Skip to main content

More and more Americans want pot legal

By David Nathan, Special to CNN
updated 10:25 AM EST, Wed January 16, 2013
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT