The Harm Caused to Individuals and Society by the Use of Marijuana

by PAULA D. GORDON, PH.D. December 29, 2009
The view that marijuana is harmless or even “relatively harmless” is a view that is widely shared. That a view is widely shared does not mean that it is a sound view or that it has any basis in knowledge or fact. 
Of course, the fact that marijuana is a plant that is widely available in nature has nothing to do with the potential harm that it can do if it is smoked or ingested. To assume otherwise is to engage in vague or magical thinking. It is common knowledge that there are plants and substances of all kinds that are harmful if ingested. For instance, hemlock is deadly as are some mushrooms. Smoking anything has some harmful consequences.
However widely shared a view it may be, the view that marijuana is harmless or even “relatively harmless,” it is a view that reflects a lack of knowledge concerning the immediate and the short term and long term effects of marijuana. It is also a view that reflects a lack of knowledge of the less widely recognized effects of marijuana use of contact highs and flashbacks (spontaneous recurrence of a drug high without using the substance at the time of the recurrence.) Similarly, the view reflects a lack of awareness of the civil liberties implications of being subject to contact highs and other effects as a result of being in the proximity of those who are using marijuana. Certainly, a rational public policy needs to be based on such a knowledge base.
One way I try to determine what the knowledge base might be of a person who seems unaware of the harmful effects of marijuana is to pose these questions:
  • Do you know of research that shows that the use of marijuana can negatively affect motivation, long and short term memory, concentration, judgment, reasoning, and common sense? 
  • Do you know of the research of Harris Isbell and others who found that there can be idiosyncratic psychotomimetic (psychosis-like) effects from the administration of delta 9 THC in human subjects? (Delta 9 THC is the active principle of marijuana.)
  • Do you know of the research findings that marijuana smoke can be inhaled by bystanders who then can experience marijuana highs and idiosyncratic effects?
  • Do you know of the research in humans and animals showing the deleterious changes in lung tissue as a result of exposure to marijuana smoke?
  • Do you know that contact high and flashback effects can occur as a result of the use of marijuana and do you think that the occurrence of such effects can have any negative consequences?
  • Do you see any deleterious impacts to the civil liberties of others, including children, the elderly, mentally impaired, and other sensitive individuals, when they are unwillingly or unwittingly subjected to marijuana smoke or contact highs?
With regard to the policies that are needed when it comes to psychoactive, mind-altering substances, I believe that there should be an increasing emphasis on effective diversion programs (including drug court programs) and early intervention with judicial backup but no record if successful re-education and treatment are completed. Such approaches need to go on hand in hand with a massive prevention-education effort aimed at helping dissuade users from using a substance that has such negative effects on the mental, psychological, and physical health of users and on the health and functioning of those in their proximity, as well as on the overall well being of society. 
After the conclusions of the deliberations in Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin was asked later by a woman what kind of a government the new nation had. He is said to have replied: “A republic Madame, if we can keep it.” A new question: If we sanction or tacitly encourage the recreational and/or chronic use of psychoactive, mind-altering drugs, including marijuana, and if we do not actively discourage their use, can we still keep our republic? I think not, since keeping our republic depends on an educated and informed psychologically and mentally healthy and stable citizenry who value the common good and who are capable of bringing sound reasoning, good judgment, the exercise of common sense, and understanding to bear on recognizing and addressing exceedingly complex and challenging problems and threats that are currently looming before us.
Answers to the six earlier questions can clearly reflect a very different set of values and assumptions concerning what kind of nation we want America to be, and what kind of nation and what kind of world we want to pass on to the future generations. The answers can also reveal very different knowledge bases concerning the effects of psychoactive, mind-altering drugs and very different perspectives on what constitutes mental and psychological health and what the value of mental and psychological health is.
From my vantage point, playing Russian roulette with anyone's mental and psychological health is simply not a smart thing to do. Turning any part or all of the United States into an Amsterdam, or continuing to allow any part of the United States to devolve into an Amsterdam, is occurring in certain places in Southern and Northern California, Colorado and other places in this nation, and it seriously undermines our capacity to realize the promise of America. From my perspective, allowing such devolution to occur in America throws to the winds the great gifts that the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us and entrusted to our keeping – the same gifts that following generations have fought and are fighting, and dying, to keep. Contributing Editor Dr. Paula D. Gordon is a consultant, researcher, analyst, writer, speaker, and educator.  She has also served in a variety of capacities in the Federal government, including staff officer, policy analyst, and special projects director.  She has an extensive background in several domestic policy arenas including drug abuse prevention and homeland security.  Her websites at and include her articles, reports, publications, and presentations on drug abuse prevention and homeland security respectively.   Her doctoral dissertation, Public Administration in the Public Interest (posted at focuses on complex societal problem solving and governmental change.  She is based in Washington, D.C.  E-mail: .

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