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Science for stoners: What is marijuana “abuse?”

America is reconsidering marijuana.

But even as medical applications are recognized and Colorado and Washington roll out regulations for recreational use, the definition of “abuse” is still subject to debate. Until only a few years ago, any marijuana use was drug abuse. Refraining from pot was good. Using it was bad. Then, as medical marijuana gained recognition, users of marijuana ended up split into medical and recreational users, the worthy and the wayward, the legal and the criminal.

Even with medical use laws, many people believed that “green cards” — medical marijuana permits — were often being issued to fakers, people using medical-use laws as a cover for their recreational interest in marijuana. In many cases, the critics were right, but that doesn’t undermine the reality of marijuana’s medical applications. So, even when following the letter of the law, users are still split into the good and bad, the deserving and those taking advantage of the new medical-use laws. Not only were bad people abusing the “drug,” they were abusing the law.

Texas Marijuana Policy Advocacy Workshops — January 2018
Texas Marijuana Policy Advocacy Workshops — January 2018

But, as marijuana’s legal status changes, should the framework for what constitutes “abuse” change, too? Is a recreational user of marijuana like the social drinker, using not abusing, indulging a vice but not committing a crime? Advocates of marijuana legalization often, on one hand, point out that the negative social impacts of alcohol are far worse than those of marijuana, which are barely detectable outside of use by minors. Yet, when looking to regulate marijuana use, laws and systems governing alcohol use remain a basic framework for what legalized marijuana laws should look like. The pharmaceutical industry is the other framework.

Pharmaceuticalization under medical use and/or handing marijuana to the vice industry are paths that integrate marijuana into the culture and society with limited threat to the status quo. Both categories already fit into the cultural paradigm. But the attempt to fit marijuana into one of these categories may interfere with our capacity to properly regulate it, which is what has occurred under its current misclassification as a schedule 1 drug.

Marijuana does not “fit in” as tidily as sound bites and political messaging require. Marijuana can act as a medicine, but it is not a pharmaceutical. Marijuana is an herb, yet its psychoactive effects set it apart from willow bark or Echinacea. And it is fundamentally different from alcohol in its personal and social impact, even when used in excess. Read more

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Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is a journalist and information technology specialist living in Waco, Texas. He has been working with the cannabis movement since 2009. He founded Texas Cannabis Report in 2013 to bring Texans accurate cannabis related news.

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