Q: Archbishop J, should we legalise marijuana?
Trinidad and Tobago’s response to this very important conversation about marijuana has deep implications for our society. Marijuana is a harmful drug. Professionals in treatment centres attest to the fact that marijuana is a gateway drug.
It has many social and psychological effects and can be destructive to individuals and society. BUT making a person a criminal for smoking marijuana is not a solution. It brings more harm than the intended good to society.
The challenge with the current law is that it criminalises people for possession. The person is a user and maybe an addict, but is he or she really a criminal? The poor black male is the most vulnerable. Without an adequate support system, he is likely to become imprisoned. He enters as a substance abuser and is at risk of ‘graduating’ as a master criminal. How is that beneficial to the user or the society?
I have worked hard with several people to get treatment for addiction to marijuana and to save them from prison. Some progressive and sustainable responses to marijuana use or abuse include: rehab, attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, court mandated community service and psychotherapy to deal with unresolved issues.
Legalise or Decriminalise?
When the Honourable Prime Minister and the President of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association (DOMA) joined the conversation on marijuana, the media used “decriminalising” and “legalising” interchangeably. One radio reporter stated the DOMA president called for legalising marijuana, but both officials spoke of decriminalising.
The distinction between ‘legalising’ and ‘decriminalising’ marijuana is important. Colorado, Washington and California have legalised marijuana, making it easily available as cigarettes and in all types of marijuana-infused foods.
‘Legalising’ refers to taking away the criminal penalty if an individual is held with small amounts of marijuana. Possession of large amounts is deemed ‘for trafficking purposes’ and remains a criminal offence.
On the other hand, ‘decriminalising’ refers to removing legal penalties (prison or fine) for simple possession and, providing alternatives. In several countries, Drug Courts have been established so persons can be mandated into treatment and do not have to be stigmatised by the criminal justice system.
Such courts collaborate with all arms of the legal and social systems, including the judiciary, probation, law enforcement, mental health, social service, and treatment communities. In Trinidad and Tobago, several Drug Courts exist.
Our position must be evidenced-based. In the US, the data measuring the impact of legalising marijuana are insufficient. Early indications are that social challenges have increased in the states where marijuana has been legalised.
In my social work, I have found when teens begin to smoke marijuana, a visible change in personality occurs, and school performance and motivation to excel decreases. Those on the upper end of the IQ curve may pull through but not in keeping with their full potential. Marijuana use progressively becomes an obsession and erodes the young person’s identity. They are willing to take big risks to continue with its frequent use.
Judith Grisel, as a teen, was an avid user of marijuana. Now a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bucknell University, she has a very different perspective. She sounds a warning about the use of marijuana by teens.
Firstly, marijuana peaks all experiences even mundane ones making them extraordinary. For teens, at the critical stage of brain development, this is a serious challenge. They lose the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
She says: “It’s not surprising, then, that heavy-smoking teens show evidence of reduced activity in brain circuits critical for flagging newsworthy experiences, are 60 per cent less likely to graduate from high school, and are at substantially increased risk for heroin addiction and alcoholism. They show alterations in cortical structures associated with impulsivity and negative moods; they’re seven times more likely to attempt suicide.” (Pot Holes, Washington Post. May 25, 2018).
She continues with the second level of challenge: “The offspring of partying adolescents, specifically those who used THC (the active chemical in cannabis), may be at increased risk for mental illness and addiction as a result of changes to the epigenome—even if those children are years away from being conceived.”
Thus, marijuana can affect the capacity of our children in significant and disastrous ways. Clearly, the drug has serious social consequences for the individual, the family and ultimately the society.
I have had to refer several young people to mental institutions because of marijuana psychosis. It is not a pretty sight. For some users—and this cannot be predicted—marijuana induces psychosis.
The brain literally cannot hold things together. The person is delusional and has beliefs that are strange. The brain, in psychosis, deteriorates significantly. Paranoia becomes a norm. For some, they may recover from the first episode and come into full recovery after three to four months.
By the third episode, however, the person does not recover to full potential. The signs are usually visible. This is a very painful experience for the person and family. Unfortunately, Trinidad and Tobago does not have adequate systems to support families and communities who are caring for persons who are permanently impaired.
CNN has spent a lot of money to socially normalise medical marijuana. They have portrayed it as the cure for many ailments. Evidence seems to support this position. I have known many young people using marijuana to self-medicate for ADHD and other challenges.
But, do we need to legalise marijuana to extract what we need for medical use? There are many labs licensed to extract medication from drugs that are illegal. While the study of medical marijuana should be pursued at this time, I am completely opposed to legalising marijuana.
Once the big media begins to invest in documentaries or programmes designed to normalise behaviour we once rejected, you know it is a campaign. The confusion being perpetuated between ‘legalising’, ‘decriminalising’ and ‘medical’ marijuana may be all part of the campaign to legalise marijuana.
These are separate issues and should be treated as such. Let us decriminalise, expand Drug Courts, support addiction counselling and rehab centres for those caught with possession and need treatment for addiction.
Key Message: Marijuana is highly addictive and has many social consequences for users /abusers and society. But it should not be a criminal offence.
Action step: Look at all your addictions—any substance or action that is obsessive/ compulsive that keeps you dependent and captive. Bring them to God and ask for freedom.
Scripture: Jn 10:10