Marijuana: Friend or Foe?


As the global debate on marijuana legislation rages on, Ekaterina Tikhoniouk examines the merits and failings of one of the world’s favourite recreational drugs

Marijuana, weed, pot, grass, hash, reefe… the product of the plant Cannabis Sativa has been called many things throughout the years. With its earliest recorded usage being in the third millennium B.C., marijuana has been around for thousands of years.

Over five thousand years ago, Chinese physicians used it as anaesthetic, while the shamans of the Dacians – as well as the Hindus of Nepal and India – believed it to be a sacred drug and burned cannabis flowers in order to induce a state of trance. Many other cultures, such as the ancient Assyrians, Persians and Aryans, used it during important religious ceremonies.

But presently, there has been a large amount of debate and controversy over the legality of marijuana. One side is trying to legalise marijuana, while the other side battles to close the increasing number of Head Shops dotted around the country, which are sell ‘herbal’ cannabis by means of a loophole in legislation.

Marijuana has had a turbulent legal history – but ironically, the first cannabis law to ever exist was enacted in the state of Virginia in 1619, which actually ordered farmers to grow hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant. The next significant legislation, called the Marijuana Tax Act, was about in 1937. This tax stamp led to an instant halt in the production and usage of hemp and marijuana, declaring all forms of cannabis to be illegal. Illegal it would stay, except for a brief stint during the Second World War – the main reason for its original ban being that it was believed to make people violent.

Certainly this notion was not true. In this day and age we know that, for the most part, marijuana has the opposite effect: it induces relaxation. Short-term effects include a notable change in mood, increased heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and impairment in motor coordination and short-term memory.

Long-term effects are a lot less clear, but some studies report a shift in perception, and loss of drive and energy.  The user is more likely, in the words of one particularly opinionated study, to “become relaxed and lose interest in engaging in society, being content to sit around and smoke pot in their basement all day.” There’s also uncorroborated evidence that excessive use can lead to a decrease in mental capacity – in short, that it kills off brain cells.

But official studies have shown that prolonged use in young teens right through to adulthood can have damaging effects on their development, both social and psychological, as well as exacerbating existing genetic conditions of mental illness such as schizophrenia or psychosis. Other research has shown that the children of mothers who used it during pregnancy were more likely to develop problems with psychological development.

Another argument against marijuana is that it can act as a ‘gateway drug’ – that using it increases the probability of the person graduating to harder drugs. Some theorists have described pot as a stepping stone to cocaine. The ‘gateway’ theory has a valid point – because of the illegality of cannabis, its users are more likely to find themselves in situations which allow them to meet people who deal stronger drugs.

The legality of cannabis has been much debated, however, because it also has its benefits.  Recent research has shown us that small amounts of unadulterated marijuana may be even good for you. Experiments showed that there’s a solid possibility that controlled amounts of clean marijuana could stimulate the brain cells, improving memory and overall intelligence.

Cannabis actually has significant medicinal value – it can slow Alzheimer’s, relieve pain and stress, increase appetite, and alleviate nausea. Indeed, many medical conditions respond favourably to it, such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, depression, anxiety and others.

Yet another myth about the drug was busted recently by Dr Donald Tashkin, emeritus professor at UCLA, who has published evidence finding that marijuana – when smoked the correct way – is not a direct cause of lung carcinoma. In fact, other studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption has a much worse effect on an individual’s brain cells than a couple of ‘joints’. In fact, during the ten thousand years of marijuana usage, there hasn’t been a single documented case of death from marijuana alone.

Many experts predicted that keeping marijuana banned would do very little to actually stamp out its usage. And they were right – the States currently have one of the largest underground markets of any country, and approximately 0.8 per cent of the world’s adult population use it on a daily basis.

Activists for the legalisation of hash often liken the ongoing ban on marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol in America in the 1920’s, which failed disastrously – alcohol abuse escalated during those years of prohibition, creating even more social problems. Many believe that the same is happening with marijuana.

Keeping marijuana use illegal has created many problems. With no quality control, anything can be added to the bag, which makes underground cannabis potentially dangerous to a person’s health. Also, no control means anyone who knows the right people can access it- there’s no way to stop it from falling into the hands of children or adolescents. Thus, many believe that shutting down the Head Shops would merely push marijuana even further underground and cause even more damage.

The legality of marijuana is a strongly contested issue, and many people believe that marijuana should have no criminal penalty attached to it – and yet, marijuana remains as illegal now as it was seventy years ago.