Once the power of religion to destroy intelligent thought has been removed, minds become free to use the empirical tools of science and critical thinking to clearly examine the consequences of our actions. This freedom is an important quality that makes any atheist community a profoundly powerful force for the ethical good. Many of our discussions have touched on the madness of current drug policy. To my recollection, there have been hundreds of statements confirming the madness of current drug policy and not one ever voicing support for current policy. It is time to put that consensus to work to change the world outside our community. I have put a substantial amount of time into providing us with some background information which I hope we will find to be helpful. You will find that most people from religious communities will be on our side. Let's mobilize their support where we can and clearly confront the madness with good humor and clear intellect where we can't.
Tommy Wells and Marion Barry worked together to introduced legislation to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. There are still modest civil penalties, $100 fine for those over 18 and mandatory attendance at an alcohol and drug awareness program for those under 18. The text of the bill can be found here.
I have spoken with passion about my desire to do away with this most absurd aspect of the “war on drugs.” Given that Colorado and Washington states have passed laws legalizing recreational use of marijuana last year we now have proof that the public is willing to support a more rational legal approach to marijuana. A North Carolina group, Public Policy Polling, in a poll of DC residents in April of this year determined that 63% somewhat supported or strongly supported what these states accomplished in in their respective referendums. The poll also asked DC residents about the more modest legal change advocated by the Wells/Barry law. In this case DC residents reported 75% support and only 21% in opposition.
In June the ACLU release a report titled The War on Marijuana inBlack and White. The subtitle is Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests. It is a staggering indictment of DC policy. As you read this bear in mind that marijuana use rates are very similar across racial groups. Washington DC is spending at a higher rate to prosecute and incarcerate marijuana users than any American state. This “investment” has resulted in a record 846 people arrested per 100,000 population during 2010. The highest state rate was in New York with 535 per 100,000. It is also over three times the national rate of 256 per 100,000. Even worse, the arrest rates of 1,489 blacks and 185 whites (per 100,000) is a ratio greater than 8 to 1. This is higher than all other states with the exception of Iowa at 8.35. It is over double the 3.73 to 1 ratio for the nation as a whole. A huge 91% of marijuana arrests were of blacks. Thus Washington DC has the national record for arrest rate and spending on marijuana arrests and prosecution with almost a national record high rate for differentially targeting African-Americans. In 2011 DC graduated 2,868 people from high school and arrested 5,759 (over twice the HS graduations) for marijuana possession. The high unemployment rate among blacks in DC is a serious problem. The extremely high rates at which DC gives “criminal records” to DC blacks for a victimless “crime” largely ignored among whites explains a big part of how and why we have this problem.
The legal structure of this system was laid down by Congressional Dixiecrats with a deep racial bias in a period prior to 1974. This bias does not serve our current interests and should end as soon as possible. There is no valid white interest in maintaining a black underclass. The city as a whole would be much more pleasant for everyone if there were greater equality and economic inclusion. The current policy regarding marijuana is the single most significant engine creating the current black underclass. At our Secular Values Candidates' Forum earlier this year I raised the issue of ameliorating criminal records. I specifically considered these minor records for marijuana use as the most important records to be expunged. The Wells/Barry bill does not deal with prior records. However, it is a massive step in the right direction because most current criminal prosecution for marijuana will cease.
People should fully understand the medical implications for cannabis users (cannabis is the name of the genus for marijuana). There is a complex system of cannabinoid receptors that are specifically designed to process cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the primary active components of marijuana. There are many functions for these receptors and their importance can be seen in the fact that many cannabinoids in marijuana are found in mother's milk. The well known tendency of THC to enhance enjoyment of sensation includes delight in taste, colloquially called “having the munchies.” The endocannabinoids of mother's milk specifically activate the receptors to reinforce the critically important sucking response in infants. For people who are addicted to other drugs (such as heroin, cocaine, tobacco or alcohol) marijuana can ease the symptoms and provide an alternative which, for most people, will cause less harm to the body and mind. A list of effects and comparisons with other drugs will be included in a postscript. This list documents that cannabis has many categories of potential harm, some of them very significant. People should not indulge without considering the risks that are involved. However, even with these negative effects it is one of the most benign recreational drugs in common usage. It has on average less negative effects than any other recreational or illicit drug with the possible exception of ecstasy.
I think that this possible change in the law is the single largest move toward social justice that could be accomplished in the near future. Hopefully the information in this letter to the reader will help in making your decision in regard to this bill.
PS: Marijuana Negative Medical Effects (with comparisons to other drugs)
There can be significant harm to IQ, memory and motivation among young users who start in their teen years. This effect is not found among those starting as adults. The smoking of any organic compound is likely to be carcinogenic although amounts smoked are much less than is the case with tobacco. A cancer link has not been formally proven. There is some chance that the claimed anti-cancer properties of marijuana counteract the known carcinogens shown to exist in marijuana smoke. The largest epidemiological study I could find actually showed a lower lung cancer rate in those who smoked marijuana. The carcinogens created by smoking should be avoided by ingesting it or using a vaporizer which does not burn it. People should obviously not mix smoking and driving. Smoking can produce dry mouth and all the irritation to the throat and lungs that are caused by cigarettes. Reddening of the eyes is also possible.
Some people say with justification that Internet use can be an addiction. Anything that is pleasurable can be addictive and create other problems in life. The most commonly cited statistic that I could find on Federal government web sites says that 9% of marijuana users will become addicted. These same agencies report much higher rates of addiction for alcohol, nicotine, cocaine or heroin. Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive drugs known. About half of addicted marijuana users will report some explicit withdrawal symptoms. The rest will be addicted because of the pleasurable experience. Based on the relative ease of dealing with withdrawal symptoms a number of researchers have rated caffeine as more addictive than marijuana. For other researchers the greater pleasure and intoxication effect from marijuana indicates to them it is more addictive than caffeine. This illustrates the subjective nature of addiction assessment.
While the psychoactive qualities of marijuana are generally deemed to be positive, the very high levels of THC in modern strains can produce hallucinations, anxiety, depersonalization, paranoia, nausea and other negative effects. While the rates for each of these might be low the implications for a particular person can be significant. All psychedelic drugs have no physiologically addictive qualities. For most of them the psychological risks are greater than for marijuana. The relatively shorter duration and effect from ecstasy gives us some reason to think the overall risks might be less than those documented for marijuana.
There can also be a modest to substantial increase in heart rate with a corresponding short term increase in heart attack risk until the heart rate returns to normal. The increase in heart attack risk is comparable to a similar increase in rates during exercise. There are several ways in which outcomes from marijuana use are empirically similar to actual exercise. A recently published study based on the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (4657 adult men and women) reported marijuana users had lower waist sizes, higher HDL ratios and lower fasting insulin levels. Based on these findings, in an editorial Joseph S. Alpert, Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Medicine, said that THC might in the future be commonly prescribed for patients with diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Given the well know anti-cancer effect from exercise this might also explain the inability of researchers to document an increase in lung cancer rates for marijuana smokers when many well known carcinogens exist in marijuana smoke. These results should be considered preliminary. There are very few studies done with large population samples and sound methodology.
People typically do not get violent on marijuana as they do with alcohol. Three out of four reported cases of spousal abuse are associated with alcohol. One third of convicted inmates of local jails self report they had used alcohol at the time of offense and 37.7% of violent criminals say they had used alcohol. Victim's reports of alcohol use at the time of the crime are modestly higher. PCP and methamphetamine are other drugs known to engender violence. Roughly 12% of males arrested in DC tested positive for PCP in 2012.
In toxicology the lethal dose of a compound is usually designated with the term LD50 (lethal for 50% of organisms dosed). The level of THC that would be fatal to half of dosed people is 40,000 times greater than the amount required to saturate all cannabinoid receptors and cause maximum intoxication. For comparison, nicotine absorbed from 60 average cigarettes will be at the LD50 level for the majority of 60kg people. (60kg=132 pounds) A similar amount of cocaine will be fatal. Caffeine from 80 to 100 cups of coffee is understood to be lethal at the LD50 level. A small number of deaths from caffeine have been seen with the growing popularity of energy drinks. The LD50 level for alcohol is considered to be between 0.4% and 0.5% in the blood. There are fatalities recorded with blood alcohol levels less than this range. Eight ounces of pure alcohol absorbed in less than an hour will produce this level in most people weighing 160 pounds or less. Fifteen to 21 average drinks can easily provide this depending on what is being consumed. Heroin is not directly toxic. However, as with all opioids it is a potent respiratory depressant and deaths can occur from a dose of 75mg to 400 mg in an opiate naive user. The CDC reported the opioids Oxycontin and Vicodin were responsible for three fourths of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths reported in 2010 in U.S. Heroin deaths are about 3,500 per year. Additional deaths from injectable drug use are sometimes caused by the transmission of HIV or hepatitis C viruses. The CDC estimates 80,000 deaths from alcohol each year and about 1.2 million hospital admissions. The CDC estimates that 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking tobacco or exposure to secondhand smoke, and another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking. Marijuana use has none of these lethal risks based on current evidence in the literature. I remain confident that a lung cancer risk will eventually be documented with some future well structured study that properly separates the carcinogenic elements from effects that now obscure them.
Nothing in the above analysis should be taken to encourage anyone to use marijuana. An objective understanding of the entire range of effects is needed so that policy focus can be placed on the societal and racial implications of current policy.