There is a mad rush to legalize marijuana these days, but it’s time to rethink that generous yet foolish move — generous because it lifts the onus of crime from peaceful smokers, but foolish because it harms mental development and health. Legalization, as we have seen it in Colorado and Washington state, lifts the cloud of legal fears from the shoulders of millions of pot smokers — some of them actually languishing in prisons for decades for selling or possessing a few ounces of pot.
But legalizing pot would almost certainly lead to much wider smoking of the weed, leaving millions damaged for life, especially today’s youth. “People who started smoking marijuana as teenagers and continued into adulthood showed an average IQ drop of 6 points between age 13 and age 38” reported US News and World Report in 2012.
I know the effects of weed intimately and have seen the good minds of my generation squandering their talents and health on the addictive buzz of pot. Back in the ‘60s, I made my way to one of the best communes in northern California, a place where we built our little houses in the forest, cut firewood for the winter and delivered our babies in the pure mountain air.
But time moved on for many of us and we spread out into the wider world. I traveled to India and North Africa and the Middle East. Finally I decided to study journalism and swore off weed until I graduated and got my first full-time reporting job.
When that day came, I began covering the city council, traffic accidents, school conflicts, labor strikes, corruption, elections and the other meaty stories of small-town life in Massachusetts. I found that weed meant nothing to me compared to the rush of participating in public life, searching for truth and serving our readers.
In fact, the journalism career enabled me to return to India, Nepal and Pakistan with a changed view. Where previously I had smoked with the Sadhu holy men and was exalted by the beauty of the Himalayas and the rice paddies, I now began to understand the injustice behind it all: the lack of women’s education, the feudal land arrangements, the limitations of caste. Under every rock were the worms that undermined human efforts to better their lot in life. Things were not so groovy as they seemed under the buzz of weed.
Years later I returned to the commune and found a few old-timers still ensconced in the redwoods. On that visit, a couple of the young’uns — second generation, mostly born on the ranch — were sitting around the main house smoking up a cloud. They said they were going to take the chainsaw and cut up some fallen Douglas fir trees.
We left them in the gloomy house, rolling up yet another joint, and wandered across the hills visiting the old houses decaying in the forest like spacecraft from an ancient invasion. After two or three hours trekking down to the river, picking blackberries and gasping in awe at the 150-foot-tall second growth redwoods and Doug Fir, we returned to the house and — guess what? No wood was cut. Nothing happened but hours lost in fantasy.
Pot destroys — in many people and at many times — all initiative. If the brain needs to itch before we scratch it through meaningful work, pot soothes that itch and makes it go away.
Aside from the hacking cough so many of the older smokers developed, most likely linked to cancer as well as to emphysema, pot reduces the ability to interact with the modern world.
Too many pot smokers simply divide the world into “us” and “them.” Those who do not smoke are often dismissed as “the Man” and not worth knowing. Legalizing pot may take us to a place we will not want to be in a few short months and years.
Hundreds of thousands of American kids may find themselves without the intellectual maturity to contribute to the greater society or to even feed and clothe themselves.
Certainly some people can smoke and still maintain — still hold jobs or carry out productive work. There is a tribe in Africa that smokes in the morning because it lets them work in the fields all day without rest or food. Some smokers can use grass and still hold down complex jobs.
Some artists smoke to unleash their muse, to guide their paint across the canvass, enhance their music, or find the right words to spin a poem down a page. But for every one of these there are many more who simply will fail to graduate, fail to learn, fail to specialize, fail to excel and fail to contribute.
Ben Barber has covered the Middle East for 30 years for the Baltimore Sun, London Observer, Toronto Globe and Mail and other publications.