Pubdate: Sun, 20 Sep 2009
Source: Salina Journal, The (KS)
Copyright: 2009 The Salina Journal
Author: Duane Schrag, Salina Journal


Change -- even change you can believe in -- rarely comes

If Americans lose their cool over the president encouraging students
to study, imagine what they'd do if someone suggested legalizing marijuana.

"We can't even get a primary seat belt law passed," said Rep. Charlie
Roth, R-Salina. "We can't get a smoking ban in Kansas."

Allowing the use of marijuana (or cannabis), even for medicinal
purposes, doesn't appear to have much support among public officials
in Kansas. Locally, Saline County Sheriff Glen Kochanowski said he
believes relaxing the rules would be ill-advised. Saline County
Attorney Ellen Mitchell, who was deep into preparing for the third
murder trial of Cameron Nelson, expressed skepticism. Salina Police
Chief Jim Hill didn't return a call seeking comment.

And Kansas Attorney General Steven Six said he would oppose it if the
Legislature ever brought it up.

"The use of marijuana can lead to the use of other harder, more
serious, drugs," he said in an e-mail, via a spokesperson.

Actually, the (scientific) jury is out on the gateway question, argues
Denise Kandel, a member of the faculty at the College of Physicians
and Surgeons at Columbia University, in an editorial published in the
Journal of the American Medical Association in January 2003.

While some researchers believe early marijuana use puts users at
greater risk for other drug abuse and dependence, Kandel questions the

What doesn't appear to be in dispute is that marijuana use is
associated with the use of other, harder, drugs. But so is tobacco and
alcohol use.

"Very few individuals who have tried cocaine and heroin have not
already used marijuana," Kandel writes. "The majority have previously
used alcohol or tobacco."

Medicinal Marijuana

Even so, there has been a faction that believes criminalizing
marijuana use diverts criminal justice resources that would be better
spent in other areas. In particular, they have lobbied for allowing
medicinal use of marijuana.

Today, 14 -- mostly western -- states allow medical use of marijuana.
Colorado is the closest, and is joined by New Mexico, Montana, Nevada,
Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii. To the east,
medical use is allowed in Michigan, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine.
Maryland allows medical need to be a mitigating factor in criminal
cases for possession.

States that allow medical use of marijuana typically limit its use to
a specific set of ailments, require that it be prescribed by a doctor
and allow only small quantities to be accumulated.

But changing state law doesn't make it entirely legal to use
marijuana, even if your doctor prescribes it. That's because federal
law still prohibits marijuana use and possession.

"You have kind of a conundrum of sorts in legalizing something that is
still illegal," said Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.

The Effects of Drug Laws

But setting aside the political hurdles and legal trapdoors that would
complicate any decriminalization plan, there are questions about how
great the benefits would be. Conventional wisdom is that enforcement
of drug laws has filled prisons to overflowing. Easing drug laws, the
argument goes, would free up that space for violent criminals.

But the Legislature already has taken steps to divert nonviolent drug
offenders from prison. Senate Bill 123, which took effect in November
2003, provided money for treatment and community corrections programs
as alternatives to prison.

A review of 18,430 inmates in Kansas prisons at the beginning of 2006
shows that a third had an active drug conviction. But only 2 percent
were in on a drug charge that referenced marijuana.

In Saline County, the community corrections program managed 378 cases
in the past year, of which 51 -- about one in eight -- were marijuana

Yes, It Is Addictive

Proponents of decriminalization sometimes point out that marijuana is
the most widely used illicit drug in the United States and question
the actual harm of using marijuana. Some argued, for instance, that it
really isn't addictive. Medical researchers now know that it is.

"For many years, the scientific community had been reluctant to
acknowledge the dependence potential of cannabis because certain types
of experimental findings were lacking," wrote Alan Budney and Brent
Moore in a paper published in 2002 by the Journal of Clinical
Pharmacology. "In contrast, the past 10 to 15 years of clinical and
basic research have produced strong evidence demonstrating that
cannabis can and does produce strong dependence."

The authors go on to note that marijuana's addictive properties are
not as intense as those of other commonly abused substances.

"Cannabis has a substantial, albeit lower, rate of conditional
dependence (9 percent) than substances such as alcohol (15 percent),
cocaine (17 percent), heroin (23 percent), or tobacco (32 percent),"
they wrote.

When it is smoked, its effect on the respiratory system is similar to
tobacco use but at much lower doses.

"Habitual marijuana use is as injurious to the epithelium of the large
airways as regular tobacco smoking, despite a much smaller daily
number of marijuana than tobacco cigarettes smoked," wrote the authors
of a paper on the respiratory consequences of marijuana smoking that
was published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Effects on the Brain

Marijuana's capacity to alter mental states is, of course, one of its
primary attractions. What the long-term effects of regular use are on
cognition isn't entirely clear. A study in the journal
Neuropsychopharmacology found that when users are high on marijuana it
increased the time they took to complete some tasks and made them act
more impulsively, but had "no effect on accuracy on measures of
cognitive flexibility, mental calculation, and reasoning."

The study further concluded that these immediate effects were
diminished in experienced marijuana users.

Decriminalizing Pot?

Regardless of what researchers have found, officials interviewed for
this story were skeptical that Kansas will move to decriminalize
marijuana any time soon.

"I think the Legislature is too conservative to even contemplate it,"
Roth said.

Some question the benefits. Advocates of legalizing medicinal use of
marijuana say it is very effective for certain pain management,
particularly in cancer patients.

Brungardt said the Legislature heard testimony on that

"Most of the testimony we heard was that all those things that are
desirable are duplicated by other medicines," he said. "In fact, the
other medications are superior."

Kochanowski doesn't see the benefits outweighing the

"You're going to have people playing the system (if medical use is
allowed)," he said. And too often chemical abuse has disastrous effects.

"I have seen families broken, I have seen careers ruined because of a
person's desire to use any kind of drug," he said.

It's Tough to Deal With

He rejects the suggestion that legalizing it would free law
enforcement up to pursue other criminals.

"I have a hard time looking at decriminalizing something just to make
things easier for everyone," he said. "What, do we decriminalize drunk
driving? Do we decriminalize rape because it's too hard to deal with?"

He noted that the Legislature is exploring a statewide smoking

"We're trying to control smoking and tobacco use," Kochanowski said.
"Now we're wanting to make this legal? Where are we going?"
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake