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The case against the decriminalization of cannabis

Law enforcement agencies and officials are singularly frustrated by the great marijuana debate. While daily witnessing the debilitating effects of our latest recreational drug, especially on young people, they are bombarded by propaganda claiming that the chemical is essentially harmless. But science is coming to the rescue with rapidly accumulating and compelling evidence that cannabis, that is, marijuana and hashish, far from being innocuous, are highly toxic and pose a major threat to the public health and to the social fabric.

In 1969, the American government--and a little later, the Canadian government--permitted the cultivation of marijuana in order to obtain a standard and known dose of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana and hashish. This meant it was possible for the first time in history to conduct scientific experiments. As a result, we are now well on our way to explaining observations of occasional deep psychiatric disturbances following marijuana use, for we have sophisticated knowledge of the chemistry of the drug and of its effects on different parts of the body. The average concentration of THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, in marijuana (that is, "pot," "grass," etc.) is 1 to 3 percent; in hashish it is 4 to 8 percent; and in hashish oil (a now more and more popular form among youthful initiates), it is 30 to 90 percent. It is estimated that only 5 to 10 milligrams of THC will result in cannabis Intoxication. It is wise to note that the average marijuana cigarette contains some 10 to 30 milligrams of THC.

One exceedingly popular and appealing myth propagated about cannabis is that the sacred weed is far less harmful than alcohol. This is not correct. Alcohol is an extremely simple molecule which is water soluble. The fact of its water solubility means that it is metabolized quickly by liver enzymes into the perfectly harmless end-products of carbon dioxide and water, therefore, no accumulation. Furthermore, alcohol, in the doses found in normal social use, has no cellular toxicity. Cellular damage only occurs with truly abusive intake over several years. THC, unlike alcohol, is fat soluble (by "fat" is meant the Hydrocarbons found everywhere in the body). Molecules of THC hooks onto molecules of hydrocarbons in cell walls and discharge psychoactive and biologically active by-products directly into the cell cytoplasm where they interfere with a number of vital cellular metabolic processes such as the synthesis of nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids. And a critical point is that, because of the high concentration of fat in the brain and in the gonads, with repeated use there is a gradual buildup of the drug in these parts of the body. Some 40 percent of the THC and/or its metabolites, from smoking just one marijuana cigarette, are found in the body at least eight days later. With long-term use, it is therefore entirely possible for the user to have THC in his body for several months after use has stopped and continue to experience some form of intoxication.

Marijuana, far from being a simple drug, is made up of at least 50 separate chemical components, many of which are psychoactive and biologically active.

Since 1972, we have been harvesting a body of compelling medical evidence that marijuana is harmful to the individual user. While more research is clearly required, as is true of any field of scientific enquiry, the cautionary signs are clear and indicate problems in the following areas:


With casual consumption, there is a possibility of a transient psychosis involving intense anxiety, panic, and depression. The effects of long-term use include mental confusion, poor concentration, and difficulty in concept formation and recent memory. Other effects noted are a false impression of calm and well-being, magical thinking, loss of motivation, and ego disturbances, leading to delusional paranoid ideation.


There is significant evidence that prolonged use can produce organic and therefore permanent brain damage. Animal studies show that the intake of less than two marijuana cigarettes a week (this is the equivalent dosage for humans) for three months causes serious, and quite possibly, permanent alteration of brain function. These effects are observed in the deeper parts of the brain where sensory input is processed and mood is controlled.


The inhalation of cannabis smoke has severely damaging effects on human lung tissue producing sinusitis, pharyngitis, bronchitis, and emphysema, in a much, much shorter period of time than with tobacco use. Cannabis smoke has a very high tar content and the use of the drug raises the possibility of a greatly increased incidence of lung cancer in moderate smokers who use cannabis over a long period of time.

Immune system:

There is strong evidence that THC reduces the body's capacity to resist infectious diseases. The rate of division of white blood cells is lower in users than non-users, and 12 separate research teams have demonstrated that THC strongly inhibits cellular processes by interfering with the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and protein.


Provisional findings are that cannabis may cause disruption of sperm production, impotence, and a reduced level of testosterone. Animal studies show that several cannabis constituents pass across the placental barrier into the developing foetus and that the administration of cannabis during the vulnerable period of pregnancy has caused fetal death and fetal abnormalities. Cannabis products are absorbed into the ovaries and testes. Very high rates of chromosome breakage have been found in various types of cells in users. Several reports describe substantial effects of cannabis in reproductive cells of animals and at least two studies show damage to sperm formation in human males.

In spite of the now strongly documented toxicity of cannabis, the rush to decriminalize and to legalize the drug gains momentum each day. Why? Why do many health professionals remain depressingly ignorant about the harmfulness of cannabis?

Why--and there is no question about this--is the use of marijuana and hashish out of control throughout most of the western nations? Here, we must consider marijuana as an ideology, and this aspect is not entirely unrelated to the chemistry of the drug. It is fascinating to reflect on the culture that evolved around the use of marijuana: the return to the land, the meditative existence, tribal, communal living, and the rejection of all traditional authority and institutions. This idyllic, pastoral fantasy has had a near hypnotic appeal for many modern intellectuals. It is a drug culture that has been veiled in mystical, magical garb, but without the slightest awareness that its appealing philosophy of apparent deep inner peace was dictated, at least in part, by the effect of marijuana on the brain. We know that the effect of THC is mainly on the limbic system of the brain, also known as the old brain. This is a group of brain structures responsible for instinct, for emotion, and many aspects of behaviour. With repeated marijuana intoxication, the individual exhausts his ability to respond creatively to his environment, he suffers a progressive loss of his critical and intellectual capacity, is rendered more suggestible, recent and immediate memory are blocked in favour of long-term memory, and eventually he slips into a more primitive mental state.

It is most unfortunate, but clear nonetheless, that some people have utterly confused this syndrome with current value changes. This is why it is exceedingly difficult to say anything cautionary about marijuana. Why have physicians not spoken out more strongly? Why, in fact, was the medical profession not able to contain the explosion of drug use that began in the early 1960's. It is necessary here to remember that the medical profession has committed some grievously naive errors throughout its history. The most glaring example is the hailing of heroin, in the 1890's, as a sure cure for morphine addiction. Also, because of their training, physicians are compelled to turn to chemotherapy as a solution to all medical if not spiritual problems. But there is also another reason--physicians are middle class.

What we are witnessing today is the result of the second phase of the acculturation of marijuana: the social, recreational use by ever-increasing numbers of professionals who have quite forgotten the discipline and the effort that was required before they could indulge in pleasure seeking. A recent report claims that 80 percent of U.S. medical students surveyed used marijuana.

The legal profession has now taken up the refrain that marijuana should be legalized and has become the most important voice on the issue. There are three possible reasons for this:

One argument that is frequently advanced in favour of legalizing marijuana is that the stigmatization of the user through the imposition of legal sanctions is a worse evil than the drug itself.

This position rests on an incomplete knowledge of the deleterious effects of the drug and in the fashionable theories of social deviance proposed by young sociologists. The drug phenomenon of the 1960's was the first major social issue to which sociology addressed itself, and it did so with uncritical zeal and its customary parsimonious data. Sociologists, like many other social scientists, have contributed enormously to the drug problem by conducting a dialogue at an infantile level and in a manner so as to serve the expansion of their undisciplined profession.

One also hears that decriminalization in Oregon--the first state to decriminalize in the U.S., in 1973--did not result in greater use. The first survey in Oregon, conducted by the national drug abuse council, an organization dedicated to decriminalization, found, naturally enough, no increase. But a second study by an independent firm revealed an increase of 35 percent in use in the age group 18 to 29, from 1974 to 1976. At the same time, the criminal division of the Oregon state police reported an increase of 55 percent in the number of citations for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Decriminalization in the state of Maine has demonstrated that it is impossible to soften drug laws without creating the impression among users and potential users that the drug is harmless. The chairperson of the Maine chiefs of police association reports that, in his own community, there was a 40 percent increase in the number of seizures following decriminalization. There are similar reports out of Alaska and California showing sharp increases in use, in seizures and trafficking following changes in the law.

The chiefs of police of Seattle, in answer to a request for information on any changes in drug use patterns following decriminalization in the state of Washington, wrote that the issuance of citations had risen steadily and rapidly since decriminalization with a marked increase in juvenile Carriers. The chief also added, and this has been corroborated by law enforcement agencies everywhere that laws have been changed, that decriminalization does not make the control of marijuana easier for the police officer, nor does it reduce the workload on the police--in fact, it increases it.

To maintain, then, that decriminalization of legalization would not increase use is contrary to everything that we know about the sociology of drug-taking. We know that the level of drug use--and this seems to apply to any drug--is governed by the availability of the drug. The mechanism responsible is social contagion--no one is born a drug user, he or she must be initiated and Supported by a group, until he or she is a devotee of the cult. Out of this Population of users comes the population of abusers, and the relationship is directly proportional.

The pattern of marijuana use that is emerging is far heavier than was ever anticipated and completely belies the once-heard notion that young north Americans, being so wise and mature, would only use the least potent form of the drug and with discretion. A Canada health survey 1990 reports that of the people aged 15-19 they surveyed, an average of 9 percent were daily marijuana or hashish users. 11 percent of 15-19 year old males surveyed used marijuana or hashish daily, 8 percent were females. Of those who use the drug, approximately 20 percent do so daily; only 6 percent of alcohol users do so daily. In Toronto, the most recent survey of the Ontario addiction research foundation found that marijuana had replaced tobacco as the second most popular drug among senior male high school students. Another Ontario survey showed that 41 percent of men between 18 and 20 have smoked marijuana or hashish in the previous 12 months. This situation is a menace to public health and to the social fabric.

My estimate, based on emerging patterns of consumption, is that 20 percent of those who experiment with hashish or marijuana will experience a psychosis and require professional psychiatric care. The implications for health care costs are simply staggering.

There is no question that marijuana is becoming one of the major problem drugs. Out of more than 40,000 admissions to U.S. federally-financed treatment clinics in 1974, marijuana was given as the reason for admission two and one-half times more often than was alcohol. In fact, marijuana rated above alcohol and next to opiates both in the number of people admitted who used the drug and in the number of people who gave it as the main reason for seeking treatment.

Those who argue that marijuana use does not lead to other dangerous drugs, are wrong. In New York, a survey of a random sample of high school students revealed that 26 percent of marijuana users graduate to the use of LSD, amphetamines, or heroin. Only 4 percent of legal drug users do so.

In Canada, each year the bureau of dangerous drugs releases figures that show that several hundreds of marijuana users become heroin users--there is no other transitional drug involved. These are known cases and the real number may be substantially higher. Before a policy can be suggested vis-a-vis marijuana, it is necessary to debunk one further myth--the notion that our gaols are filled with poor innocent kids who were caught smoking pot. In Canada--and the situation is very similar in the U.S., great Britain, and other western nations--97 percent of those convicted of marijuana offences do not go to gaol. Of the about 2,000 marijuana offenders presently incarcerated, most are involved in other criminal activities, are repeat offenders and traffickers--in the latter Case, they are traffickers who plead guilty to a lesser charge of possession.

A further sobering note at this point, before we rush to decriminalize, is that marijuana markedly diminishes psycho-motor skills and accounts for the growing number of marijuana-intoxicated drivers involved in fatal car crashes. For instance, a recent study in Boston has demonstrated that 16 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes were high on marijuana at the time of the accident. The fact that marijuana laws are not being observed with the diligence we might wish hardly justifies their removal. Customs laws, income tax laws, speeding laws are broken repeatedly, but to advocate we do away with them would be irrational. We would, therefore, be wise To accept that marijuana laws will be broken but that they do nonetheless exert a restraining influence on levels of use. By maintaining legal sanctions, we also give scientists more time to confirm the alarming evidence concerning the high toxicity of marijuana and pave the road to convince our political leaders that it is imperative that we conduct a concerted and sustained public health education to discourage the use of marijuana.

Historically, marijuana use is associated with collective apathy and with a lack of progress bordering on economic and social regression. Egypt, and other middle east and Asian countries, are familiar with the numbing effects of cannabis. At international conferences concerned with the Problems of drug abuse, pressure to control and to eradicate cannabis comes from such countries, and not from western societies who have yet to experience its full impact. It is simply critical that legal sanctions be maintained.

The foregoing are excerpts from an article by Andre McNicoll, medical sociologist, entitled "the case against the decriminalization of cannabis" (Ottawa, December 1978).