Built on the buzz

By Maria Russo

Published May 8, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Read the story

Ah, we Americans love our trends -- and not simply those involving physical objects. Some other trends include excess, irresponsibility, unfounded litigation and a puritanical righteousness against immorality. Forget that the criteria for "immorality" are rarely founded on common sense. The debate on legal drugs like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco -- how they should be treated as well as well as how they compare to those that are illegal -- is founded on too many of these trends. Until some common sense is injected into the argument, it's all a lot of self-serving tub-thumping. A few examples:

Cancer is an awful thing, of course, and I am sympathetic to those who develop it, and who lose loved ones to it, but it has been made very clear for a very long time that smoking can cause lung cancer. Thirty-year smokers certainly have been told to stop and refused. Now, should it be proved that a cigarette company is lying about the amount of nicotine they use, that's one thing, but holding them liable for a person's conscious and free decision simply isn't reasonable.

Many people, cigarette in one hand and a scotch in the other, will raise a haughty nose at the mention of marijuana. The fact is, most of marijuana's effects are less dramatic than those of alcohol or tobacco -- it's not addictive (though habitual); it has an "addiction liability rating" that is a third that of alcohol; and its cancer statistics can't even compare to tobacco. Without arguing for or against the legalization of pot, I will say that I'm extremely uncomfortable with the public arguing for legal policies based on "morality" when they don't have any idea what they're talking about.

Americans do not like balance. Many of us eat meals three times the size of what a normal human needs, and then some throw it back up to lose weight. Meanwhile, in France, the food is exceptional, yet there are practically no overweight people and much fewer cases of alcoholism, public drunkenness or binge drinking. They know how to enjoy what they enjoy with balance. (Well, granted, most of them smoke like chimneys.) Most of us do not.

As with many other issues, drugs like alcohol, caffeine and tobacco (and pot) aren't moral or immoral. They aren't particularly good for us, but they give us pleasure. There's nothing wrong with that, but if we as a culture could just learn to inject some moderation and common sense, then a lot of our "issues" would take care of themselves.

-- Matt Yardeni

For the most part, Russo's article "Built on the Buzz" was interesting and entertaining, and I am only quibbling about one line. But it's an important line.

The objectionable passage reads "[Marijuana] is a gateway drug, but then so are nicotine and alcohol." Russo doesn't attribute this assertion to the writer of "Forces of Habit," the book she is reviewing. So, presumably, she is stating a fact, or at least thinks she is.

I'm interested to know what Russo's definition of a "gateway drug" is. My understanding is that a gateway drug, by giving its user a particular level of (presumably pleasurable) experience, leads that user to want more of the same. When the amount of the drug has been raised to its upper limit (e.g. if you try to drink any more or harder alcohol, you just throw it up), then the user tries something that will go to the next level.

The important issue is that the "gateway" effect is physical -- a result of the physical tolerance people develop for drugs like alcohol or nicotine and so need more at each use to achieve the same (or greater) effect.

By contrast, the small amount of study that has been permitted on the effects of cannabis has shown that there is very likely no such physical effect with marijuana. Apparently, the same amount of marijuana will give the same amount of high every time (all other factors being equal). To paraphrase Russo herself, it's habit-forming, but so are gambling and television watching. Therefore, a physical "gateway" effect is highly unlikely, if not impossible.

Socially, of course, the case is different. Because marijuana is banned, only criminals can sell it (by definition, becoming criminals simply by doing so). Many marijuana dealers also deal in other illegal drugs with more pronounced effects and greater power to addict, and therefore more potential for profit. It's a perfectly natural conclusion, therefore, that dealers with repeat customers for their marijuana habit will attempt to lead them into something that will give them a full-fledged addiction. So, in that sense, the social sense, marijuana is a 'gateway' drug, but only because it is banned.

-- Wilson Fowlie

The explanation in this article for making marijuana illegal seems a little thin. It seems most likely that pot was made illegal to get rid of hemp. The attacks made all over the country against marijuana were just an excuse. Big industry footed the bill for the smear campaign and there was no evidence supporting the dangers of marijuana at the time. Hemp's many uses threatened the profits of the new synthetics industry.

-- Rian Haight

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------