Pushing Skepticism Without Shafting Cannabis Reform

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Over the last few days, I have cracked open emails on my laptop that start with sentences like the ones below:

  • Marijuana corrupts the moral fiber of youth.
  • Aliens placed the cannabis plant on our planet to accelerate our evolution.
  • THC cures Alzheimer’s disease.

I certainly prefer these to the emails that hawk pills designed to lengthen my penis, but they leave me in a quandary. Everyone claims to love The Truth, especially when it’s capitalized. As a cannabis activist, I’m always eager to cast the plant in the warmest light. I always want to correct misinformation that maintains prohibition. I’m quick to explain why gateway theory is nonsense. I’m excited to elaborate on why amotivational syndrome is a myth. I’m happy to summarize the research showing that teen use of the plant is not elevated in medical marijuana states.

I emphasize this information every time I get a chance to appear on the smallest podcast or the largest TV show. I rehearse statistics on my drive to work, and pour over Google Scholar looking for any articles with cannabis in the title. Students in my classes are already weary of hearing about it. Many of them reach for their phones as soon as I mention marijuana, but I’m not going to shut up until everyone knows.

Marijuana corrupts the moral fiber of youth.

But what’s this about the moral fiber of youth? I usually get emails about the unparalleled corruption from people who deal with adolescents. The word “adolescent” comes from a Latin term for “grow” and an Old French expression that loosely translates to “I’m figuring out who I am, so fuck off!”

The fraction of high school seniors who’ve toyed with the plant is hard to measure, but it appears to be over a third. Personally, I wish they’d wait until their brain development has progressed. I have no idea how to measure moral fiber without a blood sample and a shiny moral fibertrometer. But I think these people are saying, “Kids who smoke pot do other things I don’t like.”

I’m afraid these folks also think marijuana caused all the problems any kid ever had. Odds are high that these kids are outgoing little extroverts who ride the front car of the rollercoaster and ask difficult questions about why adults lie to them so much. Well, good for them. But it’s not the marijuana that has corrupted their immeasurable moral fiber. Cannabis use is just part of a bigger constellation of rebellion in teens. Force them not to smoke marijuana and they’ll still skip church and call the soccer coach a fascist.

Most research linking cannabis to problem behaviors says little about cannabis as a cause. Cannabis-using teens sometimes have lower grades than their pals, but a quick look at their scores from grade school suggests they had worse grades before they ever touched the plant. Cannabis is not the assassin of youth that many people assert. I’m sure I’m not betraying the cause of legalization by saying so.

But then there’s the other stuff.  As a cannabis researcher, I’m always skeptical of outrageous assertions.  It’s a plant. It’s been on the earth for millennia. But there are things we don’t know about it; some things we’ll never know. I hate to rain on anyone else’s parade, but when other activists overstate the research or make unfalsifiable claims, I can’t sit idly by. It’s always hard to watch, especially those who are on my side, whip out their misunderstandings. I’m sure they think I’m some kind of nitpicking nut when it comes to science. Nobody’s perfect.

Aliens placed the cannabis plant on our planet to accelerate our evolution.

But if googly-eyed space aliens landed in my living room and said they left the plant here for us, I wouldn’t believe them. I might ask them if they have any new strains sprouting in their flying saucer, but I can’t count on one group’s report about the origin of cannabis. I can’t accept a single study or experiment as definitive proof about anything.

This kind of skepticism makes life uncomfortable. I’d love to know all the answers. It’s a drag to feel uncertain. But skepticism has advantages, too. It keeps me from saying things that aren’t true. It keeps me from becoming overconfident about decisions. I have to accept a bit of angst when I’m forced to make choices with limited information, but I don’t end up deceiving myself too much. In the end, I make fewer mistakes. And I’m a little more forgiving of myself when I guess wrong.  That little voice in my head says, “Hey! You did the best you could with the information you had.”

"Even the beautiful oleander plant is lethal if someone is unlucky enough to choke enough of it down."

“Even the beautiful oleander plant is lethal if someone is unlucky enough to choke enough of it down.”

The beloved folks who email me about aliens leaving cannabis for us mean no harm. They have a good-hearted message. In a way, they’re emphasizing that we live in a delightful world if such a plant has evolved. I couldn’t agree more.

But they are often trying to argue that cannabis is natural so we have nothing to fear.  We don’t have anything to fear, but not because the plant exists in nature. Hemlock grows in nature; it’s been a potent killer since before Socrates’s day. Half a death cap mushroom would kill most people. Even the beautiful oleander plant is lethal if someone is unlucky enough to choke enough of it down. Cannabis is natural, but that’s not why we need not fear it. I don’t mean to betray the cause of legalization by saying so.

THC cures Alzheimer’s disease.

The idea that THC cures Alzheimer’s disease is another one that works me up. I want this one to be true. I really want it. My mom is in a care home, a shell of her witty, fun-loving, artistic self. My stepdad holds the phone to her ear and I play her favorite tunes over the line in the hope they might make her smile. Then I hang up and weep. Every time I lose my keys, or conveniently misplace my to-do list, I think the dreaded brain plaques associated with the disease must be creeping their spidery way through my noggin.

I want THC to cure Alzheimer’s disease more than I want a hot tub in Maui or a flying jet pack. But here’s what we really know. THC in a test tube might inhibit the enzyme that helps make the nasty plaques that might cause the disease in a little part of the brain of a mouse. These results make a promising start. Also, people with the disease who get THC pills are less agitated, sleep and eat better. (Try not to be too surprised!) These results are good news, but they hardly qualify as a cure.  I don’t mean to betray the cause of legalization by saying so.

So staying skeptical about the good and the bad, the supportive information and the less-than-ideal, remains the challenge. I know it’s hard when we can almost always tell if the opposition is lying simply because their lips are moving. (And research suggests that those penis pills don’t work, either.) But we’re committed to truth. Skepticism will do us right. Don’t believe me. Start gathering data now.