Is America's ever-expanding legal marijuana market a looming public health crisis? In "America's Invisible Pot Addicts," published this week in The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey argues that a growing number of Americans are quietly suffering from "cannabis use disorder." That's a more clinical and considerate way of saying that legal pot has created a lot more heavy marijuana users, some number of whom say they can't stop.
I could easily fit into the dire statistics cited by Lowrey. I was a daily cannabis user for years. And for weeks at a time over the last decade, I have used it not just after work but throughout the day. I have no problem admitting that I do, in fact, have a problem with cannabis.
Lowrey claims that policy makers are ignoring pot users like me. But her story uses us as justification for creating laws and regulations that would limit the agency of all adults who wish to consume marijuana. I appreciate her concern, but she misses the mark.
The problem, Lowrey tells us, is that "state and local governments are setting up legal regimes without sufficient public-health protection." Thanks to a shift in public attitudes, she says, lawmakers have gone from "treating cannabis as if it were as dangerous as heroin to treating it as if it were as benign as kombucha."
As an example of the "invisible pot addict," she provides a very brief profile of a California man named Evan, who has been clean from marijuana for "a hard-fought seven weeks." Evan seems to miss smoking weed, but he felt it was ruining his life by keeping him from accomplishing his professional goals. He now chafes at the billboards popping up in California advertising legal cannabis. "It's not a trigger," he tells Lowrey, "but it is in your face."
After giving us a few paragraphs of Evan, Lowrey uses the rest of her word count to share policy recommendations from half a dozen wonks.
"It wasn't obvious to me 25 years ago, when 9 percent of self-reported cannabis users over the last month reported daily or near-daily use," NYU's Mark Kleiman tells Lowrey. "I always was prepared to say, 'No, it's not a very abusable drug. Nine percent of anybody will do something stupid.' But that number is now [something like] 40 percent."
We learn that there are many ways to constrain the legal market and "protect" users: a prohibition on commercial growing and retailing, a la D.C (which didn't actually choose this route, but was limited to it by a Republican Congress threatening to lock down the city's budget). Another idea floating around is a purchasing limit: Customers would set a monthly spending level for themselves that they cannot exceed, a la self-imposed deposit limits for gamblers. We should all be "listening to and believing the hundreds of thousands of users who argue marijuana is not always benign," Lowrey concludes.
I'm happy to provide the perspective Lowrey says we need. I have both a pot problem and some thoughts on pot policy.
Over the last decade, my frequent use of marijuana precipitated a broken engagement, tarnished major moments in the lives of people I care about, and nearly cost me a job. For long stretches of time, I have been the daily smoker that Kleiman frets about, lighting up the minute I get home from work and staying lit until bed. Sometimes I went to work high. Heavy marijuana use has coincided with several major depressive episodes that lasted for months, and two very memorable bouts of acute, chest-clutching anxiety. At least five times in the last decade, I have gotten so high that I vomited. I know, I know: It sounds almost as bad as drinking!
There have also been countless occasions when getting and being stoned was really fun and really relaxing. Concerts, movie screenings, parties, group dinners.
Over the last year, I've been trying to figure out how to strike a balance between those two experiences. I don't have a good solution. I also don't have any cannabis products at home right now, and probably won't for the foreseeable future. I've had some success with this approach when it comes to food: Along with some other strategies, keeping high-calorie foodstuffs out of my kitchen helped me change the way I eat and get my weight under control. Taking the same approach to cannabis is working right now. It even worked towards the end of my time in D.C., where a loophole allows for legal pot delivery.
This might seem like a giant overshare, but I think Lowrey is right that drug policy debates seldom include the voices of people who aren't models of responsible consumption.
Yet Lowrey's piece is no exception. Her story isn't really about people like Evan or like me. It is about people like Kleiman, and what people like him want to do about people like us. Evan is a plot device, a cautionary tale. He's grounds for grabbing the levers of public policy and yanking away.
How is Evan maintaining sobriety? What does he want done about those billboards? Lowrey doesn't tell us, and it doesn't seem like what Evan wants actually matters.
I don't think Lowrey's story is bad journalism. I think she views drug users—people like me—the way most educated progressives do: We are problems, and we cannot solve ourselves. While it's an improvement to think of drug use as an issue of impulse control rather than deviancy, shifting the discussion from how to put people in shackles to how to get them into diapers doesn't represent the full range of options.
Whether drug users want the government to intervene in their lives, and if so, how, are questions policy makers rarely ask. When we're surveyed at all, we're asked about our behaviors, not our preferences. This is also true of indigent people and people diagnosed with mental illnesses. If you reside in the place where all three of those circles overlap, it is very likely that no health professional or lawmaker has ever asked what you want, only what you did, or are doing, and what you would be willing to sacrifice in order to keep or regain your freedom.
That's better than being treated as a villain, but not by much.
Lowrey thinks more policy makers should hear from people like me. So what do I think they should do, regarding cannabis, for people like me? To me? About me? Please, for the love of God, do nothing.
Perhaps my answer would be different if marijuana were the only thing that I tended to use in excess. But it's not, nor is it for the other people I know who have a problem with pot. To a one, all of us struggle with either anxiety or depression and with other addictions. I used to binge eat and to drink way too much. Other pot smokers I know have struggled with both of those problems. States and the federal government should not make policy around my pot use, any more than they should make policy around my ice cream consumption. It should not be overly difficult for tens of millions of adults to buy marijuana legally because hundreds of thousands of us can't handle our shit.
The technocrats will bristle at this. Once concerned with communicable diseases, public health policy is now a tool for fixing the behaviors that plague the left side of America's bell curve. But there is something unreasonably elitist about this project.
"At some level, we know that spending more than half of your waking hours intoxicated for years and years on end is not increasing the likelihood that you'll win a Pulitzer Prize or discover the cure for cancer," drug policy researcher Jon Caulkins once told Vox's German Lopez. While history shows it's possible to do great things under the influence, Caulkins is right at the macro level. So was Tyler Cowen when he recently wrote, "I see intelligence as one of the ultimate scarcities when it comes to making the world a better place, and smoking marijuana does not make people smarter."
But I do not owe the world my brain, and marijuana is not what's stopping me from curing cancer.
The optimal cannabis policy is the one that allows people to choose who they will be and what they will do. We may be worse off if we choose cannabis, but I doubt we will be worse off than the millions of people who have been variously arrested, charged, and incarcerated in the name of keeping the rest of us safe from ourselves.
Maybe I'm an outlier. Maybe the majority of people with "cannabis use disorder" want the state to make it harder for them to get high. I'm honestly curious to know, and while I take Lowrey at her word that she is too, I find it telling that she spent far more time surveying people who want to control how marijuana is sold and used than she did the users themselves.
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