Caution: Marijuana may not be lesser evil
By Rita Rubin
February 6, 2007
Tyreol Gardner first smoked marijuana when he was 13.
“The main reason I tried it was curiosity,” Gardner recalls. “I wanted to see what it felt like.”
He liked what it felt like, and by age 15, he was smoking pot every week. He supported his habit with the money his parents gave him for getting straight A’s on his report card. They didn’t have a clue.
“By 16, when I got my license, it turned into a fairly everyday thing,” says Gardner, now 24. “I believe it is very addictive, especially for people with addictive personalities.”
Millions of baby boomers might disagree. After all, they smoked marijuana — the country’s most popular illicit drug — in their youth and quit with little effort.
But studies have shown that when regular pot smokers quit, they do experience withdrawal symptoms, a characteristic used to predict addictiveness. Most users of more addictive drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, started with marijuana, scientists say, and the earlier they started, the greater their risk of becoming addicted.
Many studies have documented a link between smoking marijuana and the later use of “harder” drugs such as heroin and cocaine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean marijuana causes addiction to harder drugs.
“Is marijuana a gateway drug? That question has been debated since the time I was in college in the 1960s and is still being debated today,” says Harvard University psychiatrist Harrison Pope, director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at Boston’s McLean Hospital. “There’s just no way scientifically to end that argument one way or the other.”
That’s because it’s impossible to separate marijuana from the environment in which it is smoked, short of randomly assigning people to either smoke pot or abstain — a trial that would be grossly unethical to conduct.
“I would bet you that people who start smoking marijuana earlier are more likely to get into using other drugs,” Pope says. Perhaps people who are predisposed to using a variety of drugs start smoking marijuana earlier than others do, he says.
Besides alcohol, often the first drug adolescents abuse, marijuana may simply be the most accessible and least scary choice for a novice susceptible to drug addiction, says Virginia Tech psychologist Bob Stephens.
No matter which side you take in the debate over whether marijuana is a “gateway” to other illicit drugs, you can’t argue with “indisputable data” showing that smoking pot affects neuropsychological functioning, such as hand-eye coordination, reaction time and memory, says H. Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Adolescents have the greatest rates of marijuana use, and they also have the greatest amount to lose by using marijuana, scientists say.
“Adolescence is about risk-taking, experimentation,” says Yasmin Hurd, professor of psychiatry, pharmacology and biological chemistry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York who last summer published a rat study that found early exposure to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, led to a greater sensitivity to heroin in adulthood.
“All of the studies clearly show the earlier someone starts taking marijuana, the greater their vulnerability to addiction disorders and psychiatric disorders. I’m so shocked still that so many parents are not considering enough the dangers of early drug use.”
Use is more common
Marijuana use by adolescents in the USA declined slightly from 2005 to 2006, but it’s still more common than it was 15 years ago, according to “Monitoring the Future,” an ongoing study by the University of Michigan that tracks people from the eighth grade through young adulthood. It’s paid for by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, part of the National Institutes of Health.
In 2006, 11.7% of eighth-graders said they had used marijuana during the past year, compared with 6.2% of eighth-graders in 1991. Among 12th-graders, 31.5% said they had used marijuana in the previous year; in 1991, 23.9% said they had.
“You are at school, and your main job as an adolescent is to learn and memorize,” NIDA director Nora Volkow says. But if you keep becoming intoxicated by smoking marijuana, she says, you’ll fall further and further behind in your studies. “How are you going to catch up?”
In a study comparing heavy marijuana users with people who’d had minimal exposure to the drug, Pope found that the former had lower verbal IQ scores than the latter. In a 2003 paper, he and his co-authors postulated three potential reasons: innate differences between the groups in cognitive ability that predated first marijuana use, an actual toxic effect of marijuana on the developing brain or poorer learning of conventional cognitive skills by young marijuana users who skipped school.
By the time Gardner was a junior, he started skipping high school regularly to smoke pot. “I would always find somebody who wasn’t at school that day and get high with them,” he says. Gardner says he missed 50 days in the first semester of his senior year. His parents discovered his stash of marijuana and sent him to a psychiatrist. His grades plummeted; his college plans evaporated.
When he was 16 or 17, Gardner says, he was charged at least twice with possession of marijuana and underage possession of alcohol. The court sent him to a three-month outpatient treatment program. He attended weekly sessions and underwent urine checks.
But it didn’t stick. He celebrated the end of the program by getting high on pot and alcohol. By 18, “I was pretty heavy into cocaine,” Gardner says. Crystal meth and intravenous heroin followed.
“I was always looking for the ultimate high. It was like a constant search, and I never found it. … By the end, it was a living hell for me.”
Finally, Gardner says, his parents persuaded him to enter an inpatient treatment program in Winchester, Va. They spoke from experience. When he was 8, Gardner says, his father stopped using drugs while in prison for possession. “My mom got clean while he was in prison.”
Gardner says he has been off drugs and alcohol for 14 months. He works in a Winchester factory that makes patio decking. He graduated high school because a teacher took pity on him and let him try to make up the work he had missed. More than six years after graduating, Gardner hopes to go to college to study psychology.
Research shows marijuana users are significantly less satisfied with the quality of their lives than non-users, a revelation “as telling as any very fancy story of molecules,” Volkow says.
Yet, she says, “I think there is a general sense that marijuana is a relatively benign drug and does not produce addiction.” Although over the past decade, “research clearly has provided unequivocal evidence that … some people can become addicted to marijuana.”
Stephens has conducted seven large treatment studies of marijuana dependence, or addiction. “There’s never any shortage of people who meet this definition,” says Stephens, who edited the 2006 book Cannabis Dependence.
Pot as predecessor
Pope has studied heavy marijuana users, whom he defines as having smoked pot at least 5,000 times, or once a day for nearly 14 years. On average, his subjects, ages 30 to 55, reported having smoked marijuana 20,000 times.
Pope required the volunteers to abstain from smoking pot for 28 days and used urine samples for confirmation.
“We had them rate various symptoms on a day-by-day basis,” he says. “We were able to show there is a clear withdrawal syndrome.”
His research found the most common symptom of marijuana withdrawal was irritability, followed by trouble sleeping and loss of appetite. Symptoms began to subside after a week and disappeared by the end of two weeks.
“We’ve had some people in our study who reported quite a lot of craving. They were quite miserable not being allowed to smoke marijuana,” Pope says, although “certainly, one does not see craving even remotely to the degree you would … with heroin or alcohol or cocaine.”
Marijuana today is more potent and therefore more toxic than marijuana grown in the 1970s, Volkow says. Back then, she says, plants typically contained only 2% THC. Today, she says, marijuana plants typically contain 15% THC.
Even if today’s marijuana is more potent, Stephens says, he’s not convinced that makes a difference.
“The evidence of its increased potency is overrated,” he says. Samples of marijuana grown in the 1970s might have appeared to be less potent than they actually were because they weren’t fresh when tested. And, Stephens speculates, marijuana users might just smoke more of less-potent pot, and vice versa.
A family problem
Rachel Kinsey says drug addiction runs in her mother’s family, although not in her immediate family. Kinsey, 24, started drinking alcohol at 14 and smoking marijuana at 15 — “definitely a predecessor for everything else I used.” She began using Ecstasy and cocaine at 17, then heroin at 18.
“I did graduate high school, and I went off to college, but I withdrew after a month,” says Kinsey, of Richmond, Va. She used the diagnosis of mononucleosis she’d received the week before college as an excuse.
“I don’t think I was ready for the responsibility, and I wanted to continue to use while I was in college. I was at the point where I just didn’t care about college. I was already using heroin.”
She moved in with her boyfriend and his father, both of whom used heroin. At 19, she got pregnant. She moved back in with her mother, substituted methadone for heroin and gave the baby up for adoption. Practically as soon as she delivered, she was back to using heroin.
About five months after her son was born in May 2003, Kinsey entered inpatient addiction treatment. During the 30-day program, she became involved with a man who went back to using cocaine after ending treatment. Kinsey says she didn’t want to go back to using cocaine or heroin, “but for some reason I thought it was OK to drink and go back to smoking weed.”
When she turned 21 in fall 2003, “it was off to the races. For some reason, I felt (turning 21) gave me the right to drink if I wanted to.”
From January to August 2004, Kinsey says, she was charged three times with driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana.
‘Not worth the risk’
With the help of another stay at a treatment center, Kinsey hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since Aug. 25, 2004, the day after her last DUI arrest. She’s halfway toward graduating from nursing school and works as a nurse tech in a hospital. For the first time, she has signed a lease on an apartment and pays rent.
She can’t drive until September 2008 and then only to work, to school and to 12-step meetings.
If she had to do it all over again, she says, she never would have started smoking marijuana.
“You never know where it’s going to lead you,” she says. “You don’t know that you’re not going to become an addict, so it’s not worth the risk.”
New Study Reveals Marijuana Is Addictive And Users Who Quit Experience Withdrawal
By Richelle Putnam
February 6, 2007
Blacksburg, VA (AHN) – Recent studies have concluded that when users quit smoking pot, they do experience withdrawal systems. In addition, those who abuse harder drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, admitted to using marijuana first. Risk of addiction relates to how early in life the user starts.
Marijuana, a mixture of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves from the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, can be smoked as a cigarette or in a pipe. THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is its main active chemical.
Bob Stephens, a Virginia Tech psychologist and editor of the book “Cannabis Dependence,” conducted treatment studies of marijuana addiction, and was quoted in a USA Today article as saying, “There’s never any shortage of people who meet this definition.”
A study called “Monitoring the Future,” performed by the University of Michigan, revealed that adolescent use of marijuana in the U.S. decreased from 2005 to 2006. However, in the past 15 years, marijuana use has become more common. This is according to the same “Monitoring the Future” study, which followed a group of eighth graders into adulthood. USA Today stated that a survey among eighth-graders revealed an increase from 6.2% in 1991 to 11.7% in 2006 regarding marijuana use. 31.5% of the surveyed 12th graders admitted to marijuana use in the past year compared to 23.9% in 1991.
Harrison Pope, director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at Boston’s McLean Hospital, who studied heavy marijuana users for fourteen years, found that those who smoked pot once a day scored lower on their verbal IQ testing.
Research on chronic marijuana smokers and alcoholics performed in 2006 by psychiatry professor, Ronald Kadden, who has run the Health Center’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center for over ten years, showed that marijuana was more addictive that originally thought.
However, past studies claimed that marijuana is still the lesser evil of the very much legal drug, alcohol. In a 1999 Summit Daily article, the U. S. Department of Transportation 1990-91 study revealed that the adverse effect on drivers is “relatively small” to the adverse effects of those under the influence of alcohol and some prescribed drugs.
A 2004 study performed by Alyssa J. Myers and Marion O. Petty of the Department of Psychology at Missouri Western State University, researched the connection of alcohol use to marijuana use. The study revealed that, “the more alcohol someone drinks, the more likely they will be to want to smoke marijuana. We also found that 100% of the people who reported marijuana use were also drinkers. The first drug used by the majority of people who smoke marijuana was alcohol, 67%.”
The report also stated that marijuana, a “gateway” drug, is considered worse than alcohol, because it supposedly prods users to try harder drugs. However, the study stresses the use of marijuana typically comes after alcohol and tobacco use and most people don’t realize that alcohol is the “gateway” drug to the “gateway” marijuana drug.
Atlanta police officer to face murder indictment
Fulton DA seeks charges in shooting of elderly woman in her home
By BILL TORPY
February 7, 2007
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard will seek felony murder charges against at least one of the Atlanta police officers involved in a botched drug raid that resulted in the shooting death of an elderly woman, the officer’s attorney said.
Defense attorney Rand Csehy, who is representing Gregg Junnier, said he had received an e-mail from Howard’s office Wednesday saying the prosecutor would go before a grand jury on Feb. 26 to seek charges against his client.
It was unclear Wednesday evening whether charges were being sought against other police officers. Eight Atlanta officers were put on administrative leave after the shooting. The November incident prompted a multi-jurisdictional investigation that included state and federal authorities.
Csehy responded angrily to the threat of an indictment against his client. “It’s an overbroad indictment,” he said.
He also complained that Howard’s office acted prematurely and had struck out on its own without consulting with the FBI, which is still investigating the circumstances that led to the shooting. “Paul Howard is no longer part of a joint investigation,” he said.
Howard would not comment Wednesday. Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said Howard had not informed his office about any plans to seek indictments.
Csehy conceded that his client may have made mistakes, but he insisted that he didn’t commit a crime.
“There was no malfeasance here, it was sloppy police work,” Csehy said. “It was cutting corners.”
Lyn Vaughn, a spokeswoman for Howard, said the district attorney would not comment on the prospect of seeking any indictments. However, the district attorney expressed outrage over the shooting in a Feb. 6 letter to Markel Hutchins, spokesman for the family of victim Kathryn Johnston.
“The death of Mrs. Johnston constitutes one of the greatest tragedies ever to occur in Fulton County,” Howard wrote. “I will not rest until every person responsible for her death is held accountable. …
“When homicides occur in Fulton County, whether committed by a civilian or a law enforcement official, it is the obligation of the district attorney’s office to take the appropriate legal actions. … The public will not tolerate separate treatment for police officers.”
On Nov. 21, narcotics officers went to Johnston’s home in southwest Atlanta to execute a “no knock” search warrant. Johnston was killed and the three officers were injured in an ensuing shootout.
No-knock warrants are frequently issued so police can get inside before suspects can destroy or dispose of drugs. When the officers kicked in the door, the elderly woman apparently fired five shots from her own revolver.
Her friends and family members contended Johnston, who kept the gun for her protection, was a feeble and frightened woman who rarely ventured outside after dark. And they say that she was never involved in any drug activity. Her family says she was 92, while authorities say she was 88.
Junnier later told federal investigators that officers had lied to a magistrate judge about sending a confidential informant to Johnston’s house to purchase drugs in order to get the warrant.
Atlanta police Sgt. Scott Kreher â€” who, as president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, has defended the officers’ actions â€” called the reports that prosecutors would seek an indictment against the officer “sad.”
“I think any time a law enforcement officer is accused of a crime, we all sit back and wonder what went wrong and look within ourselves in what we do day to day,” Kreher said. “And hopefully, if it’s presented to a grand jury and there isn’t enough evidence, they will send back a no bill.”
Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr., a vocal opponent of the use of no-knock warrants, said it’s too early to comment on Howard’s push for murder indictments. “That would be as irresponsible as knocking down a door with allegations of drugs, without proof of drugs.”
A Change in the Weather
Progressive Dennis Kucinich takes over a new House subcommittee, signaling changes in national drug policy
By DEAN KUIPERS
February 01, 2007
Photo by Steve Appleford
The drug hawk’s worst nightmare: Kucinich’s hearings will raise a ruckus
The Democratic sweep in the 2006 mid-term elections has done more than finally install a woman as speaker of the House. It has also put one of the most vocal critics of the ill-starred “War on Drugs” in a position to affect federal drug policy. On January 18, Ohio Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, one of the most progressive Democratic voices in the House, was appointed as chair of the new House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on domestic policy, causing drug reform organizations coast-to-coast to rejoice in hopes that a moment for significant change may have finally come.
This subcommittee replaces the now-defunct Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources subcommittee, which was headed up by staunch drug warrior, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). Kucinich will assume many of his oversight duties, including policy oversight of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and appointed Drug Czar John Walters. One commentator on Stopthedrugwar.org crowed that “the responsibility of overseeing the ONDCP has effectively been transferred from Congress’s most reckless drug warrior to its most outspoken drug policy reformer” [his emphasis].
“He is certainly the polar opposite of his predecessor, Mark Souder,” says Allen St. Pierre, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “Since the time the [ONDCP] was created in 1988, there have always been friendly people in that subcommittee and the ONDCP has always been able to get what they want under the guise of protecting children and saving America from drugs. But Kucinich doesn’t believe any of that. Any of it!”
For instance, St. Pierre notes, Kucinich is a supporter of industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive product of the cannabis sativa plant. He is also a supporter of medical marijuana and of the federal rescheduling of marijuana, where it is currently illegal as a Schedule I drug, classified as having “no medical value.” This classification clashes with states such as California, which have legalized medical use of marijuana, and leads directly to the current rash of raids on medical marijuana dispensaries by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Kucinich is expected, St. Pierre says, to be a sponsor of a new bill to be introduced in March that would decriminalize pot.
Washington insiders, however, are not holding their breath for great upheaval in federal drug policy overall. Sources close to the appointment, who asked not to be named, say that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic leadership have effectively embargoed major crime or drug policy legislation for the next two years, to avoid looking soft on crime in the 2008 election.
Kucinich, however, is promising a couple years of entertaining and edifying hearings.
“We’re going to open up the discussion to new hearings,” says Kucinich, interviewed Sunday in Culver City, where he presented his bill for Universal Health Care, which is co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). “We want to explore the federal government’s policies and the Department of Justice’s policies on medical marijuana, for example. We need to also look at the drug laws that have brought about mandatory minimum sentences that have put people in jail for long periods of time. I think it’s an appropriate time to look at the proliferation of drugs in America, and how that fits in with our health care crisis, and how that fits in with law enforcement.”
The ONDCP did not reply to several requests for comment. That office, however, which is a function of the executive branch, has been deeply involved in pushing heavy sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and resisting medical marijuana, buying big-money ad campaigns attacking marijuana in states trying to legalize at the state level. Controlling that ad money could be a key to reform. When asked if his subcommittee has any budget oversight or other muscle, Kucinich shook his head and added, “No, this committee does not have control of the budgets, but it does have control of the policy, and it can ask questions and get documents that others couldn’t get.”
That can make a difference, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the nation’s biggest drug policy reform organizations. His group plans to push for incremental slices of legislation that can move a progressive agenda while not upsetting Democratic unity, adding that Kucinich can “hold hearings on some of the subjects that haven’t been addressed in, you know, decades. Like a hearing on America having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Or maybe a hearing on why the DEA has jurisdiction over medical issues.
“One can obviously empathize with the democratic leadership’s desire to be cautious when it comes to supporting drug policy reforms and other sentencing reforms,” he adds. “But when you have a growing number of Republicans supporting sentencing reform, this might be a good time for the Democrats to show a little leadership.”
In fact, several activists point out, the new Congress may be the most sympathetic to drug-law reform that America has ever seen. Progressives like Senator Richard Durbin and Reps. Pelosi, George Miller, Conyers, Barney Frank, Henry Waxman, Kucinich, and Bobby Scott have all turned up in leadership positions.
“If we had to pick out our 40 best friends in Congress, they’d be disproportionately in leadership positions,” says Nadelmann. He includes Sen. Patrick Leahy on that list, but cautions: “Mind you, seven years ago, Leahy said that sentencing reform was one of the top priorities, but now it’s not even a top-10 priority. Part of that’s because there’s so much other stuff to deal with.”
Still, action on several fronts is expected. Sentencing reform should get some attention, with an aim of reducing the number of non-violent drug offenders currently getting long prison sentences, which has given the U.S. the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. One such change would be to make sentences involving crack cocaine equal to those given for powdered cocaine, as community activists have long contended these simply punish the black and poor who are more likely to use the drug in the form of crack. Hearings might also bring new media scrutiny to decades-long marijuana rescheduling motions and several Data Quality Act petitions, which force bodies like the Food and Drug Administration to make decisions based on science rather than ideology, and which have been roundly ignored by the Bush administration.
St. Pierre points out another potential point of influence: High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTAs. Congress funnels millions of dollars to local law enforcement for use in these areas, and activists have long argued they are wrongly prioritized.
“That’s a very obscure acronym, but when it comes down to the billions of dollars that get channeled out to local governments and their law enforcement, HIDTA is the battleground. That’s where Dennis can come in and say, ‘Mr. Walters, we the Congress, and, clearly, your own constituents want methamphetamines as the number one priority, not marijuana, and certainly not in the states that have medical marijuana laws.’ A couple of weeks ago, Walters was out in Fresno giving awards away for busting buyers’ clubs. Dennis can clip those wings. It all depends on how he’s going to want to pull the trigger.”