Sometime during the sixties, I had a trusted friend who asked me if I would help him do an experiment on himself. He wanted me to observe his behavior while he smoked marijuana. Antonio told me that he had tried it a few times but lacked an objective view of his behavior while under its influence.
I consented to help him, and we began the experiment. He smoked, I observed. At first, I spoke to him casually. After a few moments, I decided to conduct an experiment of my own. Having observed no major changes in him, I began to speak of our mutual passion for opera.
[Here, it is important to note that no one simply ‘likes’ opera. It is not only music and singing. It is a force that is either passionately hated or passionately loved. One way or the other, the response to opera is congenital. You don’t develop a taste for it: you are either born to love it or you are not. There is nothing ‘casual’ about opera. At the time of our experiment (the early ’60s), opera was in a Golden Age. Into that age, there burst one of the greatest sopranos in the history of opera: Birgit Nilsson. Antonio and I saw and discussed her performances extensively. We still do.]
My decision to speak to him about opera during the experiment was based on the premise that a significant common experience would provide me with a better point of reference for his behavior while he was under the influence. In essence, I said:
“We are at the Metropolitan Opera house. Birgit Nilsson is performing her first aria in Turandot, In Questa Reggia. Gushing from her mouth there steadily flows a glistening stream of liquid gold that collides into the golden balustrade of the Mezzanine, where we are seated. The gold shatters into countless brilliant diamonds that fly around us like soft snow…”
I continued in that over-the-top style for about two minutes. Then, I reverted to small talk and more or less waited for his responses. They were few, slow, and far between.
When the influence subsided in him, we noted that our time perceptions were very different. However, despite not remembering any of the small talk, he excitedly repeated my words, in essence almost word-for-word. After that experiment he never bothered to smoke marijuana again.
When my generation was in its twenties, the link between smoking tobacco and lung cancer was barely on the horizon. Two decades later, a fierce controversy raged over a possible link. In effect, that controversy ended in the mid-sixties when lung cancer and heart disease were incontrovertibly linked to tobacco.
Despite that, my generation went on smoking. Efforts to warn smokers or would-be smokers that cigarettes cause catastrophic diseases, including lung cancer, were basically trumped by ‘peer pressure’ or, later in life, the power of addiction. Tragically, today’s teenagers, although fully aware of the extremely deleterious effects of smoking tobacco, acquire the habit of smoking and the consequences of addiction. The only explanation I have for that behavior is that most teenagers think they are immortal. The overwhelming majority of my generation thought so too. I didn’t. When I was a teenager I had the sense to know that I was not immortal, so I settled for omniscience. I’m still working on that.
The cigarette controversy is over. But tobacco smoking continues. Since the mid-sixties, the lingering fog of cigarette smoke has been augmented by the popularization of deadly drugs. Because marijuana is not deadly except when mixed with driving, and because it has medicinal value, it warrants more than casual dismissal. So, here we go again: another national controversy rages.
Current pros and cons of marijuana use are reminiscent of tests conducted by significant health organizations from the forties to the mid-sixties. Shrouded in secrecy, the Lorillard Tobacco Company engaged in its own tests. It claimed that reports of those tests were “inconclusive,” that “air pollution, not cigarettes, cause cancer,” and that “more tests are required.” Several independent scientists genuinely concurred with the findings of the tobacco industry. Given the technology of that time and that nicotine is hidden within thousands of chemical ingredients of tobacco, the claim that the link could not be made was plausible. In addition, a number of honest and independent scientists concurred. Of course that doesn’t explain the need for the tobacco industry’s secrecy, but cigarettes and lung cancer were significantly linked by incontrovertible demographics, far more convincingly than animal tests had been. Yet, tobacco smoke continues to kill.
Drinking is also a killer, primarily when mixed with driving. There were several attempts to ban alcohol consumption, beginning in America’s Colonial Era. The last of those attempts was the 18th Amendment. Its abolishment after a dozen or so years known as the Prohibition Era was occasioned by the violent rise in brutal organized crime and the continued thirst for alcohol by much of the public. Demographics continue to demonstrate the devastation attributable to drinking while under the influence. Yet, responsible drinking is both legal and socially acceptable to most people.
The cigarette and alcohol controversies have been over for decades, but the devastating consequences of those activities continue. Also, as during the Prohibition Era, crime flourishes in the underground drug world.
Juxtaposition of alcohol and marijuana reveals ominous parallels: both destroy brain cells; both are potentially short-term killers of their users or of other people if the abuser is driving while under the influence. This makes drinking while under the influence of alcohol or marijuana a long-term moral issue. (Technically, this is also true of tobacco smokers because of the consequences of second-hand smoke.)
Controversial pros and cons tend to cancel each other. For example, one of the major controversial questions about marijuana is whether or not it is a ‘gateway’ to hard drugs. So far, that aspect of the controversy is starkly similar to the vague and convoluted arguments articulated during early tests in search of a link between tobacco and cancer. There is even a reverse link, called the Reverse Gateway Theory. It claims that marijuana leads to smoking tobacco. That may be, but life is full of swinging gates. The trick is to know which gates to lock. In any case, proponents of legalized drugs claim that marijuana is not a gateway to hard drugs. Those against the legalization of all mind-bending drugs posit that marijuana is a gateway to hard drugs. I get the distinct impression that proponents of one side or the other juggle the meaning of statistics to suit their perspectives, perhaps honestly or even unconsciously. On the other hand, criminals know exactly what they want.
Since there is a strong possibility that marijuana may lead to the desire (or perceived ‘need’) for harder drugs, it is helpful to reduce the haziness of controversy by asking yourself a larger question: Which is more important to me: to take the chance that marijuana is not a gateway to harder drugs, or to assume that it will prove to be so?
If doubt persists, put that question aside and ask yourself an even larger question: Since marijuana, like alcohol, kills brain cells, is it worth it to me (not a group, but an individual) to smoke marijuana even though irreplaceable brain cells will be destroyed? Before opening the portal to your mind to any drug, or even if you are already in a short-term use of marijuana, you owe it to yourself to ignore group statistics and think as an individual. Ask yourself: Do I care about the loss of brain cells? Apparently, for millions of people, many of whom know that marijuana kills brain cells, it is worth it. But how do you feel about that?
Having learned from the failure of the 18th Amendment that national prohibition fosters crime, lawmakers have made marijuana illegal except for its medically prescribed use in accordance with state laws. That is basically a strategy intended to relieve the pressure from a public that demands marijuana despite its stigma as a drug. The strategy also fosters big-time and small-time crime, just as alcohol did in the twenties and a fraction of the thirties. This pattern has been repeated over and over again. You don’t need a controversy to guide you. Circular arguments are not substitutes for linear reasoning.
If you are young, your greatest challenge is to resolve controversies that are not dealt with comprehensively, but rather from limited perspectives. The drug controversy is still in the same stage as the initial smoking and alcohol controversies were decades ago.
Before you opt for smoking marijuana, assume that the worst cons of the drug will prove to be true. The cause of the marijuana dilemma is public demand. You are not the public. If marijuana is legalized, that is not a reason to smoke it. Don’t become part of future statistics.
What I confirmed on my end of the experiment with my friend is that we can get high without tinkering with our brains. Like all opera lovers, I get high on opera. So does he. I also have never considered smoking pot just to see brighter colors or whatever else pot provides. When I see autumn leaves, flowers, and beautiful sunsets, that’s enough color for me without distorting reality. Reality has its own bands of color that also give me highs, without a crash. The one exception to my firm drug abstinence is that I will use marijuana only if I ever have to manage significant pain.
In my youth, I never considered giving up a single dendrite of my brain to smoke, alcohol, or any drug. I’ve heard that pot is not addictive. Maybe. I’ve heard that it is not a gateway to other, stronger drugs. Maybe. I’ve also heard that addiction is a disease. Maybe. What I am certain of is that a clear mind is the best portal to the greatest highs that life has to offer.
I’ll take my brownies with plain chocolate and milk, thank you.