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The Need to Identify Sensible Marijuana Use

The mixed message on drug use -- is it a disease or a manageable habit?

This post is in response to
Me, Bill de Blasio, and His Daughter's Drug Problem

The Holiday Season this year brought us the normal rush of mixed messages around substance use. On the one hand, we watched the viral video delivered on Christmas by the 19-year-old daughter of the mayor elect of New York City, Chiara de Blasio, in which she proudly announced that she had quit substance use, and particularly "smoking weed," because addiction is unquestionably a "disease": "Removing substances from my life, it’s opened so many doors for me. I was actually able to participate in my dad’s campaign and that was the greatest thing ever.”

So teenager Chiara will never smoke marijuana or drink for the rest of her life? That's her plan? That's her parents' plan? That's every parent's plan? That's America's plan?

On the other hand, every news outlet covered—repeatedly—the onset of the legal sale of marijuana in Colorado, marked by long lines of eager customers. It is hard to ignore that a lot of Americans want pot (which we always knew). For its part, the State has established elaborate rules for purchasing and taking the drug—no smoking in public, no driving under the influence, etc.  When a trooper was asked how you detect a stoned driver, he answered: "The same way you can tell a driver's drunk—by their erratic driving. Then we take a blood test instead of using a breathalyzer." 

Meanwhile, conservative commentators (and not only conservative) rued the cheapening of human experience around this irreversible phenomena. David Brooks, for instance, wrote, in "Weed: Been There; Done That," 

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers; that smoking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed; that young people who smoke go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser.

All in all, it's not surprising that Anonymous commented on my piece on Chiara de Blasio:

I'm confused. I thought we had a war on drugs going on. Pot was bad and addictive. Our government is locking people up for possession of this highly dangerous substance and forcing people into "recovery."

But yesterday Colorado opened several legal dispensaries of cannabis products. The earth did not swallow the mountain state. People did not spontaneously combust. The worst thing that happened was some of the dispensaries ran out of product to sell.

In short, people are going to have to be responsible for—and understand—consuming intoxicants in a reasonable way.  How do people learn to do that with alcohol?  Here's a case from my book, Addiction-Proof Your Child:

We Don't Do That Here

Jim was so proud when his father brought him along to a large get-together of the men in his Italian American family. Jim was sixteen. Although he had been allowed to drink wine at home at special meals, this was the first time he was drinking with adults in public.

Jim noticed a few non-family members at the party, including one man he didn't recognize with his uncle. As the evening progressed, this man became intoxicated and harassed the waitress. Jim watched as his father—who was the oldest of his generation—tapped his uncle on the shoulder. Without another word, Jim's uncle took his friend aside. Jim overheard his uncle say to the man, "We don't do that here—you have to leave." 

As long as Jim lived, he remembered those words. Whenever he saw someone being disruptively or obnoxiously drunk, the words "We don't do that here" flashed through his mind.

Although that worked for Jim with alcohol, we generally don't teach our kids how to smoke pot.  Nonetheless, we need to establish standards for appropriate consumption and behavior when people do so. Cannabis Action Network, in Berkeley, asked Harvard Psychiatry researcher Archie Brodsky and myself (thanks also to Debby Goldsberry) to prepare this document:

Guidelines for Sensible Cannabis Use

  1. Adults should use cannabis as part of a healthy, balanced, and responsible lifestyle.
  2. The decision to use cannabis should be made freely, and not as a result of social pressure.
  3. Cannabis users should be well informed about its effects on themselves and others. These effects should include both legal and health risks and personal consequences.
  4. Never use cannabis as an excuse or a cue for antisocial or irresponsible behavior.
  5. Cannabis users should model and reward responsible use, particularly with new users.
  6. Use cannabis as a part of positive social interactions, rather than primarily in isolation or as a remedy for negative feelings.
  7. Develop sensible cannabis use limits for yourself based on personal, health, situational, and cultural factors. It is important to be objective about your cannabis use and listen to the constructive advice of others.
  8. Avoid cannabis use that puts you or others at risk, such as when driving, at work, or in public places. Remember, personal use of cannabis may still be illegal for you and penalties are stiff.
  9. Use of cannabis by children is inappropriate and should be discouraged.
  10. Cannabis use should contribute to, rather than detract from, users’ health, well-being, creativity, work, relationships, and social obligations.

So, at the end, we hold people responsible for their behavior.  If they fulfill Brooks' anticipated negative outcomes—driving while intoxicated, becoming addicted, failing to perform (as Brooks did, and for which he still feels shame), then people need to be aware of the standards they have violated and both anticipate consequences, and have/find options to correct their misconduct.

That's how society works.

Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (with Ilse Thompson) is, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. He can be found online on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter.