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Legal Marijuana: When the Issue is Personal

For many if not most addiction and recovery professionals, the notion that marijuana ought to be legal is difficult to swallow. Laws that permit legal access to marijuana are perceived as egregiously eroding efforts to prevent initiation of the drug’s use by teenagers as well as the most deleterious consequences of marijuana abuse and addiction.

We’re apparently headed rapidly toward change. While the story is still unfolding across the country, despite federal prohibition and international treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory, twenty-three states and the District of Columbia now permit individuals with a physician’s authorization to purchase and use one or more forms of cannabis for medical purposes. Then, in the election in November of 2012, regulated and taxed marijuana industries, tailored for adults who use marijuana recreationally, were authorized in Washington and Colorado.

The momentum for rejecting criminal prohibition is growing. In November of this year voters in Alaska, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and a number of cities in other states will see legalization measures on their ballots. Barring a shift in public attitudes or a dramatic change of course in the federal government’s tolerance for what the states have been doing, the election of 2016 will likely see a groundswell of even more legalization measures in states and localities across the country.

Along the way, will the prevalence of marijuana addiction soar?

None of us can know with any degree of certainty, but when I’m “optimism deprived,” I fear just such an outcome.

A key outcome in those counseling trials, indeed across all such studies reported in the literature thus far, is that marijuana addiction is not easily treated.-Roger A. Roffman

Perhaps the focus of my professional and personal lives fuels this forecast. I’ve been a marijuana researcher for very nearly fifty years, first surveying GIs serving in Vietnam about their pot use and, in the mid-1980s, beginning a decades-long series of controlled trials of counseling approaches for marijuana addicted adults and adolescents. A key outcome in those counseling trials, indeed across all such studies reported in the literature thus far, is that marijuana addiction is not easily treated. Many who enroll, well over half in most studies, do not succeed in quitting or achieving a durable reduction in use.

Marijuana and Addiction: It’s Personal

There are more pieces of my background that don’t show up on my résumé. I personally struggled in my 30s with compulsive pot smoking, having reached a point where my marriage was in jeopardy as was my career in academia. And my brother died of an opiate overdose, either intentionally or accidentally, forever affecting our family’s wellbeing while also leaving a residue of uncertainty. Had his pot smoking been one of many elements that converged in his life to make the hole he dug even more inescapable?

I personally struggled in my 30s with compulsive pot smoking, having reached a point where my marriage was in jeopardy…-Roger A. Roffman

Taken together, the pain that I and my family experienced, the merely modest successes in programs designed to help marijuana addicts, and the nearly ubiquitous, although erroneous, claims that marijuana is harmless, all feed into one part of my thinking – a sense of pessimism about where we might be headed. I can easily “frost the cake” in this dire projection by additionally concluding that the enormous profit motive in the legal marijuana industry will see the heaviest users targeted as cash cows, and the industry’s entrepreneurs shoveling money in lobbying efforts to oppose meaningful limits on sales and advertising, no matter how key those constraints might be in protecting public health and safety.

I’ve been describing one part of my thinking about legalization and our future. It’s only one part, I want to emphasize. The issues, the problems and prospects of staying the course versus making a major course correction, bring up for me many additional facets in how to think about legalization.

In a memoir I published this year as my academic career was coming to a close, I wrote about the lure of black or white thinking when confronted with complex and controversial issues:

When I was a kid, one of my favorite toys was a battery-operated View-Master. You inserted a round disk with seven pairs of slides into a slot. While looking through the two eye pieces, you pushed a lever to make the disk rotate so one image changed to the next. This was stereoscopic vision, the 3-D of the time. I felt as if I were actually in the scene, seeing it all around me and getting the full picture.

I’d come to appreciate that war prevents just that. We take a side and then filter information that comes our way as either backing up what we stand for or so egregiously flawed that it’s of no relevance. We focus on fragments of truth and unquestioned myths to sustain our belief that our cause deserves victory and those on the other side must be defeated. All else, the inevitable shades of gray, the uncertainties and ambiguities, are obscured from our vision, with far too many of us willingly letting it happen, perhaps needing it to happen to cloak us in certainty, to avoid being sidelined by an issue’s complexity.

Beginning in the Nixon administration, we’ve been at war with marijuana. At times, responding to the increasing clamor for marijuana policy reform, I’ve found myself resorting to a kind of tunnel vision about marijuana and what’s needed to protect health and safety. I must admit I’m evolving in my thinking, and in future postings will write about issues that challenge me when I’m in my “optimism deprived” state.