Science for stoners: What is marijuana "abuse?"

As the country fitfully moves toward tolerance, what constitutes a wrong way to smoke pot?

Published October 26, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Ted S. Warren)
(AP/Ted S. Warren)

America is reconsidering marijuana.

But even as medical applications are recognized and Colorado and Washington roll out regulations for recreational use, the definition of “abuse” is still subject to debate. Until only a few years ago, any marijuana use was drug abuse. Refraining from pot was good. Using it was bad. Then, as medical marijuana gained recognition, users of marijuana ended up split into medical and recreational users, the worthy and the wayward, the legal and the criminal.

Even with medical use laws, many people believed that “green cards” -- medical marijuana permits -- were often being issued to fakers, people using medical-use laws as a cover for their recreational interest in marijuana. In many cases, the critics were right, but that doesn’t undermine the reality of marijuana’s medical applications. So, even when following the letter of the law, users are still split into the good and bad, the deserving and those taking advantage of the new medical-use laws. Not only were bad people abusing the “drug,” they were abusing the law.

But, as marijuana’s legal status changes, should the framework for what constitutes “abuse” change, too?  Is a recreational user of marijuana like the social drinker, using not abusing, indulging a vice but not committing a crime? Advocates of marijuana legalization often, on one hand, point out that the negative social impacts of alcohol are far worse than those of marijuana, which are barely detectable outside of use by minors. Yet, when looking to regulate marijuana use, laws and systems governing alcohol use remain a basic framework for what legalized marijuana laws should look like. The pharmaceutical industry is the other framework.

Pharmaceuticalization under medical use and/or handing marijuana to the vice industry are paths that integrate marijuana into the culture and society with limited threat to the status quo. Both categories already fit into the cultural paradigm. But the attempt to fit marijuana into one of these categories may interfere with our capacity to properly regulate it, which is what has occurred under its current misclassification as a schedule 1 drug.

Marijuana does not “fit in” as tidily as sound bites and political messaging require. Marijuana can act as a medicine, but it is not a pharmaceutical. Marijuana is an herb, yet its psychoactive effects set it apart from willow bark or Echinacea. And it is fundamentally different from alcohol in its personal and social impact, even when used in excess.

Our brains are habituated to compare and contrast, to try to figure out what something is by finding familiar reference points. So far, the best analogy for marijuana seems to be the wine industry, which involves botanist artistry and consumers who run the gamut from winos to the a-glass-with-dinner crowd; both products invite connoisseurship. But even that analogy is about the market, not the product.

Whether seeking legitimization by association or a template for regulation, it’s perfectly sensible to use a market model from another product or industry. Often, a single dimension of a story or thing is used as a fractal to represent the bigger picture. But it is also the case that a single dimension of a story or thing can misrepresent its true nature.

Just as it’s not yet possible to pinpoint marijuana’s place in consumer society, we don’t yet know who is abusing it as it approaches legalization. So, taking for granted that any use by minors is undesirable, who are the marijuana abusers now? One might think first about the stereotype of the stoner on the couch, doing little and wanting less -- other than to get more stoned? However, as the Marijuana Policy Project’s recent list of influential people who use or have used marijuana shows, marijuana itself doesn’t produce apathy or take away a person’s will. However, it can make the loss of that will more comfortable. Using marijuana for such reasons won’t earn anyone a merit badge, but is that really recreational use?

Let’s say the stoner on the couch has a migraine. This person, in some states, is now eligible for medical marijuana. Would that represent the same outcome as the guy who skipped the migraine and went straight to the weed? Does it represent “abuse” or medical use?

Consider, too, the marijuana use of a person with a mindless job (not operating heavy equipment or working with dangerous materials) who finds that marijuana use makes her more pleasant, more patient and less irritable. Her employer doesn’t know she uses marijuana and is satisfied with her job performance. Does the fact of her being “high” at work automatically categorize her “use” as “abuse”? Does being altered necessarily mean being impaired?

Or, what about the artist who uses marijuana to gain an alternative perspective on his or her work? Is this “recreational” use? Or should the artist be able to write off his stash as a business expense?

Are the above examples like, or unlike, drinking alcohol in the same circumstances?  What differentiates “use” from “abuse”?

One way to consider the question is through the lens of structural dynamics. Structural dynamics is a framework taught by many business consultants and life coaches. Robert Fritz is perhaps the reigning guru of this kind of thinking. A fundamental of structural dynamics is that there is inherent tension in wanting anything because the condition of not having it is incongruent with the desired outcome of having it. The brain, no fan of incongruence, will work to resolve the tension.

The brain may work to resolve the tension in favor of the individual’s objectives, thereby bringing what is desired into conformity with what is. Or, the brain may seek to resolve the tension by deeming the objective impossible, or denying the desire. In the first instance, one resolves the inherent tension by moving toward the desired outcome. In the second, one resolves the inherent tension by trying to change the desire.

This tension is not the same thing as stress. In structural dynamics, the language used to describe progressing toward an outcome is “being in an advancing pattern.” Being in an “oscillating pattern,” on the other hand, occurs when one repeats the pattern of moving toward what one wants but then seeks relief from the tension of not having what one wants.

Any addiction can serve as a model of this. One wants a different kind of life but then responds to inner or outer stress by returning to the addiction for relief. This prevents the person’s ability to change their life. It only allows for the relieving of stress that is the consequence of not changing.

Utilizing the structural dynamics framework, consumption of marijuana might be characterized as “use” if it facilitates one’s progress toward a desired outcome. Conversely, consumption of marijuana might be characterized as “abuse” if it is serving to relieve the tension but is not leading toward a desired outcome. In health-related circumstances determined chronic or terminal, there is no desired outcome beyond symptom relief. However, if one’s assessment of a situation as unchangeable is incorrect (“this boring job is my only option”), the relief gained by using marijuana might, in fact, allow an undesirable situation to be more easily endured, and thus enabled to persist. Perhaps this is “abuse.”

Marijuana can be used as an escape (from pain), a temporary crutch or a bridge. Good/bad. Safe/scary. Like booze. Like pharmaceuticals. The many, often contradictory, purposes of marijuana use won’t be resolved by reducing marijuana to fit current cultural classifications. It will be resolved as research and our own minds allow for a larger, possibly more complex and more accurate idea of its role. The need to define a thing by comparing it to something else is natural. But when it comes to marijuana, the reductionist impulse obscures reality. And failing to deal with reality might not to lead to the best possible policy.

Marijuana users and providers have also been accused of “abusing” the law under the medical-use model. Individuals used the rules of qualifying for medical use to protect themselves from prosecution. Marijuana businesses used the state rules/laws to create business models and industry infrastructure designed to meet demand. Whether the health profile of the “demand” met some people’s expectations does not change the fact that a structure, shaped by laws and rules, would emerge to meet the emerging market.

“Abusing” a law is different than breaking one. “Abusing” a law means that a person or group is using the law to achieve an objective other than what those calling their actions “abuse” would prefer, whether the issue is medical marijuana, surveillance or getting food stamps.

It can also be asked, when federal police used federal law to raid state medical marijuana businesses and prosecute providers, despite memos from the U.S. Department of Justice saying they would not contest state support for medical marijuana and in the face of growing recognition of medical applications, were they using federal authority, or abusing it?

By K.M. Cholewa

K.M Cholewa has worked as a political writer, policy consultant and lobbyist in Montana for 22 years, including on issues related to medical marijuana. Her novel, Shaking Out the Dead, is due out Spring 2014. Follow her on Twitter @katecac.

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