Chapter 31: Holy Smokes! The Real Reefer Madness

Suppose I were to describe to you a recently discovered, inexpensive, safe product that could, among other things, reduce the pain of arthritis, treat glaucoma, alleviate insomnia, lessen the nausea associated with chemotherapy, stimulate the appetite for people with irritable bowel disorders and some digestive cancers, aid significantly in palliative care for people with terminal illnesses and, theoretically, help prevent Alzheimer’s – all while being way cheaper than pharmaceuticals and also representing a huge new source of revenue for the public purse: would your response be to (a) try to get the product to market as quickly as possible; or (b) launch a campaign to delegitimize and demonize it? If you answered (a), you’re a rational human being; yet choice (b) is precisely the one that our society has made for almost a century in regards to just such a very real product: cannabis sativa, or marijuana.

I’ve held off writing about it till now because I thought it might be highly divisive in much the same way I had been apprehensive about discussing assisted suicide (Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013). But two stunning American popular votes held just before the new year make the timing right. In response to referenda, Washington State and Colorado have now legalized the possession and personal use of marijuana. A similar referendum was narrowly defeated in Oregon, but that state is expected to decriminalize cannabis soon, along with six other states.

The development shouldn’t surprise anyone. Twenty-two states have already legalized marijuana for medical use and, for the first time in history, a clear majority of Americans are in favour of legalization for recreational use. In Canada the approval numbers are even higher. According to a poll done in January 2012 by Forum Research Inc., 66 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 believe marijuana should be legalized. As to consumption: Canadians between the ages of 15 and 64 enjoy marijuana at four times the world average, making us the leader in this category among the rich nations (and fifth worldwide, behind Ghana, Zambia, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia). Ironically, there was a point during the ’90s when the Liberal government was on the verge of making Canada the world leader in officially decriminalizing cannabis, but it fumbled the ball; today marijuana finds itself locked in the same paradox as the Right to Die. Once again, so-called advocates of democracy completely ignore the popular will, as a compliant political class acquiesces to a relatively small number of opponents who, animated by various motives – religious conviction or anti-smoking or financial interest in the interdiction and punishment industry or just to feel superior – have managed to stop the reform of the marijuana laws, preferring instead to continue to send thousands to jail or inconvenience and humiliate them in different ways.

Actually, I thought that when the Conservatives finally got their long-sought majority in the federal Parliament that, as the Party that knows how to count, the Party of balanced budgets, they’d at least be in favour of legalizing marijuana for business reasons; namely, because of the obvious economic benefits, i.e., marijuana is potentially a massive source of new tax revenue. We’re looking here at an industry variously reported to be worth $15 to 20 billion a year in Canada, and perhaps a lot more, in which, moreover, Canada has an excellent brand. And what do we do with it? We hand it to criminal gangs and we say, “Here, please take this huge business with its ever-growing demand (a few years ago, the UN reported 160 million active users worldwide) and, by the way, you don’t have to pay tax on any of it! Think of it as a gift to the Hell’s Angels (and the Mexican cartels) from the people of Canada.”

When you think about our concerns today with debts and deficits and how many hospitals, schools and roads could be built with the taxes provided by marijuana legalization, the appropriate action would seem too obvious to state. Legalize it. Regulate it. Tax it. Just like alcohol. Instead, the new marijuana laws just recently passed are even stiffer than before.

The official Canadian discomfort around marijuana might hail from a curious episode in our history that galvanized public opinion. In 1922, a celebrated Saskatchewan-born feminist named Emily Murphy (she spearheaded the historic Persons Case, which won Canadian women the right to vote) published a book called The Black Candle that was as influential as it was distasteful. An anti-marijuana/opium/cocaine/immigrant screed, The Black Candle was like a pharmacological version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In it, Murphy claimed that there was an international conspiracy of coloured people – Negroes, Chinese, Middle Easterners, Greeks, Mexicans – called The Ring, who were plotting to contaminate the “purity” of the white race by distributing drugs. Today, as writer Mark Bourrie points out in a recent National Post article, the book would be ridiculed and/or outlawed as hate speech, but in the 1920s, the powers that be were caught up in the hysteria. In 1923, Canada became the first country since the mid-1800s to ban cannabis. With Murphy’s innuendo helping out, marijuana’s association with black people, jazz music and similar “uncivilized” influences quickly became entrenched, especially in the U.S. In 1936, the film Reefer Madness depicted American high-school students being lured into marijuana addiction and subsequently crashing cars, attempting rape, descending into madness and committing suicide. A year later, the Marijuana Tax Act effectively banned its use in the U.S.

It was left to the baby boomers who adopted pot in the ’60s to illustrate just how ludicrous Murphy’s lurid image was. We also stumbled anecdotally on its potential benefits, especially in contrast to drinking and smoking tobacco. More scientific evidence confirming those benefits and marijuana’s relative safety came later, in maddening dribs and drabs, each one invariably provoking a counter-study that claimed to prove the opposite. There has never been, as far as I’ve been able to determine, a single documented case of anyone dying of a marijuana overdose. Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School goes further, pointing out that there have been no reported cases of lung cancer or emphysema in those who smoke just marijuana. By contrast, alcohol abuse kills about 75,000 Americans a year and more than 6,000 Canadians. As far as potential harm to the lungs, a study headed by Mark Pletcher of the University of California and published in last January’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a person who smoked a joint a day would suffer no decrease of lung function or capacity. In fact, at a joint a day, lung airflow and volume actually increase to a small degree. (One theory is that marijuana inhalation involves holding your breath, which might inadvertently increase lung volume. Another is the efficacy of cannabis as an expectorant, which clears, as opposed to clogs, the lungs.) Smoking tobacco, on the other hand, decreases lung function and capacity directly with use and kills about six million people worldwide a year (including almost 500,000 in the U.S. and 40,000 in Canada), in the process generating $500 billion in revenue for the global tobacco industry with profits of more than $35 billion for the six largest companies. And tobacco, of course, is legal.

At this point you may be saying, okay, we believe you, Moses, but why should people of our age in particular care about legalizing marijuana? On the one hand, I could give you anecdotal reasons, telling you about my personal experience with knees blown out from too much squash and the relative efficacy of a few puffs versus the side effects of pharma-grade anti-inflammatories; or about the cancer sufferers I’ve known who’ve sworn to me that nothing else helped them bear up to the nausea and pain of their treatments. Or I could tell you about an email I received recently from Priscilla Lydia, a federally licenced cannabis user and an evangelical Christian who was stricken with juvenile arthritis at the age of 16 and who was prescribed a cocktail of a dozen drugs, half with serious side effects. In 1999, she was “introduced to the cannabis plant,” which, she says, changed her life drastically for the better, enabling her to once again walk her dog, cook and clean and read her Bible. Today she’s an advocate for what may be the “most useful plant on the planet,” calling for Christians to unite for the legalization of marijuana. “And why did God create cannabis,” she blogs, “if it wasn’t for us to use wisely?”

But I probably don’t have to tell you anything much because you already know it. According to surveys conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S., the use of marijuana among baby boomers is actually growing. Between 2002 and 2008, use by people over 50 increased by 50 per cent, with analysts expecting “further increases as … boomers born between 1945 and 1964 age.” Some, Associated Press reports in an article on the survey, are returning to a drug they first discovered in their youth, but others, like Florence Siegel of Miami, are taking it up for the first time. Siegel, who’s 88 and deals with arthritis in her back and legs, says marijuana helps her “sleep better than pills ever did,” which is why she takes out her pipe and takes a hit or two every night. She doesn’t understand, she says, why everyone her age isn’t doing the same. “They’re missing a lot of fun and a lot of relief.”

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.