Skip to main content

More and more Americans want pot legal

By David Nathan, Special to CNN
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
A woman hand rolls joints in San Francisco for a medical cannabis cooperative. Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana on November 6.
A woman hand rolls joints in San Francisco for a medical cannabis cooperative. Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana on November 6.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Nathan wrote op-ed from doctor's point of view, urging pot be legal for adults
  • Nathan: Positive response was overwhelming, attitudes to pot are changing fast
  • Nathan says pot might be bad for people with emotional problems and for children
  • He says legal pot would bring in tax money, reduce cost and damage of jailing users

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) -- Last week, my op-ed in favor of cannabis legalization ran on CNN.com. This week marks three years since I first wrote that marijuana should be legal. I'm amazed at how the debate has changed in just a few years.

I was inundated with messages from readers, and was humbled by some of them.

Here's one from a Southern Baptist church pastor: "I have seen firsthand the heartache caused by America's prohibition against marijuana. I have visited young men in prison, who I knew in my heart should not be there ... It is time for us to speak out and tell the truth about marijuana ...

David Nathan
David Nathan

"But so many are afraid to speak out because they fear being labeled 'pro-drugs'... I pray daily that God will end this dreadful 'war.'"

The overwhelmingly positive comments posted on CNN.com, especially from those who don't use marijuana, show that more mainstream Americans are willing to voice their pro-legalization opinions. Informed adults are challenging old dogmas, and they worry less about the folly of "Reefer Madness" than refined sugar's role in shortening their children's lives.

Given the thousands of thoughtful comments in the past week, I'd like to address several of the most important themes readers have discussed:

Damon00 writes: "A couple of years ago, comments for articles like this were much more negative. People are learning."

Federal battle over legal marijuana
Members-only pot club opens in Colorado
Police find alligator guarding pot

Agreed. I believe that the coming of the information age has played a major role in the widely recognized shift in public opinion on legalization. Today's readers are increasingly able to judge facts for themselves by consulting readily available and well-referenced scientific sources.

Vertical1 is in favor of "decriminalizing [pot] and taxing it."

There is often confusion between the terms decriminalization and legalization, though the distinction is critical. Full legalization would empower federal, state and local governments to regulate and tax the cannabis trade. Regulation facilitates control and safety, and government debt can be reduced with taxes raised from marijuana sales.

But if we merely decriminalize marijuana, then it continues to be at least nominally illegal. Possession could get you the equivalent of a parking ticket, and those involved in the drug trade might still receive more severe punishment. Not only would this burden law enforcement, but the cannabis economy would remain unregulated and untaxed.

Opinion: Marijuana use is too risky a choice

Anon Ymous, who declares himself to be "pro-legalization, but anti-use," writes: "My life experiences growing up taught me that my friends who smoked pot in grade school, high school and/or college suffered for it."

Make no mistake: marijuana is bad for kids, although pot's potential harm to children is rather more subtle than that of alcohol, which can cause life-threatening physical addiction or fatal poisoning.

Studies suggest that repeated marijuana use in adolescents can cause cognitive impairment and chronically low motivation, setting teens on a path of underachievement. But if cannabis is legalized, the tax revenues it brings in can be used to fund better drug education in schools.

We must start teaching our children early, highlighting the nuanced but significant risks to underage users and avoiding the typical hyperbole that teens know they can safely ignore.

Even with the legalization of marijuana, anyone over 21 should be prosecuted for providing cannabis to anyone under 21. And remember: Drug dealers don't check IDs, but liquor store cashiers do. Given that drug dealers aren't going away, who would you rather have as the retailer of marijuana?

DedTV, who is also explicitly pro-legalization, asserts: "Pot CAN cause hallucinations."

When it comes to marijuana's role in psychiatric disorders, the medical literature and my clinical experience are ambiguous. There's a kind of chicken and egg problem with scientific studies, and they often contradict one another. Cannabis use does correlate with mental illness, but so does poor hygiene.

Some users experience transient, mild paranoia when ingesting pot, which generally leads them to simply stop using it. Many of my patients with anxiety and depression have found that frequent use of cannabis makes their condition worse. A few report that it helps them, at least subjectively. Regardless, alcohol is a much stronger depressant than pot.

As for thought disorders like schizophrenia, evidence suggests that a very large dose of pot can make a healthy person briefly lose touch with reality, and even modest doses may trigger a more serious psychotic episode in some people who are already ill or likely to become ill. While infrequent among pot users, this is of little consolation if you are the unlucky person for whom cannabis is a match to the fuel of underlying mental illness.

On the other hand, it hardly warrants universal pot prohibition any more than the existence of peanut allergies would justify a ban on legumes.

Postmasteratfingers asks: "Is there any evidence regarding the effect on driving while stoned from pot?"

Studies have shown that moderate to severe intoxication with marijuana does indeed increase a driver's accident risk. But look deeper and you'll find that this risk is similar to that of drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, which happens to be well below the federally mandated legal limit of 0.08%. So once again, pot may not be good, but alcohol is worse.

Stephen Lang requests: "Please don't call it 'weed.' It has lots of uses."

Baby boomers call it "pot," and their kids call it "weed." The most common and controversial term is derived from the Spanish vernacular "marihuana." Until the 1930s, English speakers preferred the scientifically accurate name "cannabis."

But those Americans who sought to ban the drug in the 1930s favored the previously little known and foreign-sounding term "marijuana," which might and apparently did stir racial passions among whites.

Cohara1103 asserts: "The main reason it should be legal is... as a 38-year- old white man in a white collar job I will never be stopped, questioned or arrested for marijuana possession EVER!"

After 75 years, haven't our laws against marijuana shed their racist past? Apparently not. Although African-Americans are 25% more likely to use marijuana than white Americans, they are 300% more likely to be arrested for it. A criminal record greatly limits one's opportunities for success in life. The racial divide widens, and racial tensions grow. This, dear readers, is the enduring legacy of pot prohibition.

And finally, Roland Gyallay-Pap comments that "cannabis [is] the correct term for marijuana."

I'm afraid we may be stuck with the contentious word "marijuana," but it provides a useful reminder of one way in which American society was long ago manipulated into the prohibition of a plant that caused a mild euphoria in most people who tried it and a severe paranoia in many who didn't.

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
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT