Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Marijuana is a Killer

Several years ago I took a road trip as an undergraduate student to Humboldt County, California. I was with a small group looking for stoneflies in the northern part of the state. As part of our research, we stopped at several small streams running by the winding mountain roads on which we travelled. I remember one turn-off quite well. It was near a tumbling stream and I was looking at a small brown riparian beetle. Suddenly the sound of a motorcycle caught my attention and I looked up in time to see the driver weaving back and forth down the highway. He then tried to manage a curve in the road where we were parked - some 20 feet off the shoulder. Unfortunately his back wheel got away from him and slid out of control. He pulled the brakes as hard as he could but only managed to slide to a stop - after running into our Suburban. As he slid I watched in horror as his head bounced twice off of the blacktop. Fortunately he was wearing a helmet and managed to survive. But the impact knocked him out. This turned out to be for the best as the pain would have been unbearable otherwise, although at the time we didn't know if he would survive. We also noticed that his bike's kick-stand was rammed deep into his leg.

The reason I tell this story is because of the event that followed the accident. The police officer that arrived on the scene quickly evaluated the situation, called in an ambulance and then began looking for something. By the skid marks near the road he found what he expected - a small plastic bag containing marijuana. "Do you know what this is?" he asked us. Being a bit (maybe a lot) naive, we replied that we didn't. "It's Humboldt Gold," he replied. "Marijuana, and it's being grown all through these mountains. If I were you gentleman, I wouldn't stray too far from the road. You don't want to stumble on to anybody's garden, if you know what I mean." We took his advice.

Right now the issue of legalizing marijuana is on the November ballot (Proposition 19) in California. Advocates for and against the legislation are currently making their best (often heated) arguments one way or the other. I don't claim to be an expert on many of these arguments but I am disappointed by the misrepresentation surrounding the effect of marijuana on drivers. Proponents for legalizing the drug claim that it is no more dangerous than other over-the-counter medications and that users are fully capable of driving under the influence. This is a very poor argument.

It may be true that someone experiencing a marijuana buzz may be able to safely navigate to the grocery store and back home again. This isn't the sort of situation that kills people. It's the sudden need to react that causes the accidents: braking for the stray cat, hydroplaning after a fall rainstorm, swerving from a reckless driver. Users of marijuana are much less likely to manage these sudden emergencies well.

But this isn't the only concern. Arguing that marijuana is not more dangerous than grocery-store medication fails to take into account one very important fact: there is no quality control for marijuana or marijuana products. Drug companies are legally required to make sure every pill they sell meets accepted medical standards. No such laws exist for marijuana nor are they likely to be imminently forthcoming. Plants don't make even quantities of biologically active compounds. There are too many unpredictable variables for this to be possible. One supplier of marijuana is certainly going to have more active material than her competitor in a neighboring county. You may think you know how much you can handle but when you least expect it, you'll find yourself in more trouble than you bargained for - experiencing an overdose at a critical moment.

It simply isn't worth gambling like this with people's lives - and this is certainly an issue that will involve people's lives. How blind are we that we can't see this? How much "fun" do we think we need when the cost of the diversion is calculated in individual lives? Maybe you think that you can handle it. But do you really think that everybody else can? Marijuana is plant-derived, variably active and a mind-altering drug. It may be (or may not be) safe in an isolated campground far away from town, but in the fast-paced urban world most of us live in, it's a killer.

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