By:  Mina Seinfeld de Carakushansky
Special Secretary for the Prevention of Chemical Dependence
City of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil   (August 1, 2001)

On July 28, OGLOBO, the largest newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, published the article “O confuso planeta da marijuana”  (The Confused Planet Marijuana), by Zuenir Ventura, a well-known and opinion shaping journalist.  The article claims that “marijuana is inoffensive to health,” and that “everybody will, sooner or later, have to admit it’s use.”   His arguments are based on two main points.

The first one is a personal statement: “I know people ... who have been smoking (marijuana) for a long time with no problems — normal people, establishment people, with their jobs and families.”  Such argument implies, for instance, that the Brazilian General Surgeon should no longer determine that cigarette packages have warnings such as “cigarettes are harmful to your health,” just because Zuenir and I know some people who are 80 years old and have been smoking all of their lives.

As the journalist recognizes, chemical addiction is a disease.  However, just as with other diseases, you can tell someone is an addict only after the addiction has happened.  Still worse than that, is the fact that chemical addiction, unlike other diseases, has its victims craving for and seeking the drug that is causing their affliction. Therefore, public health policies cannot permit such an approach.

I agree with Zuenir when he says that we must attempt to heal the disease, but I wonder if he knows that chances of a real “healing” — not just a temporary suspension — are very low  (lower than 30% in the best case, while many experts say that real figures are under 10%).  Does Zuenir perhaps know that a good treatment for chemical addiction takes three to five years at about three thousand dollars a month, and that it could hardly become “wholesale treatment,” as each case must be considered individually?

Most supporters of drug liberalization use the examples of alcohol and cigarettes.  I think these are very good examples of how difficult it is to retreat from drug problems when the consumption of a drug becomes entangled with the habits of a society.  Why should we make the same mistake with marijuana or with any other psychoactive drug?

The second argument is an authoritative one: an authoritative look at the medical and nutritional uses of marijuana. As the journalist is not an expert on the subject, he thinks that “the society … has a very little knowledge” about drugs.  This is not true.  In the last ten years, this knowledge has been increasing at an exponential rate, with the possibility of mapping the human body, particularly the brain, to see how drugs operate in the various regions of the human body.  According to a survey made by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are over 15 thousand scientific papers, published in medical association periodicals, indicating that marijuana is harmful to health.  Moreover, now it is known that marijuana as smoked in the sixties had about 0.5% THC (the  psychoactive component that “turns on” the user), while today’s marijuana is ten to forty times stronger as regarding the THC content, which makes its effects correspondingly much stronger.  Marijuana’s THC has an affinity for human fatty cells — including brain cells. THC deposits last for at least five days after only one marijuana cigarette and become permanent in the brains of constant smokers, an open door for other severe diseases.

The journalist also echoes a scam that is very frequently used: restrictive policies against drugs are an “American” policy.  This excites the anti-American fashion, in an attempt to transform the problem into an issue of “patriotism.”  But this is untrue.  The most restrictive policies against drugs are found in China, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Cuba, and others.  In Europe, countries like Sweden and Finland, for instance, have policies by far more restrictive than the American one, based on a general consensus of their societies against drug abuse, but not as repressive as the drug policies in the Asian countries mentioned.  Only the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Australia have openly supportive policies for drugs, while other European countries such as Portugal tend towards a liberalization policy.  However; France, Britain, Italy, Germany, etc. — all these countries, as well as many South American countries, such as Argentina, Peru, and Chile — have drug policies similar to the American ones.  Other than official policies of the various countries, there are hundreds of international organizations composed of physicians, researchers, parents, etc. that cannot be ignored — organizations such as Drug Watch International, Europe Against Drugs, and European Cities Against Drugs that have been working for years so that we may be able to live in a drug-free society.

Finally, Mr. Ventura makes a short reference to “controlled drug decriminalization and legalization,” apparently with a kind of support, as he says, that drug abuse “should be admitted to be a transgression that became a standard.”

There is a serious moral issue involved.  Should we also decriminalize theft or legalize murder as common transgressions?  Also here, Mr. Ventura seems poorly informed.  Just to mention one example, a 1999 survey named “Fala galera” (“Tell me folks”), conducted by  Fiocruz-Unesco, indicated that drug consumption figures among young people (ages 14 – 20) in Rio de Janeiro were by far much lower than their teachers had estimated.

Many articles could be written about legalization, but the only thing I have to point out here is that liberating marijuana exclusively would, of course, have no effect or do any  harm to the drug traffickers, as the other drugs would still remain illegal.  Legalizing marijuana would lead to increased general consumption of drugs, including the illegal ones.  Marijuana is known to be the gateway to other psychoactive drugs, as shown by the examples of the Netherlands and Australia.

In the end, Mr. Ventura says, “I do not know what to do — by the way, neither does the government nor the society.”  Let me suggest, Mr. Ventura, that you join those who want a city and a country with healthy and conscious young people, free of cigarettes of any kind, be it tobacco or marijuana.

Most importantly, we need to reshape public opinion by using good role models.  In a democratic and advanced country, as we want ours to be, prosperity and freedom cannot be built by sluggish crowds of drug addicts.