Fifty years ago I was speculating with a college friend of mine about what we might do with our lives. He asserted that he wanted to spend his life bringing about the legalization of marijuana. I kidded him at the time because such an ambition seemed an absurd waste of his considerable talent and brains. I believe he did spend a number of years working for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). And as we know the goal of comprehensive legalization may be coming within reach. More and more states have legalized marijuana, some states for recreational use, 23 others and counting for medical use. The medical benefits, including the amelioration of pain, or nausea during chemotherapy, are authentically remarkable.
Meanwhile it needs no repeating that the “war on drugs” has been an abysmal failure. We desperately need creative thinking, especially to respond appropriately to the opioid crisis in the U.S. Some enlightened police departments are leaning away from the criminalization of drug use and toward helping people obtain treatment. For adolescents, legalizing drugs may diminish their glamour as something forbidden. It has apparently worked that way in Holland.
But as a high school teacher in the U.S. for thirty years, I witnessed an almost total correlation in my students between chronic marijuana use and a falling off of the ability to come to class prepared to engage, ask questions, and grow intellectually. For the teens I worked with, marijuana was an insidious and consistent killer of ambition. After I retired, clinical studies emerged that seemed to confirm my subjective observations—heavy marijuana use has the potential to permanently damage the young adolescent brain.
Back when I was teaching high school, one of the most effective anti-cigarette propaganda tool was to remind students that nicotine narrows veins and therefore could hypothetically accelerate genital insensitivity in both sexes. Fearmongering or not, that was an argument they listened to! And the case is beginning to be proven by correlation between smoking and impotence in older men. Further research may yield more clarity about the deleterious effects of marijuana upon young minds, or even minds of all ages, that will be as effective in convincing teens not to overindulge.
My personal experience with weed was consistent with my experience of my students, though at 76 I rarely smoke anymore. I have missed, with little regret, the much more concentrated forms of the drug that are apparently available nowadays. But when I smoked it in my twenties, marijuana did act as advertised, as a radical relaxant. It was amusing to get high in a group and find every offhand remark unaccountably hilarious. It was fun to play music with friends and experience the illusion that everyone was a far better guitarist and singer than we judged ourselves to be when sober. But I always felt logy and out of sorts for a few days after, not like an acute hangover from too much alcohol but still, a price paid in “lowness” for having gotten high that was more than just my puritan heritage at work. Nowadays a few puffs just put me to sleep. Who needs it?
When I began a family, the issue became infinitely more personal. My son Chase learned to play a mean electric guitar at a precociously young age. I have to assume marijuana was a constant in his life not long after he bought his first instrument and spent more and more hours with his bandmates in various neighborhood garages. He was arrested once for possession, though it did nothing to make him more prudent. His academic record remained dismal all the way through high school and he graduated by the skin of his teeth. In his early twenties, he pulled himself together and began to study sound engineering at the Berklee College of Music, even making the dean’s list. The shadow temptation of drugs still loomed over him though, and he departed this life at the age of 23 from an overdose of methadone, imbibed at the house of an addict acquaintance. His mother, my wife of thirty years, died more or less of grief a year later.
My assent to the notion that marijuana can act as a gateway is not some retrograde right-wing cliché, but a haunting lifetime reminder of my inability to save either my son or my spouse. No doubt tragedy conditions my skepticism about casual and blanket legalization. Those who are working for it would view me as an unnecessarily alarmist special case.
Still, I must insist that I’ve known not a few adults, let alone adolescents, whose chronic marijuana use has clearly done something to diminish their engagement with the healthy challenges of life and work. Any comprehensive dialogue about drugs in our country would have to include the quality of emptiness or helpless anxiety that permeates a shallow, over-monetized culture. We are paying a huge price for having defined success in narrowly materialistic terms (for proof we need look no further than the “I’m All Right Jack” culture of the White House). Is self-medication with drugs, legal or illegal, or with alcohol for that matter, a futile attempt to dull our fear of not measuring up to some inauthentic standard? When people argue that marijuana use has no consequences at all for mind or body, it makes me want to reconnect with my college friend from so long ago. I’d like to ask him if marijuana still stands up as his best answer to facing life’s “ordinary unhappiness.”
Bottom line for me: legalize it, fine, but let’s also figure out together how to educate kids 10 and up to forego marijuana for at least the decade while their brains are still developing resilience—and wouldn’t we all prefer it if it were outright prohibited for surgeons, train engineers, passenger jet pilots, air traffic controllers, and other professionals who need every brain cell to deal with the unexpected?