It’s a good thing our criminal justice system is blindly obsessed with sending pot smokers to prison. Otherwise, we might have to spend time evaluating the utility of the ancient herb. A group of pothead academics recently did exactly that and came across an ironic finding: when substituted for other, more harmful drugs, pot becomes a helpful proxy in the struggle against substance abuse.
Research published in the open access Harm Reduction Journal features a poll of 350 cannabis users, finding that 40% used cannabis to control their alcohol cravings, 66% as a replacement for prescription drugs and 26% for other, more potent, illegal drugs.
Amanda Reiman, from the University of California, Berkeley, carried out the study at Berkeley Patient’s Group, a medical cannabis dispensary. She found that 65% of people reported using cannabis as a substitute because it has less adverse side effects than alcohol, illicit or prescription drugs, 34% because it has less withdrawal potential and 57.4% because cannabis provides better symptom management.
Imagine that. If legalized, pot could be used to wedge hard drug abusers off their dope. And not just illegal drug abusers, but those addicted to the privileged legal drug of choice might benefit as well–swap your booze for a bong and dry out.
That’s an intriguing idea, but to attempt it, another far more resistant addiction would have to be overcome: our justice system is a strung-out junkie for jailing pot smokers. According to a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics report, American taxpayers are now spending more than a billion dollars per year to incarcerate its citizens for pot.
According to FBI statistics, almost 47% of all drug arrests in the U.S. are for pot. We had a spell in the 80s when cocaine and heroine topped drug arrests, but since 1996 pot is the far and away front runner, as the chart below from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.
Of the estimated 800,000 or so people arrested on marijuana charges in a given year, about 90 percent are charged with possession only. The rest are charged with “sale/manufacture,” a category that includes all cultivation offenses, even those where the marijuana was being grown for personal or medical use. Nearly 1 out of 8 U.S. drug prisoners are locked up for pot.
I think it’s a mistake to portray pot as a harmless alternative to other drugs, because it’s clearly not. The question, however, isn’t whether it’s harmless, but whether it’s more harmful than legally sanctioned and widely available drugs that you can buy with your newspaper and a tank of gas.
And if it’s true that pot can help hard drug abusers liberate themselves from their chemical chains, then we have yet another reason to reexamine the insanely contradictory policy of putting pot users in prison.