Medical Marijuana and Civil Liberties Research Project Research Paper

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Medical Marijuana and Civil Liberties Research Project Part II Literature Review

As the specter of Reagan's poorly planned and disastrously waged War on Drugs continues to haunt the American social landscape, an increasing number of ordinary citizens are indulging in an activity which has been demonized by prior generations and criminalized by the federal government. Casual ingestion of marijuana and other cannabis-based products has become legitimized in the eyes of many Americans, as California, Colorado, Washington and a growing number of states have elected to sanction the legal use of marijuana for medicinal purposes through legislative acts and voter propositions placed on public ballots. Whether smoked and inhaled through the traditional methods of rolling marijuana cigarettes or loading a pipe, or consumed via edible products and absorbed through the digestive process, the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), exerts a potent psychoactive effect on both body and mind.

While seeking the "high" which results from marijuana use was once frowned upon by most segments of society, and relegated to the fringes with the consumption of other illicit drugs, today there are many respected voices in medical, political and other significant social circles who consider the substance to be a source of healing at best, and a benign diversion at worst. A series of studies conducted recently by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confirmed the theory that marijuana has quickly become the national drug of choice, with at least "17.4 million Americans -- or 6.9% of the population -- saying they used marijuana in 2010, up from 14.4 million or 5.8% of the population in 2007."1 Every year the demographics of marijuana use expand to include younger users, and the same SAMHSA survey found that "21.5% of young adults aged 18 to 25 used marijuana in 2010, up from 19.6% in 2008 to 21.2% in 2009."2 Many civil libertarians and other critics of federal marijuana laws have decried the harsh measures, including multiyear prison sentences and massive fines doled out to those convicted of simple marijuana possession, pointing out the majority of arrestees are students and minorities. Indeed, the raw statistical evidence gleaned from national incarceration rates and other sources shows that the preponderance of "data support earlier research that found Hispanic college students have higher rates of marijuana use as compared to Asian and African-American college students."3

While the moral and social consequences of widespread marijuana use may be debatable, rigorous scientific study of the substance's active ingredients and their effects on the human brain's physiology have shed light on the potential consequences for habitual smokers. The THC present in marijuana exerts a tremendous short-term influence on a user's cognitive functions, including dizziness, memory loss, and an inability to focus. Regular users report a greater artistic ability in the pursuit of music, art, or other creative outlets, which may be a result of changes made to the brain's neurotransmitter system.

1. Jackie Frank. "Marijuana use rising in U.S., national survey shows." Reuters, September 08,

2011, U.S. section.

2. Ibid.

3. Sean Esteban McCabe, Michele Morales, James A. Cranford, Jorge Delva, Melnee D.

McPherson, and Carol J. Boyd. "Race/ethnicity and gender differences in drug use and abuse among college students." Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse 6, no. 2 (2007): 81.

In the case of chronic, long-term marijuana use, several studies indicate that "heavy users displayed significantly greater impairment than light users on attentional/executive functions, as evidenced particularly by greater perseverations on card sorting and reduced learning of word lists."4 Even so, doubts remain as to the true cause of these perceived impairments, and despite the fact that "heavy marijuana use is associated with residual neuropsychological effects even after a day of supervised abstinence from the drug & #8230; the question remains open as to whether this impairment is due to a residue of drug in the brain, a withdrawal effect from the drug, or a frank neurotoxic effect of the drug."5 When the totality of statistical and scientific data is objectively considered, it becomes quite clear that "the weight of evidence suggests that long-term heavy use of cannabis does not produce severe impairment of cognitive function like that observed in heavy alcohol users & #8230; (and) there is evidence that it may produce more subtle cognitive impairment in the higher cognitive functions of memory, attention and organization and integration of complex information."6 For patients who endure from the debilitating effects of a chronic condition like multiple sclerosis (MS), and face the prospect of suffering from the same pain for the rest of lives as they cope with the incurable inflammatory disease, the use of complementary alternative medicine (CAM) techniques such as medical marijuana use to provide temporary relief has also become increasingly widespread.

4. Harrison G. Pope, and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd. "The residual cognitive effects of heavy marijuana use in college students." The Journal of the American Medical Association,

275, no. 7 (1996): 523.

5. Ibid., 525.

6. Wayne Hall, Louisa Degenhardt and Michael Lynskey. "The health and psychological effects of cannabis use." Manuscript submitted for publication, National Drug and Alcohol

Research Centre, University of New South Wales, New South Wales, Australia. Monograph Series No. 44 (2001): 1-182.

The practice of CAM is also known as holistic healing, and covers commonly used therapies like yoga, massage, and acupuncture that fall outside of the realm of Western medicine while still providing documentable benefits to physical and emotional health. In the case of MS, the regular occurrence of uncontrollable muscle spasms and slurred speech can severely impair a patient's quality of life, and adopting CAM practices within their own daily health regimens can often reduce the most discomforting symptoms of the disease. A growing body of empirical research has demonstrated that the psychoactive effects caused by the absorption of THC through marijuana ingestion can provide an array of benefits for those coping with MS, including muscle relaxation, increased appetite, psychological relief from stress, pain alleviation, and the ability to regulate sleep patterns.7 Today there are many respected voices in medical and scientific circles who consider the plant to be natural source of restorative substances with tremendous potential in terms of helping MS patients live in relative comfort. The first comprehensive empirical survey designed to study MS patients actively using cannabis to treat their symptoms, which was conducted by a team of researchers from the United States and Scotland, "strongly suggests that cannabis may significantly relieve certain signs and symptoms of MS, particularly spasticity and pain, in at least some patients."8 With the tide of state legislation slowly turning in favor of legalized medical cannabis use, the potential for transforming this so-called drug into a reliable CAM treatment option for the management of MS has grown exponentially during the last decade.

7. Sherri A. Olsen. "A review of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by people with multiple sclerosis." Occupational Therapy International 16, no. 1 (2009): 60.

8. Paul Consroe, Russell Musty, Jennifer Rein, William Tillery and Reginald Pertwee. "The perceived effects of smoked cannabis on patients with multiple sclerosis." European Neurology 38, no. 1 (1997): 48.

From the perspective of threats to the preservation of civil liberties, the divide between advocates of decriminalization and proponents of the status quo has resulted in real-world ramifications for entire communities and generations. Whenever law enforcement becomes preoccupied with arresting minority groups in a disproportional rate compared to the general population, this trend has devastating consequences on subsequent segments of the criminal justice system. In New York City, for example, the institutionalized racial profiling which occurs under the guise of the "Stop and Frisk" mandate, a law that encourages police officers to unnecessarily detain and search minorities in search of illicit substances like marijuana -- despite its decriminalized status within the city's jurisdiction -- has created a disastrous situation for that municipality's prosecuting attorneys. According to a report released by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, "minorities -- and blacks in particular -- were 'stopped' at a higher rate than whites & #8230; (and) precincts where minorities constitute the majority of the overall population tended to see more 'stop and frisk' activity than precincts where whites constitute a majority of the population."9 This artificial increase on minority arrest rates, which is largely predicated on arrests for possession of the decriminalized substance marijuana, has created a situation wherein prosecutors have been forced to work through hundreds of hours of superfluous casework before ever handling cases involving actual crimes. By removing prejudicial legislation such as New York's "Stop and Frisk" law in recognition of the societal shift towards permissible marijuana use, individual states can begin to reverse the trend of trampling civil liberties in the name of a failed and futile War on Drugs.

9. Eliot Spitzer. "The New York City police department's stop & frisk practices: A report to the people of the state of New York from the office of the attorney general." DIANE Publishing, (1999): 1-109.

When arbitrarily constructed and willfully destructive legislation like New York City's "Stop and Frisk" mandate are…[continue]

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