Commentary Magazine


Seducer of the Innocent

The distinction Samuel McCracken (p. 43) draws between the drugs of habit (tobacco, alcohol, heroin) and the drugs of belief (marijuana, mescaline, LSD) is useful and illuminating but I wonder whether the drugs of belief, and especially marijuana, are quite so free of habit-forming properties as is often supposed. The conventional wisdom about marijuana is that it is not addictive, and yet I myself know a fair number of people who are certainly dependent upon it. They use it every day, they would be distressed and even frantic if it suddenly became unavailable, and they would have the greatest difficulty in getting accustomed to its absence. In other words, they need it quite as much as the average heavy drinker needs a drink. Why then does everyone go on saying that marijuana is not addictive?

Well, we know why the propagandists for marijuana go on saying it. Their purpose is to persuade us that marijuana has no harmful effects. Now I must confess that—perverse creature that I am—it was this extraordinary idea which first aroused my own suspicion that marijuana might be very harmful indeed. I had always considered it mildly dangerous, not so dangerous as heroin or cocaine but more dangerous than whiskey or tobacco. Nevertheless I was perfectly prepared to believe the people who began saying a few years ago that marijuana was on the evidence less harmful to health than cigarettes or alcohol. If the partisans of marijuana had kept the argument confined to these modest limits, I doubt that I would have resisted. But of course they rarely observed any such intellectual restraint, and as they moved more and more aggressively toward the position that marijuana was entirely and unqualifiedly benign, I found myself growing more and more suspicious. It was one thing to say that marijuana, while harmful in certain respects, was less damaging to the body than whiskey or tobacco; this was at least theoretically plausible. It was, however, quite another thing to say that marijuana, unlike every other substance known to man including even milk, was altogether innocent of any ill effects. Guided, then, by the usually reliable principle that the truth about anything was likely to be found in the exact opposite of what the most culturally respectable opinion said about it in the declining years of the 60′s, I speculated that marijuana, far from being either relatively or absolutely harmless, might on the contrary be dangerous in a way that even its fiercest enemies could scarcely begin to imagine.

The two main issues into which the question of harm has generally resolved itself are whether marijuana is habit-forming in its own right and whether it leads to such admittedly addictive drugs as heroin whose sinister character is no longer denied by anyone. As to the first, I have already indicated my disagreement with the view that marijuana is significantly less addictive for many than alcohol. No doubt it is less surely addictive than heroin; unquestionably it is less addictive than cigarettes which are perhaps the most irresistibly addictive of all the drugs of habit. My own guess is that everything here depends on the person involved. A man I know successfully kicked a heavy and long-standing heroin habit but has been unable despite repeated and intensive efforts to stay away from cigarettes; he says that kicking heroin is as nothing compared with kicking cigarettes. For me (an addictive type if ever there was one—I can get addicted to peanuts or oranges), quitting smoking after having reached four packs a day was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life, while quitting drinking turned out to be easy by comparison even though I had also been a fairly heavy drinker who rarely passed an evening without a drink or two and often passed his evenings with a good deal more than that.

But the relative ease with which I stopped drinking by no means proved that I had not been addicted to alcohol; it only proved that my need for alcohol had been less acute than my dependency on cigarettes. I have never met anyone whose dependency on marijuana struck me as being so great as my need for cigarettes once was, but I have met many people whose need for it seemed comparable to mine for alcohol. Such people are called pot-heads; and they are addicts.

Thus, anyone who tells us that marijuana is never habit-forming is telling us a lie. Anyone who tells us that it is not necessarily habit-forming may be telling us the truth, but he is not thereby showing that marijuana is harmless, any more than the harmlessness of alcohol could be demonstrated by the equally truthful assertion that vast numbers of people who take it can either take it or leave it or can take it in moderation. To be sure, no connection has yet been established between marijuana and any physical ailment such as has been shown to exist between lung cancer and cigarettes or liver damage and alcohol. But it took a very long time before the case against cigarettes could be convincingly made, and life being what it is, lovers of marijuana have to expect that a similar fate will befall their own drug as the use of it spreads and as more experience with it becomes available to statistical examination.

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If it is true that marijuana is not necessarily habit-forming, it is also true that marijuana does not necessarily lead the user into the use of heroin (which can serve here as a stand-in for all the harder drugs of habit). But of course it is equally true that there are very few heroin addicts to be found—not to mention users of the hallucinogens—who did not begin by smoking marijuana, often at a relatively early age. What this means is that marijuana can and does lead to heroin in a substantial number of cases—the number being roughly equal to the number of heroin addicts among us—and what this means is that marijuana is a dangerous drug.

But is no qualification to so brutal a judgment demanded by the fact that marijuana fails at least as often and probably far more often than it succeeds in leading its users into the use of heroin? I would say on the contrary that this quality of uncertainty makes marijuana even more dangerous, and especially to the young (who, if they are not exceptionally idealistic, are certainly exceptionally innocent) . If marijuana possessed the inexorable power to drag everyone who ever used it into the hell of heroin, it would be feared as greatly as heroin is feared. Accordingly it would lose its effectiveness as a titillation and a lure. The pool of potential heroin recruits would diminish drastically in size, and with it the pool of potential suicides o who might discover they had no other recourse but to go on living, possibly even to go on living well. For heroin, as everyone must surely have come to realize by now, is suicide, a sneaky suicide in which the victim, so to speak, shoots himself in the back. Marijuana adds to the sneakiness of the whole process by seducing the vulnerable into heroin and thus eventually into suicide with a promise of harmless delight—a promise it keeps just often enough to maintain its credibility in the eyes of all the innocent.

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And yet and yet: marijuana should be legalized, for approximately the same prudential reasons that Prohibition was once repealed. The problem is to legalize it without at the same time sanctioning it, and the only way to do that is to fight it, through argument and through education. It should, then, be legalized and it should also be exposed by those like Mr. McCracken who rightly see it as the lethal enemy of any intellectual community as well as those like myself who see it more apocalyptically as the lethal enemy of life itself.

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