Column: Maybe It's Time to Talk About Pot

This column, Marcus Carey's On The Marc, is a regular feature at KY Forward:

Marijuana is gathered plant material that, when ingested, delivers some amount of the compound known as THC or Tetrahydrocannabinol. The effects of the naturally occurring substance on the human body vary from person to person and depend upon many other factors determined from the plant itself.

I was honored to have been part of Gov. Louie Nunn’s Drug Education Committee program back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I served as a youth chairman of the Kenton County committee. Gov. Nunn was a big supporter of education. His view was that we should inform school-aged Kentuckians about all drugs rather than preach to them that all drugs were bad.

In later years, the DARE program tried to do something similar. I am sorry to hear that it is being canceled in many places. I, too, think that education is the key to a full understanding of what drugs do and don’t do, the consequences of using drugs and how drugs impact society.

Many of my more liberal friends have been in favor of legalizing marijuana possession for many years. Some of my Libertarian friends have climbed on that bandwagon. Even some of my very conservative friends who understand personal liberty have moderated their views on marijuana use. I don’t know why anything I say should be of any importance, except that I was there in the beginning, 40+ years ago, when the information about marijuana was first being studied and have had a renewed interest in the topic since the legalization efforts in California, Oregon and Colorado.

I have also represented a number of people in drug cases over the years and know several people who still, as adults, somewhat secretly get intoxicated on THC. Let me share with you my observations.

First of all, of the grown adults I know who smoke marijuana from time to time, they are all reliable, hardworking, fun-loving, family-oriented, community-minded people. I have seen a number of sad marijuana smokers in my law practice, but for the most part they are rank substance abusers, tend to be alcoholics and in many instances their lives would be a mess with or without marijuana so long as they continue to avoid the kind of self-analysis and dedication to lifestyle changes that hold the only hope for their personal development. In far too many of these cases, the struggle to become a responsible and productive citizen is beyond the strength of their willpower.

I have also seen a number of young people who smoke marijuana. These are the saddest cases. While the old “heads” of the ’60s and ’70s tend to be calm, contemplative and subdued under the influence of marijuana, younger people seem to have missed the impact of the “subculture” camaraderie, and marijuana is just another substance they use to get “messed up.”

Insofar as the impact on society is concerned, there is more than one layer to the discussion. Clearly the so called “war on drugs” has been a boondoggle. Far too much money has been spent with far too little progress. What is worse is that while we spend millions of dollars feeding a government program, the consequence has been an expanding federal criminal system that not only costs even more money for courts and prisons, but has softened the American spirit to accept the federalization of criminal laws far beyond what not so many years ago was the exclusive province of the various states.

The initiatives in Oregon, California and Colorado have begun the push-back movement, which I predict will spread. Their new laws are as much a warning to the Congress as they are a blessing to pot smokers. George H.W. Bush continued to expand federal criminal legislation using a very expansive interpretation of “the commerce clause,” which in the minds of most civil liberty types, even those of us within the Republican Party, went far beyond reason.

And while many people try to equate marijuana laws with alcohol laws and suggest that making pot illegal is akin to “Prohibition,” it is not. Not all people drink to become intoxicated. In fact, I know many people who stop with that one drink that they can “feel.” Sure, other people cross that boundary line and get a little tipsy, and some people drink to intoxication. But nobody smokes marijuana except to become intoxicated.

A good friend of mine, a college professor, who grew up in the Berkley, Calif., of the late ’60s once told me that he stopped smoking marijuana as an adult. Of course, if you ever met him you’d think he’d just finished a joint, but his speech patterns, mannerisms and pot smoker jargon had merely become part of his personality. He’d not smoked any in years and told me that the reason he quit was because the only thing he ever learned by smoking pot was this: He learned what he was like when he was smoking pot.

Might there be some medicinal benefits to marijuana? I think that is a matter of proven fact at this point. Is there a serious harmful effect from marijuana smoke similar to cigarettes? Not so much, the medical literature says. In fact, recent studies have said that regular pot smokers have better lung function than those who smoke nothing.

But are there harmful things that come from smoking pot? Yes. Intoxicated behavior can be dangerous. Operating machinery, driving a car, climbing a ladder, hunting with a gun, even walking while doubled over with laughter can all be made more dangerous because of the impact intoxication has on the mind, the muscles and situational awareness.

Are there economic reasons why pot shouldn’t be illegal anymore? Maybe, but they need to be considered very carefully and balanced with the cost of making it legal. Some say that if it was treated like alcohol we could limit the sale to licensed premises, regulate quality, tax the sale and encourage new businesses. Some say that we could still make driving while intoxicated a crime, possession of untaxed pot a crime and make selling on the black market a crime. But at what cost?

Taxes do not collect themselves, unpaid taxes do not pay themselves, new agencies of government, new employees and new laws would all have to accompany the idea of easily taxing pot. New criminal laws would have to be enacted and the kind of proof of intoxication needed to get a conviction would have to be calculated and work its way through the courts.

Additionally the impact on drug testing in the workplace would have to be analyzed. Marijuana may stay in one’s system for a long time. It might still have some lingering impact on workplace activities days after the last use. Many reasonable issues would have to be considered before making the personal use of marijuana in private settings, not public places, fully legalized.

The bottom line is that Louie Nunn had it exactly right. What we need is an adult conversation that considers all of the ramifications of marijuana usage, its impact on society in terms of elevating the principles of liberty, protecting the public and the cost/benefit computation of how it would be managed.

Are we there yet? No. But maybe it’s time to talk about pot.

Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog,, is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.