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Unsafe at any weed

| Monday, April 25, 2016

In terms of annoying holidays, “420” falls somewhere between Guy Fawkes Day and International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day. The Internet, and occasionally real life, becomes infested with annoying stoners agitating for their hobby. In recent years, recreational cannabis use has been legitimized as a number of states move toward legalization.

A driving factor behind the liberalization of cannabis laws is the public perception that cannabis use does not harm users. This is simply untrue. Cannabis abuse increases the risk of lung cancer, reduced brain volume, memory impairment, schizophrenia, mouth cancers and chronic cardiovascular conditions.

While we’re on the subject, let’s dispel the myth that “marijuana never killed anyone.” It’s true that acute THC toxicity is an extremely rare cause of death, though cannabis-induced heart attacks and strokes are not unheard of. But to equate that to “zero deaths” is ignorant at best and intentionally misleading at worst. Cases of smokers chaining Marlboros until they overdose on nicotine are similarly difficult to find, but no one would dare to call tobacco harmless.

Now, I can already hear the outraged cries of the libertarians. “Well, who cares? Big Brother has no business regulating what I put into my body. I’m not hurting anyone, and the sole responsibility of government is to prevent people from hurting each other. By the way, have you heard the good news of our Lord and Savior Ayn Rand?”

First off, I always get disturbed whenever I hear “Big Brother” name-dropped to describe an oppressive or overreaching state. After all, I’m a big brother myself, and I consider myself to be a positive influence on my brother’s life (most of the time, anyway). But I digress.

Let’s ignore for a moment the externalities involved with drug abuse that result in users transferring their own self-harm onto others via increased public medical spending, drug-addled decision making and so on. Even allowing that shaky premise, there are years of precedent for the government regulating private behavior, and it is unquestionable that our society is better off for it.

One of the best examples of benevolent government regulation is in the construction of cars. A company might very well want to sell a car with no seat belts and an engine with a propensity to explode, and the consumer might very well want to buy it. However, statistics indicate that such a car is enormously dangerous. Rather than allow uninformed consumers to make fatal mistakes, the government instead determines that no such vehicle is to be sold.

Or consider the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s. When the opponents of this legislation weren’t arguing from a position of outright racism, they often couched their arguments in terms of “individual liberty.” Further, they made claims that the free market would fix the problem of segregation, as integrated businesses would have a competitive advantage. Yet it was government intervention that eventually resulted in integration. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how a sacrifice of personal liberty resulted in an overall benefit to society. Of course, that hasn’t stopped libertarians from scorning the Acts’ passage or conservatives using similar liberty-based arguments to support laws sanctioning anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

But perhaps the case most closely related to cannabis is pharmaceutical regulation. Back before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) existed, quacks could freely make unsubstantiated health claims about various chemicals, even to the point of selling dangerous compounds as medicine. Fortunately, the government realized that the average person lacks the time to conduct their own meta-analysis of the peer-reviewed literature, and so banned dangerous or ineffective substances from being sold as medication —now they have to be called “supplements.” Based on the numerous, well-studied negative health effects of cannabis abuse, it is unlikely that the FDA or any other consumer product regulatory body would approve cannabis for public consumption — unless, of course, they are pressured to do so by the pot lobby.

Clearly, some people get enjoyment out of abusing drugs, including cannabis (I wouldn’t know). And maybe drugs are different than other products regulated and recalled for public safety reasons: No one was trying to make Firestone tires in their garage. But based upon our existing consumer protection laws, it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to allow consumers to purchase cannabis. And to those who claim that personal liberty should override any sort of regulation, I can only say — what have you been smoking?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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