"So which is worse, alcohol or pot?"

Now there's a tricky question. The problem is with the word "worse." Worse than what? Is chemistry "worse" than philosophy? There is simply no correct answer.

True, pot use does not usually generate the level of violence that is common with the use of alcohol or some other drugs, nor is it usually fatal when taken by itself. However, pot has its own pitfalls.

The Pitfalls of Marijuana Use

Pitfall #1: Marijuana is illegal. It's listed by the federal government as a drug that has no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Marijuana possession or distribution is a felony in most states. Felony convictions stay on your record, and twenty years down the road may be the reason why you don't get that big, lucrative job. Remember the "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" box on the application?

OK, so you're smarter than that, huh? You're not going to get caught, you say? All right, even without the legalities involved, you've got your own body to worry about.

Marijuana and the Body

Marijuana is both a depressant and a psychoactive hallucinogen. This means that it has the effects of slowing down your brain and reflexes and destroying your ability to concentrate and focus, plus mind-altering effects which vary from person to person. Some people get relaxed and mellow while others get more and more anxious, paranoid or depressed.

Frequent pot users may find themselves in a total slump, called amotivational syndrome, in which the drive to do well in school and elsewhere vanishes.

You may have heard about THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, the "main" mind-altering substance in pot. Marijuana has been grown much more carefully in recent years, which means that there's much more THC in today's marijuana than in that of the 1960s-- in some cases 10 times more. That means that today's pot is about ten times stronger than that of yesteryear.

Talk about THC usually ignores one important fact: marijuana is a cauldron of more that 400 active chemicals, some of which work together to create marijuana's effects on the body. Many of these chemicals can cause cancer. Smoking pot gets these chemicals to the brain and lungs even faster, where they are readily absorbed.

So what does pot do to the body? Not all of the effects are fully explored. We do know that pot can cause:

  • Lung damage: 1 smoked joint has about the effect of smoking five cigarettes.
  • Eye, throat and mouth irritation.
  • Cancer.
  • Memory lapses and inability to concentrate.
  • Temporary increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which can lead to more serious circulatory problems over time.
  • Decreased resistance to diseases.
  • Decreased sexual drive and decreased sperm count in men.

Taking marijuana in combination with other drugs can be very dangerous. Marijuana can increase the intoxicating effects of other drugs, and the increase in heart rate and blood pressure which marijuana causes can create a serious emergency. Using marijuana with any other drug, prescription or nonprescription, is a VERY bad idea.

Alcohol and marijuana taken together can be particularly lethal. When you've consumed too much alcohol, your body's natural reaction is to vomit, removing some of the excess alcohol. Marijuana acts to prevent vomiting, so alcohol poisoning may occur much more quickly since more alcohol remains in the body.

What's all this about medical marijuana use?

There have been quite a few studies of possible medical uses for smoked marijuana. THC is even available in an approved pill form (called dronabinol or Marinol) to combat nausea, mainly for cancer chemotherapy patients. While THC has been shown to prevent nausea and vomiting, it is not as effective as other treatments. Other treatments also have a big advantage over marijuana: they don't make the patient feel intoxicated, which means that he or she can hold down a job and live a normal life.

Another area where marijuana has received a great deal of attention is as a potential treatment for glaucoma victims. Many studies have shown that marijuana (both smoked and in pill-form THC) can reduce the pressure in the eye. However, those studies have also shown that marijuana has the effect of decreasing blood flow to the eye, an unwanted and potentially harmful side effect. Scientists have no idea why marijuana affects the pressure in the eye, so all of the dangers are not understood.

These two cases are good examples of the general problems that are encountered with the medical use of marijuana. In most cases, the risks of medical marijuana use outweigh the benefits. In 1996, medical marijuana initiatives passed in California and Arizona, making it legal to use marijuana for certain medical conditions in some circumstances. Those resolutions put the two states in conflict with the federal drug policy. Many other states are currently considering legislation on medical use of marijuana. More information on this legal quagmire can be found in the references below.

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