The liquor trolley in my childhood home was always full. Gilbey's Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, Johnnie Walker Whiskey, Appleton and Wray & Nephew rum, and various wines. You name it, it was there. Red Stripe Beer and Dragon Stout were often in the refrigerator as well, the latter being used by my mother to make various concoctions to be consumed with Sunday dinner. And my father would occasionally retire to the study at nights to smoke a cigar and meditate. All this was considered normal and acceptable behaviour.
On the other hand, marijuana, I was informed, was a dangerous substance, only used by idle youth and Rastafarians, who I was told were also kind of idle, too. So that was the way that I was socialised. I did not think that any progressive people smoked weed and therefore looked on the practice with disdain.
Now, after completing medical school and making my independent observations, and reviewing pertinent statistics, my views are radically different. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that 32 per cent of tobacco users and 15 per cent of alcohol users become addicted, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco takes almost six million lives annually, killing up to half of its users. More than 5,000,000 die from direct use and over 600,000 from second-hand smoke. Alcohol accounts for 3.3 million deaths and is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.
Statistics for marijuana are way less alarming. Significantly fewer (nine per cent) marijuana users become addicted, when compared with alcohol and tobacco, and according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), between 1979 and 2003, there were 37 deaths attributable to marijuana. Compare this with not only alcohol and tobacco, but also Viagra, which killed 522 persons during its first year on the market.
But both alcohol and tobacco are legal, while marijuana is not. Laws have been instituted to restrict tobacco smoking in public, but alcohol is heavily advertised and glamorised. Social drinking is part of our culture. On the occasions when I go out and am offered alcohol and decline, I am looked on as if I’m some kind of outcast.
Marijuana is certainly not harmless, and should be avoided by our youth, like alcohol and tobacco. But whereas using only 10 times the 'effective' dose of alcohol can cause a fatal overdose in an otherwise healthy person, it would require 1,000 times the 'effective' dose of marijuana to result in a lethal event. In other words, one would have to smoke a huge pile of spliffs. And while there is definitely a role for marijuana in medicine, there are no prescriptions for medical alcohol or tobacco.
Marijuana has definitely been unfairly stigmatised and vilified, and many have totally bought into the erroneous belief that it is one of the worst drugs ever, while underestimating the devastating toll that alcohol and tobacco have taken on the global population.
I recall being asked to perform at a function for the University of the West Indies Medical Alumni Association and asking the audience if anyone there supported the legalisation of marijuana. Not one person answered in the affirmative. However, they were quite comfortable with alcohol not only being served there, but also with bottles of alcohol being given away as prizes to persons who answered questions in a quiz correctly.
So, despite the documented toxicity of these substances, they not only enjoy legal status, but companies that manufacture tobacco and alcohol are listed on the stock exchange. All this while an elderly woman with arthritis can be arrested for her cannabis liniment, for possession not of the alcohol in the mixture, but for a plant that is less likely to kill or cause addiction and, at the same time, has healing properties.
I am not promoting ganja smoking or encouraging non-smokers to take up the habit, but I fail to see the fairness or logic in continuing to criminalise persons for marijuana possession while allowing the rest of us to freely purchase crates of alcohol and cartons of cigarettes and drink and smoke ourselves to death.
Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.