When discussing the advantages of legalizing the use of marijuana, a distinction needs to be made between use for medical purposes and use for recreational purposes. For many opponents of legalized marijuana, it’s a distinction without a difference. To such individuals, marijuana in and of itself is an absolute evil the use of which invariably leads to abuse of more dangerous drugs. Its’ addictive qualities make it inherently dangerous and a worse medical option than other, usually unspecified, alternatives.
Marijuana is addictive, and it does damage the brain. The main chemical in marijuana, or cannabis, is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a potent, psychoactive substance that affects the functioning of the brain – the entire reason for its use. While the potency varies depending upon the precise type of plant, it is still a hallucinogenic substance, albeit a relatively minor one considering other, more potent narcotics and drugs typically used. According to the U.S. Government National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana affects the brain as follows:
“The highest density of cannabinoid receptors is found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. Marijuana overactivates the endocannabinoid system, causing the “high” and other effects that users experience. These effects include altered perceptions and mood, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory.
"Marijuana also affects brain development, and when it is used heavily by young people, its effects on thinking and memory may last a long time or even be permanent.” [http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana]
That marijuana is often dangerous to regular users, however, is not in and of itself an argument against its legalization. After all, most proponents of legalization argue, alcohol consumption is responsible for many tens of thousands of deaths every year, including from drunk driving, yet alcohol remains legal and its consumption a socially-acceptable activity. By regulating its use in the same manner as alcohol and tobacco, such individuals suggest, the harmful effects of marijuana can be shielded from minors.
The argument for “medical marijuana” is far easier to advance than for purely recreational use. Just because alcohol consumption is legal for adults doesn’t mean the widespread recreational use of marijuana wouldn’t have worse long-term health and public safety effects. We really don’t know, because it hasn’t been tried. What we do know, however, is that a strictly-regulated medicinal use of marijuana would be little different than for many psychotropic medications already in routine use, especially for patients with serious mental illness. If the use of marijuana would benefit patients with glaucoma or who are suffering the side-effects of chemotherapy associated with cancer treatment, then its use is no different than with many currently legal drugs. The truth is, cocaine is administered to leukemia patients undergoing the most intensive forms of chemotherapy for particular strains of that disease [This educator is an eyewitness to such an occurrence]. When considering chemical solutions to pain or intense nausea, virtually any substance that provides relief may very well be preferable to continued suffering. A patient fighting for his or her life is hardly concerned about the addictive properties of pain relievers.
Currently, medical researchers are investigating methods of extracting from marijuana the chemicals that are associated with medical treatment so that the benefits of marijuana can be derived without having patients smoke a joint. In the meantime, legalization of medical marijuana is, in this educator’s opinion, entirely appropriate. Legalization for recreational use, however, is, again, in the opinion of this educator, a bad idea. The damage to the brain associated with its use and the increased danger to public safety are stronger arguments against legalization than the fact that alcohol also damages brain cells and causes broader societal problems and yet remains legal and socially-acceptable.