Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Doobie Newbie Blues

Click to enlarge
The image at right appeared on a friend’s Facebook feed this weekend. Having recently become interested in the sociology of drug use, and the forces that make illegal drugs a desirable choice for so many people, I’ve developed a reflexive distrust of blanket statements about how drugs work. So I decided to don my Snopes cap and investigate this claim’s truth value.

Though floated by various law enforcement, civil service, and public interest groups, this image originates with the American Lung Association. The ALA’s original source material verifies the picture’s essential claim, that marijuana (hemp, cannabis sativa) certainly does deposit more tar on human lung tissue than commercially manufactured, legally sold tobacco cigarettes. As it stands, this claim appears substantially true.

However, reading the source requires understanding basics of argument analysis. If I had my way, Darrell Huff’s 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics would be required reading in every American middle-grades classroom. Anybody familiar with Huff’s principles will immediately recognize, reading the ALA’s statistics, that they’re guilty of several mistakes. For our purposes, the most important is “Comparing the Incomparable.”

By their own admission, the ALA compares machine-manufactured cigarettes, tipped with cellulose fiber filters, with hand-rolled marijuana doobies. Nearly everyone agrees that cellulose filters reduce the quantity of tar, fine particulate matter, and other matter from cigarette smoke. However, there’s no agreement whether that actually has significant health benefits. Provided they remain moist, meaning alive, tarry lungs continue to function.

Promo art for Reefer Madness, possibly the most
moralistic, wrong-headed anti-drug propaganda ever
There’s also wide agreement that filters don’t obstruct the inhalation of nicotine. The neurologically active component in marijuana smoke, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), literally cannot kill you at any quantity. We cannot say this about nicotine, which is so lethal that only by diffusing it into microscopic particles, and inhaling it amid hot smoke into the lungs, can it have any narcotic effect without instantly killing the consumer.

Also, the ALA compares cigarettes, manufactured under highly regulated standards, to marijuana, which is grown, distributed, and consumed with no purity standards whatsoever. Cigarette manufacture and sale is strictly regulated by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). This gives ATF remarkable authority to control tobacco purity, and gives consumers confidence regarding what their smokes are made of.

Marijuana, by contrast, remains exclusively in control of criminal enterprises, which can enforce standards only via assassinations. Once marijuana supplies reach street customers, we have no confidence that our wacky tobaccy hasn’t been thoroughly adulterated with pine needles and lawn clippings. Drug dealers are known to stretch supplies by cutting cocaine with baking soda, or heroin with chlorine bleach.

Therefore, if the marijuana consumed by regular users has damaging health consequences beyond ordinary THC effects, well, why is that? It’s hard to differentiate actual marijuana effects from those created by drug prohibition. Say whatever you will regarding the moral implications of corporate regulation. But anyone concerned about public health will agree that having government oversight of food and tobacco production beats not having it.

The Camberwell Carrot, the iconic oversized doobie in
the 1987 British classic Withnail and I
America has attempted limited-scale regulations in this manner. Besides the four states and the District of Columbia, which have all legalized personal marijuana possession for personal consumption, several states (the number changes so quickly that I cannot find reliable sources) have legalized medically prescribed marijuana. But the patchwork of state regulations, and ease of interstate transit, makes even this regulation slapdash and unreliable.

This being the case, any reasonable person must consider the ALA’s conclusions unreliable at best. On multiple levels, they compare diverse products that have little overlap. Imagine if the FDA published a white paper comparing patent-pending pharmaceuticals with homeopathic peach-pit cures. If the FDA proclaimed the natural superiority of lawful, government-approved products, tested in their own labs, we’d have legitimate reason to pause.

The ALA, therefore, demonstrates less about marijuana itself, and more about the destabilizing consequences of drug prohibition. By concentrating control of drug commerce into criminal hands, we provide economic incentives to organizations like the Sinaloa and Zeta cartels. Anti-drug advocates might insist that drugs are bad, and I agree. But simply banning them doesn’t make demand go away, simply reorganizes his routes of transit.

Users embracing marijuana for many and diverse reasons, just as people embrace legal drugs, like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. The distinction between which drugs are prohibited, and which remain lawful, has mainly moral rather than medical foundations. If merely being dangerous were sufficient, we’d have banned liquor and tobacco generations ago. How about, rather than cloudying the debate with tar, we get to know users as humans?

No comments:

Post a Comment