The swimmer in hot water (and why we should cool it down).

6 Feb

In the news this week is one of my very favorite athletes, Michael Phelps. Unfortunately, the reason he is in the news isn’t positive. Pictures surfaced of Phelps that depict him inhaling through a water pipe, a device commonly used to smoke marijuana.

I personally didn’t feel disappointed to hear this news and a lot of people around me were a little shocked that I didn’t think it was a big deal. Those of us who grew up with the D.A.R.E program had it burned into our brains that drugs were bad, dangerous, and only used by mean, awful people. At some point along the way, I found myself very curious as to what the “un-simplified” facts were, and after doing a lot of reading, I became of the opinion that marijuana should be legalized and taxed in a way similar to alcohol.

First there’s the economic impact. An article in the December 18, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times reads, “A report released today by a marijuana public-policy analyst contends the market value of pot produced in the United States exceeds $35 billion — far more than the crop value of such staples as corn, soybeans and hay.”

We are in the midst of an economic crisis. Legalizing and taxing marijuana could save taxpayers an incredible amount of money and invite a new revenue stream into the economy. In fact, according to Dick Startz, Professor of Economics at the University of Washington, “Washington state would save about $105 million a year if we legalized marijuana (U. Washington News, 6/3/05). He adds that, “An extra $100+ million would be nice for the state budget. But an even better economic argument for legalizing marijuana is that it would move the legal line, so that relatively safe drugs like caffeine, alcohol and marijuana are all on one side of the law and the truly dangerous drugs, such as crack and meth, are on the other.”

So it’s not just economically helpful, it almost has a “reverse gateway” effect. And the argument has support from some very well-read and reliable sources. Dr. Jeffrey Miron, a visiting professor at Harvard reported that, “Replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation similar to that used for alcoholic beverages would produce combined savings and tax revenues of between $10 billion and $14 billion per year.” His report was endorsed by over 500 distinguished economists.

Then there’s the medicinal side. A federal report concluded that there was evidence of marijuana being beneficial to those suffering severe nausea and pain. The Institute of Medicine states that there is clear scientific evidence to support the therapeutic benefits of, “cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.”

In 2007, a group of researchers at Harvard University found that THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana, reduced the growth of lung cancer in mice (Forbes Mag., April 17, 2007). A year later, German researchers at the University of Rostock discovered that certain components in marijuana actually inhibit tumor growth, a conclusion also reached by scientists at Compultense University in Madrid in 2000.

A common argument related to the above is that marijuana is harmful to people’s health. According to a study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that there was no correlation between marijuana use and three types of cancer. The results surprised Dr. Donald Tashkin, a veteran of marijuana research, who said, “We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and that the association would be more positive with heavier use. What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.” Another study published in the Journal of International Neuropsychology found that there was no correlation between long-term, heavy marijuana use and brain damage. Much like Tushkin, lead researcher Dr. Igor Grant was taken aback. “We were somewhat surprised by our finding, especially since there’s been a controversy for some years on whether long-term cannabis use causes brain damage.” What’s important to keep in mind is that both of these studies were done with adults—but I’ll address why that makes a difference later.

And finally, there’s the infamous “Gateway Drug” theory. This has been debunked so many times over that it was hardly worth finding sources for. Over 12 years, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that teen marijuana use had no bearing on later drug or alcohol use. Several other studies that can be found here actually predict quite the opposite. Regular marijuana users do not, in fact, move on to other drugs. What is true is that using marijuana as a teenager can put the individual in contact with others who use and sell other, more dangerous drugs. Legalizing and taxing marijuana then actually closes the “gateway.” There’s no evidence suggesting that prohibition has done anything to curb marijuana use. Still, if I were the one considering how to legalize and tax marijuana, I would prefer it have an age-limit of at least 18. While many studies have debunked the negative effects of marijuana in adults, the effect could be very different for a teenager whose body, particularly the nervous system, is still developing.

But really, the bottom line in all of this is that adults ought to be able to make their own decisions. We let, nay encourage people to overeat (I firmly believe that the 2000 calorie Heath bar milkshake from Baskin Robbins which contains a half-pound of sugar is more dangerous than marijuana) and have legalized a drug (alcohol) which is extremely likely to be abused and is very addictive. What is it then that holds us back from making marijuana legal? Well, the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 wrote that it has a high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use. I would say that research has come a long way in nearly 40 years, and that such outdated laws need to be revisited in light of overwhelming new evidence that contradicts the Act.

Michael Phelps smoked marijuana, it’s true. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t consider marijuana a banned substance, so there’s no issue as to whether he earned his medals or not. Phelps’ accomplishment is still one of the greatest in sports history, and there’s no reason that kids out there can’t still look at him as a role model. If parents are truly concerned about their children, then they should use this story as an opportunity to talk to them about drugs in an intelligent manner. May I suggest the book It’s Just a Plant: a children’s story of marijuana to get the conversation headed in a healthy direction. It is important that kids know that like alcohol, marijuana isn’t something safe for them. But I also think it’s crucial that the discussion evolve as children become teenagers. “Don’t take drugs because it’s dangerous” is fine for a child because they can’t understand all of the issues, but it’s not right for a teenager. Level with them and say, “Look, these are the facts. When you’re an adult, you’ll have to make your own decision and accept whatever consequences come with that decision.”

I don’t agree with U.S.A. Swimming suspending Phelps from competition for 3 months. I think it’s excessive and unwarranted based on such a small infraction. But until we as a society make a decision to stop demonizing marijuana and see it for what it really is: a plant that could potentially keep cancer cells from growing/help cancer sufferers live better lives, then we’ll never be able to really focus on researching those possible treatments. To ignore the possible benefits based on misconceptions is foolish.

So there’s my two cents (more like 2 dollars…I did go on a bit) on the matter. I don’t really want to take up a ton of space putting my reference list here, but I am glad to direct any of my readers to any of the articles I mentioned in the post. Just leave a comment.

That’s all for now, folks!


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