Are we wrong about marijuana?

Are We Wrong About Marijuana?
by Michael Spencer

Drugs have cost me a lot of friends: my students. Like every school in America, the school where I work prohibits the use of drugs by students (and staff.) Three years ago we incorporated random drug testing as part of school life. Both before and after that decision, we lost students because of persistent drug use. (I might say at the outset that our school is unusually patient in this area, often suspending a student once or twice before expulsion for drug use, and readmitting a small number of students who convince us that they are serious about staying off drugs.)

As a campus minister and Bible teacher, I frequently talk with students about this subject. Many are Christians who are committed to never using drugs. Others use drugs when they are away from school, but stay off drugs at school. Some have continued to use drugs. Many are upset at the drug testing policy and of course, upset at the loss of friends. I support the drug testing policy and believe it operates in the best interests of everyone, particularly students wanting to stay clean, but I am also frequently grieved by the loss of students to such a minor behavior problem.

Drug use in America involves everything from over-the-counter herbs to vitamins to prescription medications to marijuana to ecstasy to crack and heroin. To even speak about the “drug problem” is to say nothing and everything at once. For this article, I am going to discuss marijuana, the drug that has cost me so many students, and the drug that is the focus of much discussion regarding legalization, decriminalization and cultural acceptance.

I have never used this drug, but far from disqualifying me from writing an opinion, I think it puts me in the best position for evaluating the choices our society faces with this particular drug. How many Americans have ever used marijuana? Probably by the end of this decade, a clear majority. How many use it regularly for personal recreation? By the end of the same decade, probably a sizable minority. This is a drug that has made remarkable inroads into American culture, beoming a subculture all its own. This is all the more surprising considering the puritanical fanaticism with which our culture prosecutes users of tobacco and abusers of alcohol.

The difference between the treatment of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco in the media says volumes about public perception. Whatever one may say about the health risks of marijuana, it is celebrated in a way that alcohol and tobacco no longer can be. Foster Brooks, the comedian who made his fortune as a hilarious drunk, recently died. One must note that no one is doing that act anymore, and MADD is right to object to making light of a behavior that results in the death of thousands. And while tobacco has made somewhat of a comeback in movies and television, it is with the full awareness that the commercial airwaves and public billboards are dominated by anti-tobacco advertising.

I would measure the difference this way. A national level politician must plainly say he or she is against the use of tobacco and the abuse of alcohol, but he or she must also go on MTV and admit to some youthful acquaintance with marijuana. The reader may decide what is the reason for this irony, but I think it indicates a perceived deep public acceptance of some level of recreational marijuana use.

My students have a clear perception of the health risks involved in the use and abuse of tobacco and alcohol. They have little or no understanding of these issues in regard to marijuana. I cannot find any even aware of the increased risks of lung disease based on the chemicals within marijuana and the inhaling of marijuana into the lungs. Very few believe it is a gateway drug, despite overwhelming evidence that marijuana use precedes the use of other drugs. Few accept the concept of psychological addiction, any permanent affects on memory or increased risk of sterility, though all these are established as well. While all are well aware of its exaggerated medicinal values, few accept any significant effects on reaction time, and they are always quick to tell me that all sorts of people in high profile positions (“even the President”) probably use daily.

When I ask who would you rather fly your plane, operate on your heart or be driving your child’s school bus, someone clean or someone high, they sit with ridiculous grins of their faces and do not answer. In school, we called this cognitive dissonance, and one can almost hear the mental gears grinding to a halt.

So has the common sense of the ordinary citizen outrun the naysayers and do-gooders? Is the acceptance of recreational marijuana use a harbinger of impending nationwide legalization? Or at least decriminalization of small amounts for personal use? Should workplaces be drug-testing burger flippers as well as brain surgeons? Janitors as well as jet pilots? Should schools be expelling students for engaging in a behavior that has no more consequences than a couple of weekend beers? Are we just going overboard, both morally and practically?

My libertarian side kicks in here. I think the “War on Drugs” is a rather colossal and unnecessary empowerment of the Federal government and mostly an open bribe of state governments. It has accomplished nothing substantial except the extended imprisonment of thousands of Americans, mostly minorities, for crimes involving possession and use of marijuana. This seems a ridiculous waste of money and human potential. Programs like D.A.R.E. have proven to be ineffective and even counterproductive. For much less cost, many of those incarcerated could make positive contributions to their communities rather than costing taxpayers a fortune. Treatment, not incarceration, is appropriate in many cases, and no one believes this “lock ’em up” policy is making an impact on the average young person. Particularly if he is a suburban white kid with a couple of joints in his pocket.

I am also a Christian, and I have no doubt that marijuana use is wrong. For starters, there is no way to build a “WWJD” case for marijuana. If you can picture Jesus smoking weed with his disciples, you have been listening to too many Bob Marley records. I am aware that some advocates of marijuana are enamored with the King James translation of Psalm 104:14. ” He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth…” Modern translations translate the term in question as plants or vegetation, and anyone can see that it is referring to God’s provision of plants for food. Sorry kids.

While the Bible never specifically speaks about marijuana, it does teach a principle of “right use.” By “right use” I mean that created things that have a use have right or moral use, and other uses may be innocently wrong, or morally wrong. The right use of marijuana may be medicine, but not the alteration of consciousness. This seems as clear as saying one should not eat rocks.

The Bible does speak about the right and wrong use of alcohol, making the case in Psalm 104:15 ” And wine that maketh glad the heart of man…”, and in Ephesians 5:18 ” And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” For the Christian, this removes recreational marijuana use from any consideration as a morally neutral activity, for it is using a substance for a purpose which scripture says is reserved for God alone.

Now if you are looking for an opening, then you may think I’ve given you one. It would go something like this: “OK, what is the difference between wine that makes glad the heart of man and weed that makes glad the heart of the dude? If it’s not used in excess, but in recreational moderation, what is the difference?” A good question.

I honestly have to conclude that such a question sounds reasonable. And if I spent my time debating this subject, and not working with students, I would agree. But it is my experience with students that persuades me there is a difference, and also persuades me that the popular picture of marijuana use is underselling the truth.

I cannot entirely tell which of my students use occasionally and which do not, but I have a very good idea which of my students use regularly. There is a difference. In their manner, in their work, in their motivation and in their memory. It is not a difference that would stand out immediately, but day after day and year after year, the difference is discernable. There is an impact on motivation. There are obvious effects on memory. It appears to me that, much like other drugs, marijuana begins to play an increasingly important role in the life of the user. I couldn’t say there are obvious signs of psychological addiction, but I have observed that students who get in trouble with us for using marijuana have almost always gotten in trouble in other schools and in other situations.

Two simple examples. Many of the marijuana users that I have encountered manifest real symptoms of short term memory affectation. For example, it is not unusual for such students to leave their drugs and paraphernalia in coat pockets, book bags, desks drawers, even out on counters for adults to stumble across. There is a reason for these errors in judgment, and I do not think it is coincidence.

I would also bet any reasonable amount of money that if I divided my classes into “B students and above,” and “C students and below,” I would find the vast majority of non-drug users in the first group, and the majority of users in the second group. Again, this is not absolute, but it is also not coincidence. Such examples are admittedly not scientific, but they are persuasive to me. The man with an experience will never be intimidated by someone with facts and statistics. I have experience with students using marijuana, and there is far more going on than is happening with a glass of wine at dinner.

Most persuasive to me are the differences I see in students who stop using marijuana. After a period of time, the changes are evident to any teacher who spends an hour daily with students. Those changes in appearance, attitude, memory and motivation are not minor, but sometimes striking. Students who regularly used marijuana, and then quit, are never bashful about noting the differences. For those of us who see these changes up close, there is no doubt that the effects of marijuana are very real and quite substantial.

I once asserted in class that marijuana, in addition to providing a solo high, also produced an instant network of friends, and that any student, no matter how unpopular, would have a certain level of instant acceptance with other users. One student, later expelled for drug use, became angry and challenged my assertion. Ironically, that particular student was a poster child for my premise. I simply responded that if I were perceived as the worst teacher on campus, I could easily change my reputation by using and providing marijuana for interested persons.

I cannot help but think that marijuana has many friends in the academic community, in the media community, and among those who are responsible for the presentation of this issue to our culture. A movie such as “How High?” is financed and promoted and supported by a community that seems to feel quite differently about marijuana than about alcohol and tobacco. These are, by the way, the same Hollywood types that attended Clinton “Values in Media” summits and congressional hearing photo-ops, promising to be more concerned about young people than profits. Am I far off base to say there is a simple explanation for this gross inconsistency: the advocacy of the personal use of marijuana, and the hope for it’s widespread acceptance, decriminalization and legalization.

Marijuana is not the most serious drug problem in America. It does not deserve to be the reason thousands are imprisoned and prosecuted. At the same time, the lack of information and the misrepresentation of marijuana’s impact are dishonest, immoral and dangerous. It appears to me that a segment of our society has decided that it is their best interest to be less than truthful, and the interests of the rest of us can take a back seat. Should they be free to use recreationally without the threat of prosecution? Perhaps, but should these advocates be free to lie and distort their way to their goal? No.

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