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Blind Chihuahua

More to religion
than pleasing
your imaginary friend

No SmokingAs I was moving in, my neighbor was moving out. To Humboldt County, to take up farming, he said. I imagined him in midlife crisis, fleeing corporate clonehood in suburbia for hard work and independence. And maybe he was, but I later heard that Humboldt County is the cannabis capital of northern California. He may back up his independence with booby-traps, firearms, and a distributor connected to organized crime. Because it is a "controlled substance," a commercial marijuana grower must associate first for business, and then for protection, with criminals. It can get ugly. Nobody hikes unmarked trails in Humboldt County, they say.

On the other hand, drug addiction is ugly, too, and according to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., president of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, "teens who smoke pot are 85 times likelier to use drugs such as cocaine than those who have never done so." (Wasington Post, 17 Feb. 97).

I don't doubt that statistic. But what does it mean? Does anyone know who these kids are, and what motivates them? I suspect not. And I suspect that the pot-hard drug connection is more complex than the numbers suggest.

Consider that a growing body of evidence indicates that addictive, impulsive, and compulsive disorders — including alcoholism, substance abuse, smoking, compulsive overeating, attention deficit disorder, Tourette's syndrome, and pathological gambling — may have a common genetic basis. According to an article in American Scientist (Blum, Cull, Braverman & Comings, March-April 1996) some people have a "Reward Deficiency Syndrome" (RDS) in which inherited chemical imbalances occur in brain mechanisms that enable us to derive feelings of pleasure and well-being ("reward") from everyday activities like being safe and warm with a full stomach. Such imbalances blunt reward feelings, or even convert them to discomfort, anger, or anxiety. Now, by doing things to obtain the "reward" feelings, a normal individual engages in behaviors that further his or her survival. A pathological, RDS person, on the other hand, may engage in compulsive thrill-seeking, or may tinker with illegal drugs in an amateur attempt to adjust his or her neurochemistry to something he or she can live with.

In other words, it isn't the pot. It's the people. Most kids who try pot don't go on to harder drugs. Most don't even stay with pot — it tastes bad, it smells bad, it burns your throat and lungs and makes you cough. The high one experiences — ranging from slight euphoria/relaxation to a complete inability to concentrate on anything, to really bizarre and unpleasant sensations if your pot has been laced with something (illegal substances lack government quality control mandates) — simply isn't worth the inconvenience.

It's hard to believe that anyone would like that sort of thing, but if your natural neurochemistry is uncomfortable for you, the pot high may be an improvement. And for a certain number of people, it may be not enough of an improvement. I think these are the people who go on to try harder drugs, to which some large fraction of them become addicted.

As individuals, they each would be much better off working with a psychiatrist to use prescription drugs in a controlled manner to achieve a consistent feeling of normal well-being. They would be much more likely to succeed than by tampering with their neurochemistry on their own, and they would be much less likely to fall afoul of the law and society.

But as a society, what are we to do? Currently we criminalize marijuana, even though the evidence indicates that it can't be much more dangerous that tobacco and alcohol combined, and even though there is a growing body of evidence that is useful in controlling nausea in chemotherapy patients, and wasting in AIDS patients (Science News, 22 Mar 1997). Moreover, since our current laws insure that only criminals grow pot, we are simply insuring that the profits from marijuana go tax-free to organized crime, just like liquor profits did during the Prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s.

It's time to stop the reefer madness, and legalize marijuana. It doesn't harm people that much compared to things we already accept like cars, cigarettes, or booze, it doesn't lead people to hard drugs who aren't going to try them anyway, and it doesn't make anybody feel good enough for the rest of us to get jealous. Maybe we can even use pot to wean cigarette companies off tobacco. We can even have standardized reefers with known dosages, so people can know what they are getting in order to avoid driving while under the influence. And maybe we use the tax revenue from the profits to fund the efforts to control the use of drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, etc., that do much greater harm. That's the short-term solution.

The long term solution is to fund research to develop drug and genetic therapies for Reward Deficit Syndrome, so RDS people can feel as good as the rest of us, while still contributing to our society, or at least while not disrupting it. Then, after we have taken their revenue stream, it will be easier to go after the illegal drug suppliers who haven't already found something better to do.

Now you may wonder about the absence of God-talk and moralizing, since this is after all, a church. Well, as I said once to one young addict, "I can't even begin to talk to you about God if you're high. Elijah passed up the earthquake and the whirlwind to listen to the still, small voice... and if you're high, you just tuned it out." That goes for you whether you abuse substances, or just get your kicks from controlling other people's behavior.

What a yawner! Now, where's my cigar?

Get your buttered popcorn, and a good stiff drink. Light a cigarette, and savor VCBC's 1997 lite remake of the cult classic...