Like most baby boomers who grew up in California and nearly half of the U.S. population, I tried marijuana as a teenager. The few times my girlfriends and I managed to get our hands on a joint, we would light it, pass it around and then spend several harmless hours giggling and acting silly. But once we matured, like most other adults I knew, we moved on to the far more legal and acceptable form of getting high—alcohol. And although some opportunities to give pot another try presented itself in the four decades since then, public aversion to smoking, the illegality, and the stigma, made it preferable to avoid. Now, in 2016 things are changing—dramatically. Not only is California poised to make recreational pot legal this November, our aging population is discovering the numerous medicinal benefits it offers to many who want to age as well as possible. Maybe it’s time for another look.
How Fast Are Things Changing?
In 2000, according to surveys done by Gallup, only about 30% of the U.S. population favored making marijuana legal. Fast forward to October of 2015 and Gallup now reports that 58% of the population supports recreational legalization. And while younger generations have always been more open to experimenting with substances, baby boomers are quickly shifting in that direction as they age. On the medical front, The Harris Poll reports that as of May 2015, four out of five adults (81%) favor medicinal legalization, up from 74% in just four years.
What’s Driving The Change?
While no definite proof exists, it is clear that aging baby boomers who vote are a key. While they may have grown up with warnings that pot was a dangerous and illegal drug, most boomers didn’t experience it that way. However, as they raised their children throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they often acted on the side of safety and kept it out of the house. But that was then. Now at an older and hopefully wiser age, most baby boomers admit that pot is likely no more dangerous than alcohol. And if honest, it is far less dangerous (not to mention less expensive) than many medications prescribed by doctors.
In fact, research now shows that pot is less risky than many other drugs even though it is still considered a Schedule One Controlled Substance by our government. That puts cannabis in the same category as heroin, LSD, and cocaine. But a study by the British Government in 2010 shows otherwise by documenting how alcohol is more dangerous than 20 legal and illegal substances. Employing 16 measures of “harm,” which included damage to health, potential for dependency, economic costs and detriment to society, alcohol came in at the highest score of 72. Heroin scored at 55, while crack cocaine rated a 54. Even tobacco garnered a higher rating of 26, versus Marijuana at 20.
With media attention now highlighting the problems with other drugs and food, pot seems less problematic. Another study done by Gallup in June of 2016 showed that nearly half of our population believes prescription painkillers are far more harmful than cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana.
Plus, addiction rehab facilities report that more than one-half of all admissions are due to alcohol, and alcohol mixed with secondary drugs like prescription painkillers, antidepressants, and tranquilizers. Of course, baby boomers are all too familiar with motivations for such medication. Many women over 50 know that complications from menopause, normal aches, and pains of aging, balancing dependent children and aged parents, trouble sleeping, and normal life stresses make it helpful to have alternatives, if or when needed.
Is Pot The Solution?
Like many things, the benefits of marijuana depend on upon the individual and every person’s unique needs. What is becoming increasingly apparent are the possible health advantages available through its use. Although research has been stymied here in the U.S. because of antiquated drug laws, several countries around the globe like Israel, Canada, and the Netherlands continue to fund research into the indisputable benefits of cannabis. Also, a small but courageous group of physicians here in the U.S. have fought the odds and managed to make progress on a growing list of medical uses. In fact, a survey by Webmd.com reports that 56% of all doctors in the U.S. agreed that marijuana should be legal for medical purposes nationwide.
Some of the most promising benefits of medicinal marijuana are:
- Nausea Relief—particularly in relation on chemo related to cancer or AIDS patients.
- Nerve pain—particularly related to diabetes, spinal cord injuries, AIDS, and others.
- MS (Multiple Sclerosis)—controlling spasms, stiffness and helping with sleep.
- Chronic Pain Relief—mixed results in effectiveness for different conditions.
- Cohn’s Disease and other intestinal disorders—eases the need for medication or surgery related to inflammatory bowel disease.
- Cancer treatment—shown to slow or halt the growth of certain cancer tumors. A recent study into treating breast cancer is also underway.
- Parkinson’s Disease—helps with tremors and pain.
- Alzheimer’s Disease—so far tests are inconclusive about helping to slow down or prevent, but more studies are necessary.
- Anxiety Disorders—reduces stress and anxiety in certain situations.
- PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)—Mixed results to date for reducing nightmares and worsening symptoms. More tests are necessary.
- Epileptic seizures—very useful for controlling seizures in both children and adults.
- Glaucoma—temporary decrease in intraocular pressure.
- Sleep disorders—relaxing the body and mind for a better night’s sleep.
Even with the little-documented research being done, one of the more exciting discoveries is that when isolated, a particular cannabinoid has been identified (called CBD) that does not make people “high” when administered. This non-psychotropic compound seems to counteract the cognitive impairment of cannabis and is particularly beneficial for promoting sleep, relieving convulsion, inflammation, anxiety, and nausea. As more and more states approve legalization, the research and potential of this medicinal plant will continue to unfold.
But Why Make Recreational Pot Legal?
With growing evidence that cannabis can help people as they age or deal with illness, is there any reason to continue keeping it as an illegal drug? Some people say yes. With so little research, some doctors believe that we don’t yet know enough about what it can do and what complications might arise. Dosage and potency can also be uncertain.
But the argument for legalization is growing increasingly powerful. After all, if ongoing studies show that alcohol and tobacco use is even more problematic, then why is the government standing in the way of personal choice for individuals over 21?
Of course, money might turn out to be the biggest game-changer. Most American’s, even those who are not in favor of using it themselves, recognize the enormous amount of tax revenues generated in states where it is legal. Just like with the sale of alcohol and tobacco, taxing individuals who choose to partake significantly enhances the state coffers for a variety of public needs.
Another significant financial benefit in states with legalized pot comes from the reduction in policing, prosecuting and then holding in prison millions of citizens for marijuana possession. According to a study done by the ACLU in 2013, every 37 seconds a person is arrested for possession, costing the United States $3.6 billion (yes billion!) to prosecute in one year (2010) alone.
In addition, recent research by Health Affairs determined that in states where patients had access to medical marijuana, medical costs for drug use dropped dramatically. In 2013 alone, Medicare saved $165 million in states that gave people the option of using marijuana instead of prescription meds. Estimates say that it would save Medicare $470 million if all states allowed the choice. And that doesn’t even address the advantage of getting many people off dangerous and addictive prescription medications. It also ignores the fact that a study shows that there are nearly 25% fewer deaths caused by accidental overdose when pot is available medicinally.
Of course, two of the biggest groups in opposition to legalization are privately own prisons as well as drug companies. Those two organizations realize that making pot legal will change their bottom lines and have every reason to fight legalization.
Are There Dangers?
After spending three days researching the benefits and problems of wider usage of marijuana, I found four areas of concern. As most would likely imagine, the biggest problem is with children and teenagers having greater access. Studies have shown that regular use by young people affects the healthy development of the brain, including a permanent loss of I.Q. For that reason, specific care and ongoing public education should be enacted to guard against such occurrences. But as with alcohol or cigarettes, safeguarding children should be an ongoing pursuit.
Another area of concern shows that those who may be susceptible to schizophrenia are vulnerable to marijuana use triggering the condition. Although likely a genetic link, anyone with a family history of that disorder should be cautious.
Finally, one of the most challenging things about the rapidly expanding pot industry is standardization and dosing guidelines. Although edibles eliminate the need for anyone to smoke to receive benefits, it appears that dosage and potency are variable. Because edibles take longer to metabolize in the human body, and size and weight is a factor, it is very easy to overdo treatment, especially when covered with chocolate! Unlike alcohol or even smoking, eating anything infused with cannabis is best done with patience, education and restraint especially when starting out.
What about addiction? Existing studies indicate that the addiction rate when marijuana is widely available will level out at approximately 9% for those consistently using it. While this certainly needs to be watched and treatment offered, it is lower than the addiction rate of alcohol at 15%, and cigarettes at a whopping 32%.
The SMART Approach
The point of this article is not to convince anyone that marijuana should, or shouldn’t, be a part of your life. But even if you’d agree that some things like too much alcohol, sugar, red meat and hours sitting in front of the TV are not good for you—few of us want the government telling us as adults when, or even if, we can make our own choices. Perhaps even more at issue is whether our government should be allowed to continue to block research that may prove to be enormously valuable for millions of Americans.
Keep in mind that every single thing we consume, and every action we take, carries consequences. Marijuana is no different. With that known, it is always SMART for each of us to do our own research, consider the findings, and recognize our individual unique needs before making a responsible choice. And then, like with most things, moderation is usually the SMART path to take.