Decriminalization: A Step in the Right Direction

Decriminalization: A Step in the Right Direction, article by Julie Holland, M.D.


The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world. -- Carl Sagan

If the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on. -- Terence McKenna

It doesn’t take an expert to see that things are very wrong with the current legal status of cannabis. Our government says there is no accepted medical use for it, yet it holds a patent (#6630507) for medicinal use of cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants, and it distributes canisters of rolled joints to a few select patients in the Compassionate Use Program. Sativex, a whole plant extract that is administered sublingually, is being approved in other countries as a prescription drug, but not in the United States. Our government says it needs proof that marijuana is in fact therapeutic, though it makes this impossible to prove, with its monopoly on substandard plant material from the one FDA-approved farm in Mississippi, and the maze of federal approval required for research to proceed. FDA requires NIDA to sign off on cannabis studies, a hoop that no other drug researchers need jump through.

Synthetic THC is Legal, Natural is Not

Ironically, while cannabis contains multiple components, it is believed that only the THC causes euphoria, yet only synthetic THC is legal in our country, while all the other nonpsychoactive compounds are illegal. Prescription oral THC pills are listed in Schedule III, which means any doctor can call them in to a pharmacy, while smoked cannabis (which contains THC as its primary psychoactive component but has many other compounds that modify and mitigate some of THC’s effects) is listed in Schedule I, in the same category as heroin.

“Oral THC is slow in onset of action but produces more pronounced, and often unfavorable, psychoactive effects that last much longer than those experienced with smoking,” according to a 2008 report published by the American College of Physicians, calling for legal protection for medical marijuana patients, reconsideration of marijuana’s federal classification as a Schedule I drug, and expanded research. In December 2009, the American Medical Association likewise called for a reconsideration of the scheduling.

Cigarettes & Alcohol = Harmful & Addictive; Marijuana is Not

Decriminalization: A Step in the Right Direction, article by Julie Holland, M.D.Cigarettes and alcohol, drugs that are harmful and addictive (meaning they meet criteria for schedule I status), remain unscheduled while causing half a million deaths annually. In America, 1,200 people die every day from diseases associated with cigarette smokingwhile 35,000 die yearly from alcohol-related illnesses. A full 20 percent of deaths in America are caused by cigarettes and alcohol every year. The FDA finally realized, in 2008, that it had to step in and try to regulate a drug that kills half its users, cigarettes.

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In the United Kingdom in October 2009, Professor David Nutt, chairman of the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was forced to resign after saying that cannabis was a safer drug than cigarettes and alcohol. This happens to be true. Cannabis kills no one. It is impossible to overdose. It does not cause cancer like cigarettes, and it is basically nontoxic to the brain and liver, unlike alcohol. Also, it does not lead to violence the way alcohol can. Alcohol is involved in the majority of assaults, rapes, domestic abuse cases, and car accidents. Cannabis has no association with these crimes.

Social Drinking is Legal; Use of Cannabis is Not

But there is tremendous lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, alcohol distilleries (the beverage industry — beer — has a lobbyist in each state in the country), the textile industries, and petroleum interests to keep the status quo in the prohibition of cannabis and hemp. There are millions of Americans who believe that our government has no right to dictate how we alter our consciousness in the privacy of our own homes, or which medications we choose to take. There are many of us who are responsible adults, hardworking, otherwise law-abiding taxpayers, who are able to healthfully integrate cannabis into our lives much the way that others are “social drinkers.” (Perhaps the best road to take here is to “out” ourselves, displaying the bumper sticker Bill Maher spoke about: I’m a Stoner and I Vote.)

I am a physician who advocates medical marijuana use and research, as well as a tax-and-regulate framework for legalization, because I am a harm reductionist. We need to look at which drugs and drug policies create the least damage, what carries the least risk. People are going to alter themselves with drugs and alcohol. This is a basic tenet of being human. Altered states are often an integral part of our gatherings, whether we toast the bride and groom at their wedding or have tailgate parties before the big game. Our drug policy needs to dispassionately and apolitically examine the risks and benefits of all drugs, including cigarettes and alcohol. Which are toxic to our bodies, our minds, and our societies? When comparing cannabis with alcohol and tobacco, head to head, Professor Nutt was absolutely correct.

Medical Marijuana & Decriminalizing Cannabis

As of this writing, fifteen states and Washington, D.C., have some medical marijuana law in place, with more states pending. Two states are voting on decriminalizing cannabis use soon, with more to follow. There is a sea change afoot, a momentum to the movement to tax, regulate, and provide patients with this herbal medicine. Those of us who are involved in the reformation of our country’s drug laws are buoyed by the turning tides. (It may well be that the “Great Recession” was the greatest thing ever to happen to cannabis prohibition, much like the Great Depression helped repeal alcohol prohibition.)

A financial analysis of prohibition’s costs vs. the potential windfall from a policy of taxation, and an examination of Dutch drug policy vs. America’s, drives home the point that, quite simply, we’re doing it wrong over here. There are better ways of dictating health care that don’t involve sticking our heads in the sand and hoping this demon weed will go away. Groups like the Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws are helping mobilize Americans to stand up, be counted, and vote for change. I encourage you all to get involved in this important social movement.

This article was excerpted with permission from the book:

This article is excerpted from the book: The Pot Book edited by Dr. Julie Holland, M.D.The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis
edited by Julie Holland M.D. (chapter intros written by Julie)

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Inc. ©2010. 

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

About the Author

Julie Holland, M.D., author of the article: Decriminalization -- A Step in the Right DirectionJulie Holland, M.D., is a psychiatrist who specializes in psychopharmacology and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. An expert on street drugs and intoxication states, she was the attending psychiatrist in the Psych ER at Bellevue Hospital from 1996 to 2005 and regularly appears on the Today Show. She is the editor of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis and Ecstasy: The Complete Guide and the author of the bestselling Weekends at Bellevue. Visit her website at

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