Pubdate: Thu, 23 Oct 2008
Source: Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus,GA)
Copyright: 2008 Ledger-Enquirer
Author: Tim Chitwood
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Will Henao doesn't see how a government that legalizes alcohol and
cigarettes can justify marijuana prohibition.

Too much alcohol will kill you. Cigarettes can lead to cancer and
heart disease.

"I have never in my life heard of anyone overdosing on marijuana,"
said Henao, 30, a local college student. "Cigarettes and alcohol have
killed thousands of people."

A motorist can buy cigarettes and alcohol at a gas station. But anyone
who buys marijuana can go to jail, along with hardened criminals.
"You're locking someone up with a rapist, a killer, a child molester,"
he said. "Can you weigh it?"

Henao is among those who find the government's approach to marijuana
"hypocritical," believing the plant should be legal -- regulated,
restricted and taxed.

Columbus Police Sgt. Rick Stinson, the agent in charge of the regional
Metro Narcotics Task Force, believes the riddle -- of why alcohol's
legal and marijuana's not -- answers itself.

Equal access?

To which drug do underage users today have the most access? Alcohol,
Stinson said. So, we've legalized, regulated, taxed and by age
restricted access to alcohol. Has that kept youngsters today from
getting it? No. Has that increased their access? Yes.

So the argument that marijuana should be treated like alcohol is an
argument against itself, he said: "To me, that is as much of a reason
why you shouldn't legalize it... . Alcohol is the most available legal
drug our underage people have."

He believes marijuana physically can damage a user's brain. He tells
the story of a young man who was in Columbus' conditional discharge
program, which diverted small-time drug users from jail.

This youth had smoked marijuana since he was 9, having started with
his father. He got arrested and was put on probation, on the condition
he would not be jailed as long as he passed a drug test.

So he knew he would lose his freedom for smoking pot, and yet: "He
couldn't stop smoking... . He just simply would rather have gone to
jail than to quit smoking marijuana," Stinson said.

Muscogee County Juvenile Drug Court Judge Warner Kennon sees how
families deal with a child's drug use.

He recalled one youngster whose drug screening showed cocaine. The
youth maintained he never had used the drug.

But he had used marijuana. "The marijuana was laced with cocaine,"
Kennon said.

That's among the dangers of illegal drug use among the young: It puts
them in the company of criminals.

"Children tell us where you have to go to get the marijuana, usually
other things are available," Kennon said. "Oftentimes, if it's not
laced with something else, they may end up getting something they
didn't go to get to begin with."

Kennon said he opposes legalizing marijuana also because of the
disruptions it can cause in an adolescent's family relationships and
school work. Users often become lethargic, irritable and disobedient,
subject to rapid mood swings.

The THC combo

The man in charge of the medical program at the Muscogee County Jail
is Paul Morris. When those under arrest show signs of mental illness
or drug abuse, they get a blood test -- if they give their permission.

Morris finds that, much of the time, the drug that shows up in their
system is THC, the active agent in marijuana. But there usually is
something else -- alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine.

Morris knows that people who are bipolar can set off a manic episode
through drug use. He suspects marijuana can trigger that. He knows a
combination of drugs can.

"Marijuana and alcohol combined make up 60 percent of the drug of
choice for bipolar or mentally ill patients," he said. "The mentally
ill have kind of a delicate balance, when they find that environment
and the psychotropic therapy that allows them to function in society.
The combination of the marijuana and the alcohol puts that balance
off, and that's when they end up coming to jail."

Any mix of recreational drugs might kick off a manic episode, in which
people act "like Superman on speed," Morris said. "You're really,
really excited, really strong, really aggressive, inclined to take
high risks." Marijuana and alcohol simply may be the most available
drugs, explaining why they are the ones most often detected in tests.

Morris is not saying marijuana makes you mentally ill -- unlike the
White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which in citing
the results of a study of depressed teens' drug use states: "Using
marijuana can cause depression and other mental illnesses."

Released in May, the report titled "Teen Marijuana Use Worsens Depression:
An Analysis of Recent Data Shows 'Self-Medicating' Could Actually Make
Things Worse" cites a correlation between depression and marijuana use. It
concludes "that marijuana use can worsen depression and lead to more serious
mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and even suicide."

More research

According to a World Health Organization report reviewing research to
gauge "The Probable Effects of Cannabis Use," much of the evidence of
marijuana's effect on mental illness is suggestive but not definite.

Citing various studies, the report states:

"There is suggestive evidence that large doses of THC can produce an
acute psychosis in which confusion, amnesia, delusions,
hallucinations, anxiety, agitation and hypomanic symptoms predominate.
The evidence comes from laboratory studies of the effects of THC on
normal volunteers and clinical observations of psychotic symptoms in
heavy cannabis users which remit rapidly following

A 2001 report on long-term cannabis use, from the University of
California at San Diego School of Medicine, was published in the
Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. It said a
review of research on heavy marijuana users found only that they had
some trouble learning new information. The study's senior author, Dr.
Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research,
which oversees studies on using medicinal cannabis to treat diseases,
concluded that extended marijuana use "results in selective memory

Questionable effects

Morris, the jail medical director, doesn't think an otherwise healthy,
sane person who occasionally uses marijuana is much at risk: "I'm not
a real fan of drugs of any type. But of all the drugs that I've seen,
in and of itself, for a person who is otherwise healthy, marijuana
doesn't really appear to cause a whole lot more problems than alcohol
does... . I've never seen a guy, whose only issue is he smokes some
joints every now and then, come to jail because he's become psychotic
or his decision-making is just so bad because of the marijuana."

So Morris doesn't believe putting people in jail for it is worth the

"What I feel is that we should go ahead and decriminalize it. Now, I'm
against it. Even if it was decriminalized, I wouldn't touch it. And if
it was decriminalized and my kids were smoking it, I might give them a
punch in the nose. But I would do the same thing if I found them drunk.

"I grew up at the end of the '60s, through the '70s, went through the
military. In the early '70s in the military, marijuana use was
rampant, everywhere. At the end of Vietnam, it was just common. But
you know, the only thing that I noticed was that people became a
little more lethargic, a little less dynamic. I never saw people who
became psychotic, who abandoned their children, who stopped working,
who stole for it."

Stinson, the head of the Metro Narcotics Task Force, said there is
more to this issue than private, individual marijuana use.

"If Bubba just grew a plant in his backyard and all he wanted to do
was smoke it, and that's all there was to it, then the concept of
legalization, decriminalization, might be OK," he said. "But when you
start getting rid of some of the laws that govern drugs of any kind,
then a lot of people ignore the fact that marijuana is a major cash

Much of the money derived from smuggling marijuana into this country
goes to drug cartels in Mexico, he said. "You're not talking about a
guy who's got a marijuana plant in his back yard and he picks the
leaves to get high. So you've got to be careful when you start giving
them loopholes in the law that they can fall back on."

These days, possessing less than an ounce of marijuana is "almost
decriminalized," he said. "It's a fine, almost every time. I think
it's very rare for the system to be locking people up for any time on
misdemeanor marijuana. It's not practical."

Pot vs. booze

Sometimes, those arrested for marijuana wind up being clients of the
local public defender's office, headed by attorney Bob Wadkins. He
represents people arrested for alcohol-related crimes.

"One of the things I think you have to consider is that if alcohol,
which is definitely a drug, is legalized and controlled, why not
marijuana?" he said. "It's just the preference of the country and the
way people look on alcohol, and the way they look on marijuana, that
makes it different."

Unlike alcohol, which was popular during the American Revolution, and
tobacco, which colonists came here to grow, marijuana has the
subversive legacy of a counter-culture drug. And much of the country
still sees it that way -- "still views it as a subculture drug, as
opposed to alcohol, which is universal," Wadkins said.

Does he see defendants who, beyond being arrested for violating the
law, have their lives ruined by using marijuana?

"No, but that's not absolutely the case," he said. "You do see people
who have used marijuana to the point that it's physically and mentally
debilitating to them, but you don't see anywhere near the number of
people that has happened to as you do with alcohol."

He isn't saying marijuana should be legalized: "I don't have an
opinion one way or the other. Here's what I think: I think if it were
legalized, you'd have a lot better control on it. It costs the public
a lot less money in courts and everything else, and it would make
money, possibly, and people are going to do it anyway."

Said Stinson: "You can't go after these problems we're having by legalizing
them... . Before we start legalizing everything, why don't we start trying
to stop it?" He believes marijuana remains a "gateway drug," something that
leads people to abuse other, more deadly substances.

Said Morris: "My feeling is that, yeah, it's the gateway drug, but that's
kind of a cliche."

He once told a law enforcement officer marijuana should be
decriminalized. "He said to me, 'Well, then they're all going to be
selling it to our kids.' I looked at him and said, 'They're already
selling it to your kids, if your kids want it. We're not stopping any
of it.' It is a gateway drug, no doubt about it. But, right now, if a
kid wants dope in any town in the United States, it's available. So,
really, I think the issue is to create psychological barriers with
education and attitudes that say, 'This is not good for people who
want to achieve.' "

Making marijuana legal won't end its funding of criminal enterprises or keep
children from getting it, said Stinson:

"You've got to be real careful when you start just talking about the
easy solution to the problem is just to make the law go away. I
haven't heard a good solution on that yet. Until I hear a solution
that answers these other questions, I wouldn't support that."
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