Skip to main content

Why marijuana should be legal for adults

By David L. Nathan, Special to CNN
updated 9:41 AM EST, Wed January 9, 2013
David Nathan says pot should be sold and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.
David Nathan says pot should be sold and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Nathan disputes CNN op-ed by David Frum that argues pot should be illegal
  • Nathan treats drug abusers and agrees with Frum that young people should avoid marijuana
  • Drug should be legal for adults and sold like alcohol, with kids taught the risks, he says
  • Nathan: If pot is illegal, then dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco should be, too

Editor's note: David L. Nathan, a clinical associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, was recently elected as a distinguished fellow in the American Psychiatric Association. He teaches and practices general adult psychiatry in Princeton, New Jersey.

(CNN) -- David Frum is one of today's best and most reasoned conservative political voices, so his recent CNN.com op-ed on marijuana policy was just a little disappointing. Not because he advocates the drug's decriminalization -- he rightly thinks locking people up or arresting them for casual use is a bad idea -- but because he opposes its legalization for adults.

I agree with much of what he says about pot's potential harm, especially for the young and the psychiatrically ill. Like Frum, I am a father who worries about my kids getting sidetracked by cannabis before their brains have a chance to develop. But I am also a physician who understands that the negative legal consequences of marijuana use are far worse than the medical consequences.

Frum would reduce the punishment for marijuana use for adults but nominally maintain its illegality in order to send a message to young people that pot is a "bad choice," as if breaking the rules wasn't as much an incentive as a deterrent for adolescents. Kids are smart enough to recognize and dismiss a "because I said so" argument when they see one. By trying to hide marijuana from innately curious young people, we have elevated its status to that of a forbidden fruit. I believe a better approach is to bring pot into the open, make it legal for people over the age of 21, and educate children from a young age about the actual dangers of its recreational use.

Opinion: War on drugs a trillion-dollar failure

David Nathan
David Nathan

Throughout my career as a clinical psychiatrist, I have seen lives ruined by drugs like cocaine, painkillers and alcohol. I have also borne witness to the devastation brought upon cannabis users -- almost never by abuse of the drug, but by a justice system that chooses a sledgehammer to kill a weed.

Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, caffeine and refined sugar are among the most commonly used, potentially habit-forming recreational substances. All are best left out of our daily diets. Only marijuana is illegal, though alcohol and tobacco are clearly more harmful. In several respects, even sugar poses more of a threat to our nation's health than pot.

I agree with Frum that chronic use of cannabis correlates with mood changes and low motivation, especially when started in adolescence. In individuals with psychosis, it may trigger or worsen their symptoms.

Members-only pot club opens in Colorado
Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter talks marijuana
Obama's pot problem
Late night laughs go up in smoke

But these dangers are far surpassed by the perils of alcohol, which is associated with pancreatitis, gastritis, cirrhosis, permanent dementia, physiological dependence and fatal withdrawal. In healthy but reckless teens and young adults, it is frighteningly easy to consume a lethal dose of alcohol, but it is essentially impossible to do so with marijuana. Further, alcohol causes severe impairment of judgment, which results in violence, risky sexual behavior and more use of hard drugs.

Those who believe cannabis to be a gateway to opioids and other highly dangerous drugs fail to appreciate that the illegal purchase of marijuana exposes consumers to dealers who push the hard stuff. Given marijuana's popularity in this country, the consumption of more dangerous drugs could actually decrease if pot were purchased at a liquor store rather than on the street corner where heroin and crack are sold.

Opinion: Legalize pot? No, reform laws

There is another more pressing reason to legalize and regulate marijuana, even for the sake of our children: the potential for adulteration of black-market cannabis and the substitution of even more dangerous copycat compounds. Much like Prohibition-era fatalities from bad moonshine, harmful synthetic marijuana substitutes are proliferating, with street names like K2 and Spice. The Drug Enforcement Administration struggles to combat these compounds by outlawing them, but I see no decrease in their popularity among my patients. Natural marijuana poses much less danger than synthetic cannabinoids -- legal or otherwise.

So who had the bright idea of banning cannabis in the first place? Was it physicians? Social service organizations? No. The credit goes to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which in 1937 pushed through laws ending the growth, trade and consumption of all forms of cannabis, including the inert but commercially useful hemp plant. America's ban on the so-called "Weed of Madness" was based on bad science and fabricated stories of violence perpetrated under the influence. The madness of cannabis can be ascribed not so much to its users, but to those who sought to criminalize the drug so soon after the monumental failure of alcohol Prohibition.

That's not to say our marijuana laws have failed to change drug use in America. Cannabis is more widely used today than at any time before its prohibition, even though it was domesticated in antiquity and has been cultivated ever since. Pot prohibition has also greatly increased illegal activity and violence. Otherwise law-abiding private users became criminals, and criminals became rich through the untaxed, bloody and highly lucrative illicit drug trade.

Opinion: The end of the war on marijuana

But America can fix this mess through marijuana legalization. Federal, state and local governments can regulate the cannabis trade as they do with alcohol and tobacco -- monitoring the production process for safety and purity, controlling where it is sold, taxing all aspects of marijuana production and consumption, and redirecting resources from punishment to prevention.

Forget the antiquated dogma and judge pot prohibition on its own merits. If you still believe that cannabis should be illegal, then you must logically support the criminalization of alcohol and tobacco, with vigorous prosecution and even imprisonment of producers and consumers. Does that sound ridiculous? Then you must conclude that the only rational approach to cannabis is to legalize, regulate and tax it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Nathan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT