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Really, Is Marijuana Use OK?

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*That [marijuana] is not a drug. It's a leaf."
Arnold Schwarzenegger

A few months ago, a very close friend of mine called me in tears. She said police had caught her 16-year-old son and three classmates smoking pot in a park early one afternoon. She, who is Turkish but has been living in the U.S. for 35 years and married to an American for 20 years, was devastated not only because of what her son did, but also by the reactions she received. Her husband, her son, the parents of the other boys and even the police officers criticized her for overreacting and accused her of being too Eastern.

They all agreed that it is common for high school students to experiment with pot, but because it's illegal, it wasn't appropriate to smoke it in public. They were also very concerned with ensuring their children into trouble with the law, yet they were overly tolerant of smoking marijuana. They acted like this was a very normal thing to do. She felt like a true alien among them.

With my so-called Eastern identity, I have never understood how people in the U.S. can be so tolerant of drug use while being truly opposed to cigarettes. Mostly, American parents seem to tolerate with occasional, modest drug use just for fun. Their main concern is only about their kids becoming addicted to drugs. According to statistics released in June 2012 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American teenagers today prefer using marijuana to tobacco products as they perceive marijuana to be less harmful than cigarettes.

However, there are many important reasons to stay away from marijuana. First of all, being under the effects of marijuana can be harmful by itself. It's been suggested that adolescence is a critical time for brain development and that marijuana use can cause defects in the teen brain.

Addicts are socially isolated and cannot perform well in school or at work. Marijuana can trigger psychotic symptoms. You shouldn't use marijuana if you are inclined to certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. It harms the lungs.

On the other hand, in the U.S., many people think that marijuana is not a drug. Since it grows naturally, it's unnatural to ban its usage. They reject the "war on drugs" model. They claim that we shouldn't lock people up for casual marijuana use but we should promote the idea that marijuana use is a "bad choice."

The U.S. spent $15 billion fighting illegal drugs in 2010. The American "war on drugs" began in 1971 with President Nixon with the aim of reducing drug trafficking in the U.S.. Yet the war on drug opponents claim that drug trafficking wasn't decreased and the resources spent on tracking, catching, punishing and imprisoning those convicted of drug offenses cost over $40 billion a year.

The war on drug opponents support the idea of keeping the price of drugs high; however, they are opposed to keeping them illegal. They say many people try out some highly addictive drugs such as crack, then want to break that addiction but cannot get help because they fear being reported for using an illegal substance. They argue that decriminalization of all drugs would be a major positive step because it would make it easier for drug addicts to openly look for help. They also presume that it would encourage drug companies to develop products and methods to fight addiction.

As one of the least addictive and less damaging drugs, marijuana is now decriminalized in some form in about 20 states in the U.S. If decriminalization of marijuana brings about successful results eventually, decriminalization of all other drugs might follow. What would happen then?

Really, can allowing marijuana use be such a simple choice? Do you honestly believe that "Just say no" should be a method to decrease drug use and addiction?

Some people can manage their drug use well and some people cannot. As they're trying to manage it, many people end up stuck with a lethal addiction. It's a very dangerous game, like playing Russian roulette for fun. Would we really want to play that game?

What should be our ultimate concern: to help people who have a dangerous habit or even maybe an addiction to come out in the open, or to cut off access to a product that might lead to a lethal addiction?

Isn't it obvious that the "no rules" philosophy of our modern times is becoming progressively more dangerous for our future? Why do we insist on that?

This article was previously published in Today's Zaman.