Confessions of a "recreational doper"

The following is slightly expanded from an op-ed piece the Oregonian published April 29, 2012.

Background for out-of-staters: Dwight Holton, a candidate for State Attorney General this past spring, famously declared Oregon’s medical marijuana law a “train wreck.” He was referring, I believe, to its prescribed means of supply: patients must either grow their own or designate a grower. Growers must not possess more than a certain amount, they must not grow for more than four patients, and they must not sell their crop, but can accept compensation only for expenses. This absurd attempt to repeal human nature is, of course, widely flouted.

But I see another train wreck. I find the whole idea of medical marijuana problematic. Here’s why:

Confessions Of a “Recreational Doper”

I agree with Oregon attorney general candidate Dwight Holton: Oregon’s medical marijuana law is a train wreck. Yes, the supply mechanism is absurdly problematic, but a more basic question remains poorly addressed: what conditions can marijuana alleviate? Federal drug policy being what it is, conducting controlled double-blind studies hasn’t exactly been a cinch.

Oregon law treats pot as a palliative for a list of symptoms: severe pain or nausea, persistent muscle spasms, wasting syndrome, seizures. The only diseases named are cancer (not one disease, but a category), Alzheimer’s, and glaucoma. Given the symptoms, you’d expect medical marijuana patients to be suffering from epilepsy, AIDS, or multiple sclerosis. Doubtless some are. And many young men can now indulge their love of snowboarding despite chronic pain from unspecified causes.

Perhaps Mr Holton feels the vagueness of the law invites abuse by recreational dopers? I know I do. I’m one of them, so it seems.

I started smoking pot as a messed-up teenager, and of all my former bad habits, finger-chewing and marijuana are the ones I still have. It’s clear why: from age seven to fourteen, I was regularly and energetically battered, thrown around, hectored—the abuse was off the charts. I’m lucky to be here.

Research in the neurobiology of childhood trauma shows that subjecting the developing brain to recurring bouts of intense prolonged terror miswires the limbic system. Among other effects, the amygdala becomes hypersensitive, sounding the alarm day and night. Subjectively, this means anxiety, panic attacks, irritability—or, as it’s commonly known, “getting all bent out of shape over nothing.”

Every species on earth has its niche. As The Botany of Desire so beautifully describes, Cannabis sativa gets humans to cultivate it by making a molecule—the famed THC—that mimics a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter. Anandamide, named from the Sanskrit ananda (bliss), is a key part of the brain’s pleasure and motivation circuitry.

Anandamide works in an unusual way. Neurotransmitters ordinarily flow out one neuron’s axon into the dendrite of another, but cannabis-like molecules flow backward, out the dendrite into another neuron’s axon. Signaling systems engineers will recognize this as a mechanism often used to regulate incoming flow—to dampen or mute signals that might overflow capacity.

The limbic system is dense with receptors for anandamide, especially the hippocampus and amygdala. After I smoke, I feel calmer and more focused. For me, these dots connect themselves.

So does Oregon’s medical marijuana statute recognize this effect? Sort of. It sees pot as appropriate for “agitation due to Alzheimer’s.” Why Alzheimer’s, particularly? Why not agitation from post-traumatic stress disorder?

Do I hear a wrecking train?

Support is growing for both medical and recreational marijuana use, and not only because millions of people enjoy it. By now, even Pat Robertson has noticed that emergency rooms are not filled with people dying from pot overdoses. Addicts who rob liquor stores generally want meth. Many stoners buy pot like groceries—with money they earned from working. Because (Cheech and Chong notwithstanding) you can partake regularly and still be a hard-working, responsible, creative, well-regarded employee.

You can be a good spouse, too. And be a good friend, honest taxpayer, informed citizen—yes, even a sober driver. (It doesn’t take a prohibitionist to see that driving while stoned is a terrible idea.)

What seems to be harder is distinguishing medical from recreational uses—especially with so little rigorous data about why people really use the stuff.

What is a disorder, anyway? Is anxiety a disease, or just part of life? Is that cold beer at the end of a hard day medicinal, or recreational? How much does it really matter?

Some people treat their anxiety with Prozac; others reach for a Scotch on the rocks or a pack of cigarettes. One enriches Eli Lilly; the other, the Chivas Brothers or Philip Morris. Is it cynical to point out that one big problem with legalizing marijuana is that a few farmers down in south Ecotopia have far less clout than Big Pharma?

We can amend Oregon’s law to include or exclude various conditions. Or we can face the obvious: it’s a fuzzy line.

Just legalize it.

Further reading

Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan.

“Scars That Won’t Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse,” by Martin Teicher. Scientific American, February 2002.

The Effect of Childhood Trauma on Brain Development.” This Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence website page has a number of links to articles of interest.

Also, Wikipedia articles on endocannabinoids and retrograde signaling have been useful in the past, and may be so again.