23/02/2017 10:23 AM AEDT | Updated 23/02/2017 10:23 AM AEDT

We Would Be Dopes To Legalise Marijuana

When it comes to mental health, where there's smoke there's fire.

Scott Harms

Unlike, it seems, everyone else in the world, I'm getting a bit worried about weed.

Just in case you hadn't noticed marijuana has been getting some very good press over the past 10 years or so. Characters in some of our best-loved TV shows are sparking up. Documentaries about different aspects of weed culture abound. Serious news programs are talking up the benefits of medical use and public figures from actors to athletes to politicians have outed themselves as smokers. We are witnessing a tectonic shift in public opinion from the days of 'Reefer Madness' and 'Just Say No' to social acceptance.

And that worries me.

Now, I will put my hand up and say I have smoked my share of pot. Actually I've smoked my share, your share, his share and most of her share, but that's beside the point. I don't smoke anymore, mainly because a couple of things called goals and ambition have entered my life, but I'm not one of those holier-than-thou, I've-stopped-so-now-everyone-else-should types.

I would defend anybody's right to get high and there are more than a few pressing issues around the world which I firmly believe would be best served by locking the main parties in a room with a bong, a baggie and a collection of Pink Floyd's greatest hits.

What worries me is the seemingly inevitable drive, already witnessed in a number of American states and a handful of other countries, towards legalisation. Making pot legal, especially in these times when we are hyper-aware of health risks and how our bodies work, attaches an air of respectability and approval. It sends a message of harmlessness and acceptance, to young people in particular, that there's nothing to be afraid of.

If it's legal it can't be that bad, can it? Except we know that's not true.

Keeping weed illegal at least sends a message to young people that it is something to be taken seriously.

While scientists around the world are frantically running well-funded studies to determine any and all positive impacts of weed, there are a few negative things about its use which though solid, proven facts aren't getting a lot of press.

The first of these is the impact of regular use on mental health -- especially in young people under the age of 25 whose brains are still developing. Pot has been proven to accelerate and contribute significantly to the onset of mental health issues to those who are predisposed to such issues, which turns out to be quite a lot of us.

We see regular reports about a mental health crisis facing young people but strangely the links between this and pot use are rarely examined, despite the fact the weed kids are smoking these days is often many times stronger than the stuff that was around when their parents were their age.

I recall a recent story done by a major investigative reporting TV show into the tragic proliferation of youth suicide in Aboriginal communities. During one of the interviews a young boy of about 14 talked about how there was nothing to do in his community but wake up, start smoking cones and continue to do so all day. Despite this admission, however, and what is known about the impact heavy pot use can have, the idea that this behaviour might have had something to do with the psychological issues these young people were facing was never examined by the program.

A pot habit can also be a massive handbrake on people's lives by robbing them of motivation and keeping them from reaching their full potential.

This is an issue which I can speak personally to as well. During the three plus decades I spent as a regular smoker I experienced significant issues with depression, anxiety and stress. Over time I saw various counsellors to attempt to deal with these issues, none of whom were overly concerned about my smoking habits. When I stopped smoking, the black cloud above my head, which had been such a regular and permanent part of my life, simply disappeared.

A pot habit can also be a massive handbrake on people's lives by robbing them of motivation and keeping them from reaching their full potential. While this is something any adult has the right to decide for themselves there is a worry for young people who are yet to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world.

Of course it can be used positively as well. In moderation it's a relaxing, recreational drug and a strong case can be made that it is less harmful than alcohol. On a medicinal level it is showing great promise treating some types of epilepsy and assisting with nausea from chemotherapy. Some of the other medicinal claims are a bit far-fetched but there is no doubt it helps people with terminal illnesses take their minds off the fact they are dying, if only for a few hours at a time.

My question is what is wrong with the status quo? Honestly, does anyone who wants to smoke weed really have any trouble getting their hands on it? I have scored in cities and small towns, in jungles and on the tops of mountains, in countries where I didn't speak the language and nobody spoke mine. I never had any legal trouble in more than 30 years as a smoker and never heard of anyone who did.

Keeping weed illegal at least sends a message to young people that it is something to be taken seriously. It's like the fence around my yard: it's not really going to stop anyone who wants to climb it but it does tell them that doing so might have a consequence or two.

In contrast, legalisation gives us permission. It removes the stigma and allows us to indulge with a clear conscience. After all, it can't be dangerous if you can buy it over the counter at your corner store with a credit card, can it?

Legalisation also brings with it the significant danger of corporatisation. We are already seeing in America a corporate industry developing around the cultivation and distribution of marijuana and this will inevitably have far-reaching consequences. Take, for example, the impact of marketing.

The goal of marketing of course is to sell more of the product in question. With weed this means two things: getting people who don't use weed to use it and getting people who already use it to use more of it. Any information which might indicate the product in question poses a health risk of any kind is not helpful towards these goals and tends to get left out of the promotional package. Marketers will inevitably target young people -- as they do for almost every other product on the market -- as their consumer habits are still forming. Competition will also lead to stronger and stronger strains, produced in more and more sophisticated laboratories, and able to be consumed in a wide variety of ways.

Imagine a not too distant future where we attend a major sporting event and one of the teams runs out on the field, their uniforms emblazoned with a familiar, stylised pot-leaf logo of a well-known brand.

Legalisation is not going to simply bring an industry which is operating underground out into the light. It does not bring benefits for the people who currently meet the demands of millions and millions of smokers around the world. The local dealer, who was an entrepreneur running his own small business, will be lucky to get a minimum wage job with His buddy, who supplied the needs of much of his neighbourhood from the grow-op in his basement, will lose out on the local supply contract and will be forced to shut down rather than face the stiff penalties for violating corporate licences, especially as he can't come close to competing on price with a huge operation like WeedCorp.

Imagine a not too distant future where we attend a major sporting event and one of the teams runs out on the field, their uniforms emblazoned with a familiar, stylised pot-leaf logo of a well-known brand. Imagine the commercials popping up on your favourite websites and during your favourite TV shows. Imagine the cross-promotional possibilities with junk food products, alcohol and music festivals.

I know it's a scary world out there and it may be very tempting but do we really want to live in a society where more of us are stoned more of the time? Is that what we really need? Is anyone stopping to think what this might mean for our collective mental health? For relationships? For families? At a time when we need to be encouraging young people to reach their goals and come up with new ideas for the problems we face we are taking further steps to encourage them into a dangerous practice which could rob them of their future.

It's not difficult to see a point of view where the reality is something much more sinister. In the Aldous Huxley classic Brave New World the masses were kept compliant and subdued by the mass distribution of a drug called Soma. One wonders if the powers that be see weed as having a potentially Soma-like impact on a populace already distrustful of their motives and soon to face a major, world changing revolution of automation which will cause mass unemployment and leave most of us with an awful lot of free time on our hands.

The typical stoner character who goes through life railing against the injustice of the system while never working to bring about any change is a familiar one to all of us. The comedian Bill Burr, in a routine about the Occupy movement, spoke about the fact that rather than assisting people get elected to office at municipal and state levels or find their way into roles with the police or military they "sat around in the park, smoked hash and played bongos for a year."

While the word may be getting out about weed we need to keep in mind that this is not a new message. We have been smoking pot since the first time a bolt of lightning set a bush on fire outside a Neanderthal's cave. As with any significant change, though, we need to keep at least one bloodshot eye focused on the major question: who benefits? And even more important, at whose expense?


If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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