Four states out of 50 may not sound like much of a mandate, but the success of marijuana initiatives on the ballot last week suggests the nation is inching toward legalizing the once-demon weed.
California started the ball rolling 16 years ago with a medical marijuana law so broad, it makes a gram of weed cheaper and easier to get than a prescription for Vicodin. Now dozens of states allow adults access to marijuana as medicine, and four — Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and Washington — allow the drug to be sold outright, without even the pretense of illness.
All this is in defiance of a federal ban that deems marijuana as dangerous a drug as heroin with no legitimate medical use — a view radically out of step with what a majority of Americans believe.
Surveys show that more than half of the country's voters think marijuana should be legal, and 75% believe it eventually will be.
But supporters might want to hold the applause. Our experiments with open access show there are hazards to address and a critical need for the kind of research that federal rules proscribe — research that would help us harness the drug's benefits and avoid the minefields of dependence.
A day after the election, this headline showed up on our Science blog: "Regular pot smokers have shrunken brains, study says." The story wasn't quite as scary as that implies, but it's not something to be shrugged off.
Researchers comparing the brains of "chronic" marijuana users (who smoke at least four times a week) with those of people who never light up found pot smokers had less gray matter in a region of the brain that influences decision making, and they had significantly lower IQs than their nonsmoking counterparts.
Does that mean that smoking weed really does make you stupid — or that less intelligent people are more likely to smoke lots of weed?
That's a question the study can't answer, in part because of hurdles that stall and limit scientific research. The drug is illegal, so it's hard to get clearance for the scrutiny that would help us decide whether to make it legal.
That's absurd, particularly this far down the road. More than a million people are legally using medical marijuana. Two-thirds of Americans consider the drug less harmful than alcohol.
But at least you know what you're getting when you crack open a bottle of vodka. If you're choosing between Blue Dream and Grandaddy Purple, you don't know whether you'll land in a stupor or wind up climbing the walls.
Several states, including California, will likely have legalization on the ballot two years from now. Given the way public approval has been steadily trending up, our local collectives might finally be able to drop the medical charade and become commercial outlets.
As the stigma around pot eases and access to it broadens, people who wouldn't have toked before are bound to want to try, if only to see what all the hullabaloo is about. Colorado's 2-year-old foray into legalization suggests there are issues we need to attend to before we follow their lead:
It would help to have a standardized way for consumers to assess the potency of a particular crop or strain. "Smooth draw, fruity taste" isn't good enough. How much THC — the drug's main mind-altering ingredient — does it contain?
We need to tighten rules on cannabis edibles. Too many young people are winding up in Colorado emergency rooms because they mistook pot for candy. Scrap the rainbow colors and cutesy shapes. If you need your marijuana to look like gummy bears, you're too immature to use the drug.
We need an honest public conversation about marijuana's promise and its hazards. Research should be ramped up, not stifled, so our decisions can be based on facts instead of propaganda.
We know, thanks largely to studies done through California's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, that marijuana relieves the pain of nerve damage from strokes, injuries and HIV, and eases the nausea associated with chemotherapy. There's also evidence that it can improve the outlook for people dealing with Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress.
There are signs that federal restrictions on research into those claims may be easing up.
But just as important is research on the adverse consequences of marijuana use, particularly on young adults. There's evidence that it can dampen motivation, short-circuit decision-making and lead to short-term memory loss. Arguing that weed is better than alcohol doesn't obviate that.
National health surveys suggest that 2.7 million Americans depend on marijuana to get through the day. That's why Washington state's legalization law sets aside money for education, addiction treatment and drug abuse prevention.
I realize as I write this that I'm trying to straddle a line. It's easy to advocate, as I have for medical marijuana. It's harder to endorse what I believe: That an adult should be able to come home and smoke a joint, just as I might employ a glass of wine to ease me into the night.
Maybe that's because I've seen the issue from both sides: I've known cancer patients for whom marijuana was the only route to peace and pain relief. And I've had childhood friends whose potential seemed to vaporize in the haze of marijuana smoke that surrounded them all their lives.