State of Cannabis Affairs

NORML 38th Annual ConferenceI don’t typically concern myself with being “normal”, but a couple of weekends ago I went out of my way to attend a NORML conference. It was the 38th annual NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) Conference held in San Fransisco, and although I was only able to attend the last of the three days of the conference, I still found it quite educational and enlightening.

And I do believe that within four years marijuana will be legalized in California.

What was it like to be around so many pot heads?

There was a good cross section of people in attendance, with many people breaking from the marijuana smoker stereotype. I’m sure I was among the minority there who were not regular pot smokers, so that left the majority of those I saw as bonafide “potheads” and “stoners” (as was often expressed from the stage). Who were they? Well, they represented people from all walks of life – the soccer moms, the silicon valley professionals, the Joe six-packs, alternative young people … and yes, the obligatory aging hippies. The presenters and organizers of the event were serious and competent, which undermines the idea that marijuana users are amotivated and non-productive. The program did run a little over time, so I wondered if maybe pot smokers were a tad less concerned about time. Or maybe they valued the information presented over adhering to a rigid schedule. Who knows. The main point is that overall the program was run in a professional and well organized manner. And throughout the day came examples of accomplished individuals who didn’t follow the stoner stereotype.

A few differing viewpoints

One of the things that struck me was that there were a few points of disagreement between the presenters and others, showing that there is much debate surrounding several issues:

To Drive or not to Drive

Some presenters claimed that marijuana does not impair their driving, while another stated that it’s appropriate to throw the book at anyone who drivers while under the influence. The problem I see is that there is no definitive way to prove how “intoxicated” someone is. It’s not like alcohol, where you can measure the blood-alcohol content and base legislation around it.

Performance Enhancer?

Among a panel of successful pot-smoking athletes, one of them, professional wrestler Rob Van Dam, felt that cannabis helped him in the ring by allowing him to focus on the fight and not be distracted by any other cares or worries. Other athletes on the panel (former All-Star NFL football player Mark Stepnoski and MMA fighter Toby Grear) did NOT feel that marijuana had any performance enhancing qualities. Toby abstains for close to a month before a match, and Mark stated that the main benefit related to football was that marijuana helped him to relax after practices to take the edge off the hot weather. So this highlighted the complexities surrounding the issue of whether there should be sanctions against sports players who smoke pot, regardless of the laws.

Is now the time to push for legalization?

One of the breakout sessions was about the status of current efforts to legalize cannabis in California. Currently there are a couple of initiatives and one bill being pushed advocating for varying degrees of regulation, taxation, and decriminalization of marijuana. Many are targeted for the November 2010 ballot, but there is some concern as to whether that would be the right time.

In one camp are those who feel that 2010 is too soon and than the sentiment among the population for legalizing marijuana is not strong enough. Also, a higher percentage of younger voters will turn out for the Presidential election, so 2012 stands a stronger chance of being a successful year.

But others are saying that now is the time. There is momentum building and the cannabis issue has grown so much in recent years that there will be significant support at the polls. Also, in 2012 the issue will be eclipsed by the Presidential election (which no doubt will be a big one) so it might not get the needed attention.

Will legalization of marijuana help California’s budget crisis?

I’m not well-versed in the detailed pro and con arguments, but suffice it to say that even among supporters of marijuana legalization there is disagreement as to how much tax revenue such legalization would generate. How do you measure it? Do you based it on the current consumption? Do you base in on the supply? Do we use data provided by a government that seeks to inflate the “problem”, and inadvertently inflate the impact on taxes?

Dr. Lester Grinspoon – unlikely cannabis advocate

Lester Grinspoon For me, the most impressive presentation came during the luncheon. Using skype, Dr. Lester Grinspoon spoke to the audience from his home on the east coast. Yes, the technology is not perfected and there were glitches and some delays, but overall the video conference was a success and Dr. Grinspoon had the audience’s full attention.

Who is Lester Grinspoon? The following is taken from his own website:

A little about me. I am on the faculty (emeritus) of the Harvard Medical School in the Department of Psychiatry. I have been studying cannabis since 1967 and have published two books on the subject. In 1971 Marihuana Reconsidered was published by Harvard University Press. Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine, coauthored with James B. Bakalar, was published in 1993 by Yale University Press; the revised and expanded edition appeared in 1997.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. In a nutshell, in 1967 he started conducting researching for a paper he was going to write on the dangers of marijuana, and found that the dangers that he had heard about were based on myths and disinformation. From that point he began a lifelong study of marijuana (which eventually included personal experience) and has been advocating for its legalization ever since. You can read an essay on his experiences with cannabis here.

After completing his book in 1971, he predicted that at most it would take ten years before people and the US government would see the need to legalize marijuana – and legalize it. His good friend Carl Sagan (himself a regular partaker of the herb) replied “Why so pessimistic? There’s no way it should be longer than two years!”

A couple of points he made that I found interesting:

In his view there are three main categories of uses for marijuana – recreation, medicinal, and enhancement. It is in its usefulness as an enhancer that I am particularly interested, especially in the realm of spiritual practices and experience.

He also made the case that Marijuana does not need the FDA seal of approval. Hundreds of studies have been conducted in an effort to show how harmful marijuana is, but have proven unsuccessful. On the contrary, they have shown the relative harmlessness of marijuana and there is no reason why these studies not should be accepted as such. Also, before the advent of double-blind experiments, aspirin had already been recognized for its therapeutic uses. Yet it did not need rigorous testing once such tests were developed. And marijuana, like aspirin, is a substance that has been shown to be unusually safe and with enormous therapeutic potential.

Rick Steves – well known travel writer, and self-proclaimed child-rearing, church-going, pot smoker

Rick Steves Rick Steves gave the concluding talk, and presented a very balanced perspective. The talk was based on a recent conversation he had with a law-enforcement officer who was not supportive of the marijuana legalization issue. The one area where there was agreement was that the officer agreed with Rick Steves that it is a civil liberties issue. And he felt that if two areas could be addressed to his satisfaction, then maybe he would feel positively about legalization. Those two areas were prevention of people driving while high, and protecting children from getting involved with smoking marijuana. Rick then went on to encourage everyone to acknowledge these as legitimate issues, and that by acknowledging them and engaging in dialog to address them, it would lend credibility to the legalization cause.

What I took away

I remember the late 70’s and into the 80’s when it seemed that no one considered marijuana that much of a threat. But then something changed. More and more “reports” and “studies” were coming out showing how bad it was for you – chromosome damage, lung cancer, and long term brain damage were a few of the warnings given. Law enforcement started to crack down harder on users.

And I bought into the hype. I even conveniently blamed all my personal shortcomings during my younger years on my occasional pot smoking, when in reality I just needed some growing up and maturing.

Yes, marijuana can be abused, and constant overindulgence is not conducive to living a productive life (although there may be differences of opinion as to what constitutes “a productive life”). But …

  • No one has died of a marijuana overdose.
  • Moderate, responsible use by mature adults does not bring harm to the individual or society. Therefore, such use comes under the purview of personal liberty, and to ruin such people’s lives through legal sanctions is the real crime.
  • The war on marijuana is by no means a success – people are still using it and will continue to use it. In European countries that have a softer policy on cannabis and treat marijuana use as a health issue and not a criminal issue, there is no significant greater use (even among teenagers) than there is in the U.S.
  • And the list can go on …

As was echoed many times throughout the conference, the most dangerous thing about cannabis are the laws against it. I share the hope that in the near future our society will regard the current “cannibophobia” (to quote Lester Grinspoon) as a temporary mania that embraced the country for a time.


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