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Not the hero we weed right now

Graphic by Joseph Valdez

On a winter morning, after a snowstorm blanketed campus earlier this term, Yale students woke up to exciting news: the crew team had built an igloo on Cross Campus! Campus romantics were immediately swooning- how wholesome. But within hours, the igloo had already been declared the choicest spot on campus to hot-box.

Today, weed culture is an intrinsic part of life on almost any college campus. But these days, weed is appealing to a broader audience. In November’s election, four more states—Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, and California—voted to legalize recreational marijuana, bringing the tally of similar states to eight.

In addition to legislative progress, the public perception of marijuana is also shifting steadily. In just one decade, the number of Americans who favor legalization has increased from 32 percent to 57 percent according to the Pew Research Center. Ilana Glazer of the wildly popular Broad City told The New Yorker that she smokes pot every day. There are even photographs of President Obama lighting up in his youth.

If you look anywhere on social media, pro-legalization outlets are churning out content: an article about a child with epilepsy whose parents want to avoid the steep costs of cannabis oil by growing their own plant; a clip of a dispensary donating part of its profits to a public school; a video of a priest and a rabbi sparking up together.

The tide of legalization is now washing up in Connecticut. Recently in Hartford, four separately introduced bills have cannabis proponents pushing for legalization. Even on campus, Yale’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy is lobbying the administration to change their approach to marijuana enforcement.

Yet one Yale School of Medicine professor is pumping the brakes.

Dr. Deepak D’Souza is a Professor of Psychiatry who has spent the last twenty years conducting research on cannabis and cannabinoids. He has also spent twenty-five years working within the VA Connecticut Health Care system. And on Mar. 23, D’Souza gave an emphatic warning in his testimony before the Connecticut State Legislature: do not legalize marijuana.

In a legislative session actively focused on improving Connecticut’s economy and crafting a balanced budget, Senate Bill 11, “An Act Concerning the Legalization and Taxation of the Retail Sale of Marijuana,” seems promising. Legislators have reason to be hopeful: In 2015, after legalizing recreational marijuana, Colorado saw over 18,000 new jobs and over $2.4 billion in economic activity flood into the Centennial State. And given a 2015 Quinnipiac University poll which reported that over 63 percent of Connecticut’s residents are in favor of legalization, Hartford is taking this opportunity very seriously.  

Throughout the five-hour-long public hearing, a series of state lawmakers, medical marijuana patients, and other expert witnesses brought research and opinions before a panel of State Senators. When his turn came, D’Souza, arms crossed before the Judiciary Committee, brushed aside a volley of endorsements from liberal lawmakers. For him, legalization means an attack on the youth.

“It’s pretty clear: States that have legalized it for recreational or medical, have much higher rates of cannabis use among their youth than states that haven’t.”

That D’Souza focuses his argument on young people is fitting. More than any other group, the millennial generation has driven the march toward legalization. According to the same Pew Research Center poll, today over 71 percent of millennials want recreational marijuana to be legal. But by D’Souza’s insistence, it is the youths who are most at risk.

The crux of his argument against legalization rests on both addiction and performance.

The common perception that marijuana is not addictive is one of the go-to arguments for legalization that any casual proponent will use. D’Souza, and his two decades of research, disagree.

He reports, “About 10 percent of those who try cannabis will become dependent on it, i.e., they will have difficulty functioning without it. In those who use cannabis daily, 30-50 percent will become dependent.”

He further explains what dependence looks like:

“The individual spends too much time and/or money procuring the drug, getting high, recovering from it or attempting to quit. The person may have to use larger amounts of the drug over time to get high, as he/she becomes more tolerant to it, and when he/she attempts to quit, he/she may experience withdrawal symptoms. The person may also use the drug in situations that are potentially dangerous, e.g., operating a motor vehicle.”

Many of us have known friends, acquaintances, perhaps family members to which the following will apply: glib mentions of “needing” to smoke; humblebrags of having exorbitant tolerance; stories of erratic behavior or willingness to do anything to find a dealer. Often, and reasonably, we laugh and don’t take it seriously—they’re just our stoner friends, right? D’Souza wants us to recognize them as addicts.

Still, even those willing to accept D’Souza’s conclusions about the addictive nature of marijuana would likely have reservations about the degree to which it affects users. Isn’t marijuana dependency much less harmful than alcoholism, which might lead to violent and aggressive behavior, or addiction to cigarettes, which kills almost half a million Americans every year? The DEA is the first to admit that no one has ever died of a marijuana overdose. But D’Souza’s research does recognize the comparisons often drawn between marijuana and other drugs.

“In general, cannabis may be less addictive than alcohol and clearly less addictive than cocaine and opioids. But the bottom line is it is addictive.”

D’Souza predicts that the state of Connecticut post-legalization would face many challenges that have gone largely unacknowledged, especially given the positive narrative that states like Colorado happily broadcast. When asked what measures the state must take in the event of the bill’s passage, D’Souza told me: “If cannabis is legalized in CT, the state needs to provide all the necessary tools to our police to keep the roads safe.  That includes the tools to test those suspected to be DUIC (driving under the influence of cannabis).”

The dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol are well known—the massive amounts of money spent on anti-drunk driving advertisements, driver’s education curriculums and of course, actual police enforcement have alerted the whole population to the risks of driving drunk, both to self and to others.

Driving while high is more complicated, and much less discussed. D’Souza has called for education about its dangers, but what is scarier for him is the virtual inability for any sort of enforcement.

“The capacity to test at the roadside exposure to cannabis in biological fluids—saliva, breath, urine or blood—and importantly, accurately interpret the test in order to differentiate current use (at the time of the accident or being pulled over) from remote use – we don’t yet have such a test.”

D’Souza’s concerns carry the weight of twenty years of research. And very likely, his position is unwelcome among cannabis supporters. But in a time where the culture and visibility of the pro-marijuana contingent blocks out everything, sharp, fact-based criticism like that coming from D’Souza ought to have a seat at the table.

Many recognize that Senate Bill 11 may not even make it out of committee; “It’s clear at this point that there isn’t support on the committee for it,” Rep. William Tong told the Hartford Courant on Apr. 5. But legal marijuana in Connecticut  is likely in our future, if not this year than in the years to come. Senate President Martin Looney, who introduced the bill, remains hopeful. “At a time when our state budget is in need of new sources of revenue, I doubt this will be the final conversation on the topic,” Looney told the Courant. If and when Connecticut does decide to legalize marijuana, what will D’Souza do?

“I have been doing research on cannabis for the past 20 years—and that will continue regardless of whether CT or the US legalizes it or not. My research is not driven by whether cannabis is legal or illegal, but by more fundamental questions about the effects of cannabinoids and the mechanisms underlying their effects.”

As he has for two decades, Dr. Deepak D’Souza will forge ahead with his research. But in the immediate future, I asked the Professor if he has any message for Yale students who plan on participating in the 4/20 festivities.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a message! My hope is that we all carefully consider the science and make decisions about our future that carefully weighs the risks and benefits.”

2 Responses

  1. Dr. D’Souza suggests there is no current way to assess impairment from marijuana. You should know that I have developed a new public health app that measures impairment–it is called DRUID (an acronym for “DRiving Under the Influence of Drugs”) available now in the Apple App Store (Android version coming soon). DRUID measures reaction time, decision making, hand-eye coordination, time estimation and balance, and then statistically integrates hundreds of data points into an overall impairment score. DRUID takes just 5 minutes (and the 2-minute version will be part of the DRUID app in a week or two).

    Our website is http://www.druidapp.com

    DRUID allows marijuana users (or others who drink alcohol, use prescription drugs, etc.) to self-assess their own level of impairment and (hopefully) decide against driving if they are impaired. Prior to DRUID, there was no way for an individual to accurately assess their own level of impairment. DRUID also demonstrates that it is feasible to measure impairment reliably by the roadside, not just exposure to a drug.

    DRUID was recently featured on NPR’s All Things Considered: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/25/511595978/can-sobriety-tests-weed-out-drivers-whove-smoked-too-much-weed

    Also on television: http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2017/02/28/science-lags-behind-marijuana-impairment-testing/

    After obtaining my Ph.D. at Harvard, I have been a professor of psychology at UMass/Boston for the past 40 years, specializing in research methods, measurement and statistics.

    Michael Milburn, Professor
    Department of Psychology
    UMass/Boston

  2. Legalize-Marijuana STOP-Republican-Alcoholic-Nazi-Thugs says:

    1) In 1937, the fat Nazi alcoholics criminalized marijuana to justify the unconstitutional arrest and incarceration of African-Americans and Hispanics.

    2) The Republicans approach to Marijuana was to harass, intimidate, arrest, incarcerate and anal-rape over 70 million American citizens since 1937.

    3) God bless America, God bless Liberty… STOP the Republican Nazi sycophants NOW..!

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