse who lost her job because she smoked pot. She worked in a hospice wing, and she found it helpful to get stoned as a way of dealing with the emotional issues involved in watching, nay helping, terminally-ill people die every day. Is that recreational use? Is that medical use?

There are writers who say it helps them brainstorm ideas. There are artists who say it makes their artwork flow more easily. There are those who say that spiritual feeling they get from smoking weed has made them feel closer to God. Why should all of these uses be forbidden?

And don't even get me started on the industrial uses! The war on marijuana has utterly stifled the hemp industry, which has nevertheless shown that the cannabis plant has many non-medical uses, including making it into cloth, fuel, paper, shampoo, rope, and lots of other useful stuff. A couple of my favorite shirts are made of hemp, expensively imported from other countries because it can't legally be grown here. Why should these uses be forsaken? It's just not reasonable.

4) Stoners Cause Fewer Problems Than Drinkers

I have spent a lot of time observing how booze affects those of my friends who drink, and how weed affects those of my friends who toke, and comparing and contrasting the two. And here's what I've concluded: drinking causes more negative behavior than does getting stoned.

First of all, I can't even tell when my stoner friends are high. When they say something that gives it away, I have to believe it, but looking at the way they act does not give me the sense that they are impaired. On the other hand, when someone is drunk, it's really easy to tell.

Here's a question: Do you drink? I'm gonna assume you've at least tried it; I myself don't care for it. I've really only had about a dozen drinking experiences in my life. For all the years I spent avoiding pot, I assumed it would have basically similar effects on you. I was surprised how different it was when I did finally try it for the first time.

But you don't have to have experience with either to see that pot and booze affect those who use them very differently. Just look at how they affect people you know.

Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and gives you a great sense of confidence in your abilities. Drunks typically over-estimate their abilities, most famously (and tragically) when it comes to evaluating their ability to drive. Ever notice how much of the anti-drunk-driving campaigns are aimed, not directly at the drinkers, but at their friends? They say "friends don't let friends drive drunk," because drunks don't have the ability to restrain themselves. (As for marijuana's impact on driving skills, see the next section.)

A person who's been drinking is more likely to have an inflated sense of invulnerability and a more aggressive reaction to challenges. Even those who are staggeringly drunk can display a bizarre sense of being "ready to take on the world". And certainly, those who have been drinking are more inclined to pick a fight than those who've been smoking pot.

I know a guy who had his glasses and his nose broken because he happened to be standing outside of a bar at the wrong time. He got punched in the face by a drunkard who'd just emerged from the bar, spoiling for a fight. I can think of other examples in my life in which I've seen alcohol lead to violence (and perhaps, you can too), but I've never, ever heard of someone getting stoned and picking a fight. Think of all the stories you've heard about domestic violence: the guy who beats up his wife or kids was invariably drinking, not smoking pot.

Now consider what marijuana does to those who smoke it. Just think about the stereotypes... weed makes you mellow, right? Perhaps even paranoid. Certainly relaxed, happy, and content. Stoners don't go around spoiling for a fight, they're just looking for some Oreos. They don't even want to leave their spot on the couch, much less go out and cause trouble. And when it comes to driving...

5) Stoners Are Safe Drivers

You wrote "many of the people who smoke up (at least they tell me they do) drive around, which means that they are impaired. You will argue that there should be DUI laws for marijuana, but that doesn't really stop people from drinking and driving, and kids still die every day, and even one child killed is too many."

Remember, I used to be just like you. Even after having tried pot myself, I felt for a long time that driving while stoned should be just as illegal as driving while drunk. But once again, I've come to realize that getting drunk is very different from getting stoned, and that what's true about booze isn't necessarily true about weed. And another thing that just doesn't appear to be true is the notion that getting stoned impairs your driving ability.

I know what you're saying -- "no way!" -- but consider what these studies have shown:

The key question then is, "What is impaired?" I disagree with the notion that any use of marijuana makes you unfit to drive. Like I've said, I've seen how pot affects people, and I think the average stoner would be able to pass most if not all of the standard sobriety tests which drunks so easily fail. Therefore, when it comes to pot at least, I think DUI laws and charges should be based on impairment testing, not bodily fluid-testing, particularly since trace amounts of THC can linger in your body for a long time after the high is totally gone.

And by the way, since dangerous driving that threatens innocent lives is such an all-important problem in your mind, how do you suggest we deal with the problem of distracted drivers? You know, those who talk on cell phones, eat food, apply makeup, read newspapers, etc, all while driving? Recent studies are showing that distracted drivers are as bad, or worse, than drunk drivers! If saving one child from being killed by a stoned driver justifies a $20 billion dollar a year drug war, then shouldn't we be doing more about distracted drivers? Maybe we should ban cell phone use in cars, as some states already have... but people are always going to answer a ringing phone, law or no law. And anyway, that wouldn't stop all the other types of driver distractions. So perhaps the answer is to outlaw the real cause of car accidents: automobiles! We'd have no car accidents if we got rid of all the cars, and they cause pollution, too!

But getting back to the topic of stoned driving, here's another point to consider. I've realized from my observations of the Wild American Stoner that there's a big difference between how pot affects the novice, and the way it affects the regular user. Those classic stereotypical images of someone high on weed (you know, giggling uncontrollable and obsessing on silly realizations and such) are based on the way people act when they get stoned for the first time, or on infrequent occasions. The daily stoner doesn't act that way. Many times I've heard heavy pot-smokers say that it doesn't really get them stoned anymore. Their bodies get used to it and it no longer makes them act totally silly. They still enjoy the sense of well-being and mental stimulation it provides, but it really doesn't leave them impaired.

Again, don't take my word for it: talk to your stoner friends. Ask them questions. Ask if they are stoned right then, and if they say yes, compare the way they act to the behavior of someone who is drunk. You might even be able to conduct your own tests of their cognitive abilities, and you'll probably be surprised at how well they do. I know I was.

And while you're thinking about those friends of yours who smoke pot, here's another question for you to consider. Do you think your friends should go to jail for what they do? According to our current laws, they should. Is that what you really want? If so, you should probably turn them in to the authorities. On the other hand, if you don't want your friends to go to jail, then don't you owe it to them to support an end to the criminalization of their behavior? To say anything else is to declare that your friends should be in jail.

I have accepted the reality that humans are going to put chemicals into their bodies, no matter how harshly governments may attempt to stop them. I've also concluded that pot is a much safer recreational drug than just about anything else out there. In particular, I believe stoners are less violent and trouble-causing that drinkers, and that, inadvisable though it may be, driving while stoned is a lot less dangerous than driving while drunk. Given all this, wouldn't it make more sense to encourage those who enjoy chemical-based entertainment to smoke pot, rather than drinking?

You've said it all comes down to preventing one child from being killed by a stoned driver. But consider this: suppose I'm a person who would choose weed over booze if I were allowed to, but since I'm not, I decide to get drunk, then I decide to drive, and then someone gets killed. Might that death have been *prevented* if I'd been allowed to get stoned instead, and therefore been driving less aggressively? I might even still be at home, on the couch, eating Oreos!

You mentioned that people continue to drink and drive, despite laws against it. I think we've come a long way in the past few decades, by bringing societal pressure to bear on the problem, but you're right, people still drink and drive despite DUI laws, and unfortunately, people are still getting killed because of it. But does that mean we should go back to making alcohol illegal? I don't drink myself, so it wouldn't bother me personally if booze were banned again... but I would still object strenuously, on the grounds that such a policy doesn't work and simply causes yet more societal problems. (See the next section for more on the problems caused by prohibition.)

Ultimately, I think the best way to combat drunk driving is to assign more cops to the job of pulling over reckless drivers. And consider this: if we weren't wasting so many of our police officers on the drug war, they'd have more time to stop reckless drivers!

I'd like to end this section with a quote from Howard J. Wooldridge of Fort Worth, Texas, from a letter published in USA Today on 9/3/2. "As a retired police officer, I know that every hour spent looking for an ounce under someone's front seat means another drunken driver smashing into some innocent person. Public safety is seriously diminished as we in law enforcement spend millions of hours nationwide chasing a drug that, though not harmless, has never, to my knowledge, killed anyone using it."

6) Prohibition Is Deadly

You wrote: "If one more child dies because someone got stoned, then marijuana is not a good thing and it doesn't serve a good recreational purpose."

But what about the children who are killed BECAUSE of the drug war? Aren't their deaths as important as those you imagine will die if pot is legalized?

What about the kids who are killed in the crossfire when drug dealers battle over turf like the gangsters of the twenties? I believe the death of every youth killed by drug-related gang violence is on the hands of those who perpetuate this drug war, since these deaths just wouldn't have happened if drugs were sold legally like alcohol and tobacco are now.

And what about the case of Roni and Charity Bowers? This woman and her young daughter were killed when drug warriors shot down a small plane over Peru. Military fighter jets believed they were shooting down evil drug smugglers, but really, they were murdering a Christian missionary and her baby. If the life of even one child is so important, as you say, then what about the life of Charity Bowers?

And then there's the case of the Schillings, a couple who actually killed themselves after drug warriors ruined their lives over the sale of $120 worth of pot. The suicide note Denise Schilling left behind read "Perhaps someday, people like me will not be so persecuted."

Drug use is a complex social issue, and I'm not trying to claim there'll be no problems at all after we repeal prohibition. The point is, some policies are worse than others, and the best policy, it seems to me, will be the one that does the least amount of harm. And from where I sit, trying to stop drug use by outlawing it is a very ineffective strategy with many unintended and harmful consequences. These side effects are, in my opinion, far more destructive to our society and yes, our children, than marijuana use itself could ever be.

7) Prohibition Is Unconstitutional

You chose to avoid this topic in your email, but I can't mention this point often enough. Where in the Constitution does it say the government can forbid me to grow and use a specific plant? For as long as I've been complaining about the drug war, I've been saying that it's unconstitutional, and no one I've ever talked to -- lawyers included -- have been able to give me any sort of logical rebuttal. Again I ask: Given that we had to amend the constitution to ban alcohol, and then pass another amendment to undo it, how then does the government have the power to criminalize other substances?

Final Thoughts

Thank you for reading this far. I know these sound like radical claims, but I believe they're valid. It took many years of observation and research before I myself let go of my pre-conceived notions about marijuana, and I don't expect anyone else to change their mind quickly. So, take your time. Don't draw any conclusions yet... keep your eyes open, and do your own research. Talk to the people you know who smoke pot, and ask them why they do it. What do they get out of the experience? Why is it so important to them that they're willing to break the law to do it? Ask them to compare getting stoned with getting drunk. Which drug do they think is the most dangerous?

The people with first-hand knowledge are always the most important witnesses, yet when it comes to drug policy, we insist on putting inexperienced people in charge. That just doesn't make any sense... I think we should listen to what the stoners have to say.

Andrew Looney

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