Skip to main content

Why marijuana should be legal for adults

By David L. Nathan, Special to CNN
January 9, 2013 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
David Nathan says pot should be sold and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.
David Nathan says pot should be sold and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Nathan disputes CNN op-ed by David Frum that argues pot should be illegal
  • Nathan treats drug abusers and agrees with Frum that young people should avoid marijuana
  • Drug should be legal for adults and sold like alcohol, with kids taught the risks, he says
  • Nathan: If pot is illegal, then dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco should be, too

Editor's note: David L. Nathan, a clinical associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, was recently elected as a distinguished fellow in the American Psychiatric Association. He teaches and practices general adult psychiatry in Princeton, New Jersey.

(CNN) -- David Frum is one of today's best and most reasoned conservative political voices, so his recent CNN.com op-ed on marijuana policy was just a little disappointing. Not because he advocates the drug's decriminalization -- he rightly thinks locking people up or arresting them for casual use is a bad idea -- but because he opposes its legalization for adults.

I agree with much of what he says about pot's potential harm, especially for the young and the psychiatrically ill. Like Frum, I am a father who worries about my kids getting sidetracked by cannabis before their brains have a chance to develop. But I am also a physician who understands that the negative legal consequences of marijuana use are far worse than the medical consequences.

Frum would reduce the punishment for marijuana use for adults but nominally maintain its illegality in order to send a message to young people that pot is a "bad choice," as if breaking the rules wasn't as much an incentive as a deterrent for adolescents. Kids are smart enough to recognize and dismiss a "because I said so" argument when they see one. By trying to hide marijuana from innately curious young people, we have elevated its status to that of a forbidden fruit. I believe a better approach is to bring pot into the open, make it legal for people over the age of 21, and educate children from a young age about the actual dangers of its recreational use.

Opinion: War on drugs a trillion-dollar failure

David Nathan
David Nathan

Throughout my career as a clinical psychiatrist, I have seen lives ruined by drugs like cocaine, painkillers and alcohol. I have also borne witness to the devastation brought upon cannabis users -- almost never by abuse of the drug, but by a justice system that chooses a sledgehammer to kill a weed.

Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, caffeine and refined sugar are among the most commonly used, potentially habit-forming recreational substances. All are best left out of our daily diets. Only marijuana is illegal, though alcohol and tobacco are clearly more harmful. In several respects, even sugar poses more of a threat to our nation's health than pot.

I agree with Frum that chronic use of cannabis correlates with mood changes and low motivation, especially when started in adolescence. In individuals with psychosis, it may trigger or worsen their symptoms.

Members-only pot club opens in Colorado
Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter talks marijuana
Obama's pot problem
Late night laughs go up in smoke

But these dangers are far surpassed by the perils of alcohol, which is associated with pancreatitis, gastritis, cirrhosis, permanent dementia, physiological dependence and fatal withdrawal. In healthy but reckless teens and young adults, it is frighteningly easy to consume a lethal dose of alcohol, but it is essentially impossible to do so with marijuana. Further, alcohol causes severe impairment of judgment, which results in violence, risky sexual behavior and more use of hard drugs.

Those who believe cannabis to be a gateway to opioids and other highly dangerous drugs fail to appreciate that the illegal purchase of marijuana exposes consumers to dealers who push the hard stuff. Given marijuana's popularity in this country, the consumption of more dangerous drugs could actually decrease if pot were purchased at a liquor store rather than on the street corner where heroin and crack are sold.

Opinion: Legalize pot? No, reform laws

There is another more pressing reason to legalize and regulate marijuana, even for the sake of our children: the potential for adulteration of black-market cannabis and the substitution of even more dangerous copycat compounds. Much like Prohibition-era fatalities from bad moonshine, harmful synthetic marijuana substitutes are proliferating, with street names like K2 and Spice. The Drug Enforcement Administration struggles to combat these compounds by outlawing them, but I see no decrease in their popularity among my patients. Natural marijuana poses much less danger than synthetic cannabinoids -- legal or otherwise.

So who had the bright idea of banning cannabis in the first place? Was it physicians? Social service organizations? No. The credit goes to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which in 1937 pushed through laws ending the growth, trade and consumption of all forms of cannabis, including the inert but commercially useful hemp plant. America's ban on the so-called "Weed of Madness" was based on bad science and fabricated stories of violence perpetrated under the influence. The madness of cannabis can be ascribed not so much to its users, but to those who sought to criminalize the drug so soon after the monumental failure of alcohol Prohibition.

That's not to say our marijuana laws have failed to change drug use in America. Cannabis is more widely used today than at any time before its prohibition, even though it was domesticated in antiquity and has been cultivated ever since. Pot prohibition has also greatly increased illegal activity and violence. Otherwise law-abiding private users became criminals, and criminals became rich through the untaxed, bloody and highly lucrative illicit drug trade.

Opinion: The end of the war on marijuana

But America can fix this mess through marijuana legalization. Federal, state and local governments can regulate the cannabis trade as they do with alcohol and tobacco -- monitoring the production process for safety and purity, controlling where it is sold, taxing all aspects of marijuana production and consumption, and redirecting resources from punishment to prevention.

Forget the antiquated dogma and judge pot prohibition on its own merits. If you still believe that cannabis should be illegal, then you must logically support the criminalization of alcohol and tobacco, with vigorous prosecution and even imprisonment of producers and consumers. Does that sound ridiculous? Then you must conclude that the only rational approach to cannabis is to legalize, regulate and tax it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Nathan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT