I suppose I could have selected a more controversial topic for a column, but not wanting to defend Hitler's politics or Michael Jackson's lifestyle, I settled for a lesser controversy.
What brought the subject of marijuana to mind was a recent press release titled, "Case for Hemp Made at American Farm Bureau Convention."
According to Eric Steenstra, President of Vote Hemp, "The U.S. government treats hemp the same as marijuana even though dozens of countries including Canada, England and Germany understand the difference."
Steenstra is lobbying for a bill that would allow American farmers to grow industrial hemp which is used in automobile parts, paper, clothing, food (seeds are high in Omega 3 oil), personal care products and other products.
"The American farmer is left out of the expanding marketplace, now estimated at more than $200 million in annual North American retail sales," Steenstra said.
The article doesn't clearly explain the difference between hemp and marijuana, so I will do so.
Both words refer to the cannabis plant. The plant that grows wild in the tropics has a high amount of THC, the intoxicant in marijuana. Plants that grow wild in temperate climates have an amount of THC so low that the plant has no commercial value as an illegal drug.
Seeds from tropical plants can be used to grow marijuana with a high THC content in a temperate climate. If such plants survived and self-propagated as wild plants for many generations, the process of natural selection would eventually cause the descendants to become as low in THC as other wild temperate climate marijuana. Cross pollination with native plants would speed this process.
The reverse would happen to plants grown in the tropics from seeds of low THC plants. Over generations, the THC would increase.
Plants grown for hemp fibers are grown close together, which encourages the growth of tall, thin male plants. Widely spaced plants favor the growth of bushier female plants. Female plants are higher in THC than males, but leaves from even the male plants grown from tropical seeds have commercial value as an illegal drug.
The legalization of growing commercial hemp would create headaches for those fighting to eradicate the growth of illegal marijuana.
There is also pressure on the government to allow growing and using marijuana for its medical benefits. Unlike the plant's usefulness in hemp production, the medical benefits of cannabis are directly linked to the plant's potency as an intoxicant.
The most sensible policy would be to simply legalize the use of cannabis for its fiber, as a medicine and as a recreational intoxicant for adults. The plant could be taxed according to use.
As intoxicants go, marijuana is relatively benign. Alcohol has a more clearly demonstrated damaging effect on organs, including the brain and liver, and a has a clearer link to violent behavior in certain individuals.
The statistical evidence regarding the "gateway effect" of marijuana, the link to harder drug use, is the result of marijuana's more common use than harder drugs. A person who is willing to use a hard narcotic will almost always use a more common illegal drug first.
It is sometimes stated that marijuana users hold the smoke from marijuana in their lungs longer than do tobacco smokers and therefore it must be assumed that marijuana smoking is more damaging to the lungs than tobacco smoking. However, even a heavy marijuana user inhales only a fraction of the amount of marijuana smoke in a day's time as the amount of tobacco smoke inhaled by a typical tobacco smoker. Also, the chemicals found in tobacco smoke are clearly established as physically addictive and carcinogenic, which is not true for the chemicals found in marijuana smoke in more than trace amounts.
Being benign relative to alcohol does not mean that marijuana is harmless. Frequent use is associated with a lack of ambition and any intoxicant causes a loss of judgment and motor skills during the intoxication.
Many regard the fact that there are harmful effects of marijuana to be reason to keep it illegal even if there are more toxic substances that are legal. Marijuana use and alcohol use are not mutually exclusive, although consuming anything more than a small amount of alcohol makes simultaneous marijuana use pointless. The more profound effect of the alcohol will overpower the more subtle effect of marijuana.
Attempts to prohibit marijuana use have failed in the same way that the attempted prohibition of alcohol failed. Like alcohol prohibition, attempts at enforcing laws against marijuana have had a high cost to society in a number of ways.
I would not be writing this if I had a current use of marijuana. A large percentage of people in or approaching middle age have used marijuana in the past, but few currently use it.
They've decided the risks associated with an illegal drug are not worth the enjoyment. Also, marijuana is a drug for which many users lose interest after a time.
There is no great call for legalization among the millions of former users. They see no reason to take a controversial stand on an activity they have no current interest in. Those who have teen or preteen children (or grandchildren) would not be comfortable publicly discussing a past youthful indulgence they do not encourage for children.
Some years ago, a columnist for the Des Moines Register tried to resolve her ambivalent feelings toward her own past use of marijuana. She claimed that anyone who went to college in the '60s and did not smoke marijuana was a wimp but those who continued to smoke marijuana after college were irresponsible.
The columnist received heavy and well-deserved criticism for calling college students who didn't smoke pot 'wimps.' But the egocentric nature of the columnist is even more clearly illustrated by the second part of her statement.
Not everyone goes to college. If someone who went to work directly out of high school chose pot over alcohol for use after work or on the weekends, why would that be more irresponsible than someone smoking pot while being educated at their parents' expense.
The answer is that anything that didn't precisely match the columnist's experience was irrelevant to her.
And any person who gets into legal trouble as the result of marijuana use gets no sympathy from the millions who got away with it and no longer face that risk.