ReconsiDer Tidbits

From THE NEW REPUBLIC  5/28/'01
Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at TNR.

by Andrew Sullivan

Post date 05.17.01 | Issue date 05.28.01           
There's a little bottle in my medicine cabinet, prescribed by my doctor. The
pills are perfectly spherical, opaque, and shiny, like tiny pearls. The
medication is called Marinol. It's an anti-nausea medication I take sometimes
to deal with what most people on the AIDS cocktail manage day after day, meal
after meal. The pills are perfectly legal, and their active component is THC,
the main active ingredient in marijuana, which human beings have known for
centuries to be able to cure an upset stomach and increase appetite.
Unfortunately, Marinol isn't that good a drug. The relief from nausea quickly
dissipates; even the docs prescribing the stuff don't believe it's as
effective as the real thing. So why can't I legally have the real thing?
 This week, as expected, the Supreme Court struck down an appeal from some cannabis
collectives in California for an exemption from a federal law banning
marijuana distribution. It turns out this Court isn't the highest in the land
after all. (Bada-bing.) But, of course, the Court is simply interpreting a
pretty transparent law that bans pot distribution for medical use--so
transparent that I'm surprised the Supremes even took the case. The deeper
issue is why our society bans medical marijuana at all. The answer, to anyone
who has ever swallowed a Marinol pill, is obvious.
 The illegal thing in pot is not THC; it's pleasure. The only difference between the pill and a toke is
enjoyment. Sure, there's some risk of inhaling smoke into your lungs--but
cigarettes are legal (at least until the Democrats win back Congress). The
physical dangers of pot-smoking are trivial compared with the dangers of,
say, alcohol, even if you factor in an unusually large case of the munchies.
And, compared with nicotine or caffeine, marijuana is about as addictive as
Gatorade. Yes, you can get psychologically addicted to it--but the same can
be said about watching "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" or subscribing to The
New Republic. No, what the government is worried about is that you might
actually have some fun while conquering your nausea. It's enjoyment that the
feds want to outlaw. Bush's prospective drug czar, John Walters, seems to
believe that a person who derives pleasure from smoking a plant is immoral
because he's pleasantly altering his consciousness. But why? Is drinking
alcohol immoral? Is the physical and mental enjoyment of a fine wine more
moral than the physical and mental enjoyment of a joint? Beats me if I can
find any distinction that isn't based on irrational panic. Besides, we often
feel pleasure because we're doing our bodies good. And, sure enough,
marijuana's medicinal qualities--for a wide variety of physical problems--are
now a matter of record, whatever Congress says.
A fascinating piece in last Monday's Los Angeles Times recounted scientists' discoveries about weed's
effects on mental and physical functioning. It turns out that marijuana
affects a whole range of what are called cannabinoid receptors, and these
receptors in turn regulate any number of physical functions. The Times
reported that "[i]t is now known that THC mimics chemicals made naturally by
our brains--chemicals that influence a smorgasbord of bodily functions
including movement, thought and perception. Studying these brain chemicals
(known as `endogenous cannabinoids') is increasing our understanding of an
array of medical conditions--among them pain, Parkinson's disease, Tourette's
syndrome and memory loss. Drug companies are working busily to develop new
therapies based on this knowledge." In other words, marijuana works on the
human mind and body because it mimics substances we already have, substances
that God or evolution gave us. It merely elevates feelings we are already
programmed to feel--but in a way that might both heal illness and give
pleasure. Of course, other, more dangerous drugs do this as well. They mimic
adrenaline highs or serotonin rushes. But, unlike these other drugs, which
have little or no therapeutic value and which require elaborate manufacture
or processing, marijuana is a medicine that grows in the earth. It has been
used medicinally for centuries. Banning it not only robs us of potential
medical breakthroughs--since more widespread use would likely turn up new and
unthought-of effects--but it also denies people what should be a perfectly
legal pleasure.
The tired argument that pot is a "gateway drug" to more
serious narcotics is a fallacy. Sure, if you ask hardened drug addicts
whether they started with pot, they usually say yes. But I doubt many of them
are teetotalers, either. Why wasn't their first beer a gateway drug? And if
you ask a bunch of white-collar professionals in their fifties whether they
have ever smoked marijuana, they'd probably say yes as well. My favorite
example of this is Al Gore. Here's a man who, by all accounts, smoked weed in
college. For him, it was a gateway to one of the most responsible careers in
public life you can imagine. Yet he was vice president in an administration
that presided over almost five million arrests for marijuana use in eight
years. The sole tangible way in which pot is a gateway to other illegal drugs
is that it is illegal. The best way to end this easy path to worse narcotics
is to legalize it and take it out of the hands of criminals and gangs.
Besides, it is only our puritanical culture that insists that health and
pleasure are incompatible. Nature suggests the opposite. Good health is
deeply, subtly pleasurable. And pleasure--with its reduction of stress and
encouragement of positive thinking--is related to good health.
 I think of an old friend of mine with AIDS who, in a matter of months, turned from a
strapping man into a skeleton. He had almost no immune system and no
appetite. He spent most of his days in bed, trying to keep himself from
throwing up his medications, moving from time to time to take the pressure
off his bedsores, and listening to music as he faded in and out of fevered
consciousness. Then he smoked pot. His distress eased; he loved listening to
music more and more; his appetite slowly came back. He survived long enough
to get the protease inhibitors that saved his life. He's now fit and healthy.
He has no doubt that pot saved him. And pleasure was part of his recovery. It
helped dissipate the appalling pain and depression that beset him. It made
him human again, because a central part of being human is the enjoyment of
life's pleasurable gifts--physical, intellectual, artistic, culinary, mental.
We need to play as much as we need to eat and sleep. It is bizarre that, in a
country founded in part on the pursuit of happiness, we should now be
expending so many resources on incarcerating and terrorizing so many people
simply because they are doing what their Constitution promised.
Pleasure isn't the same thing as happiness, of course, but the responsible, adult
enjoyment of the pleasure of something God gave us is surely part of it. Our
continued attack on a medicine that, by some divine fluke, is also highly
enjoyable demeans everyone who participates in it. If you'll pardon the
expression, it's high time we ended it. 

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