Roger Roffman is a UW professor emeritus of social work who has studied marijuana dependence interventions for 30 years, and was a sponsor of Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana in Washington. He answered a few questions about his new book, “Marijuana Nation: One Man’s Chronicle of America Getting High: From Vietnam to Legalization.”
Q: Your first experience with marijuana laws was during a court martial for a fellow soldier in Vietnam who was caught with the equivalent of 10 joints. How did that start your journey as a marijuana activist?
A: In 1967 I was a social work officer with the 9th Infantry Division. Doing that work, I began to have an inkling of what we’d much later recognize as the severe psychological injuries many soldiers experienced. Alcohol was the universal de-stressor, with shared drinking contributing to group cohesion and camaraderie. While illegal under the Code of Military Justice, shared pot smoking appeared to fulfill a similar purpose. When serving on the board that conducted that soldier’s court martial, I argued imprisonment would be excessive given the context. I was outvoted, he went to jail for four months, and the injustice of that penalty troubled me.
Q: While you’ve long been in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, you also believe it’s not just a harmless drug, that it has health and behavioral consequences.
A: Marijuana is not harmless, although many adults use it moderately and without apparent harm. One consequence of our efforts to dissuade people from using marijuana through the threat of criminal penalties has been a widespread and unfortunate belief that valid public health warnings about the drug are just propaganda. I’d encourage readers seeking science-based information about the health and behavioral risks to visit the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute’s marijuana website: www.LearnAboutMarijuanaWa.org.
Q: Talk about your own struggles with marijuana dependence and why you quit smoking it.
A: In 1978 at the age of 36, what once had been a casual pattern of getting high evolved into near daily use. My wife let me know how hurt she was by my preoccupation with marijuana. Her experience, along with my slipping productivity as a faculty member, made it evident that the price she and I were paying was far greater than any benefits.
Q: You were an intermediary in providing marijuana to cancer patients long before medical marijuana became legal in Washington. Why?
A: A 1975 article in The New England Journal of Medicine raised the possibility that marijuana use prior to chemotherapy would alleviate the side effects of nausea and vomiting. Because I was known as a marijuana researcher, I began to receive calls requesting information from cancer patients and visited many of them in their homes or hospital rooms. Pharmacists, the source of expert information concerning conventional medicines, were not able to be helpful in this context. With assistance from UW colleagues in oncology and pharmacology, I wrote a booklet for the lay person on marijuana use in the reduction of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. When a grower offered to donate marijuana to cancer patients if I’d be the intermediary, I accepted his offer, because for many grievously ill people there were just no other alternatives.
Q: Are you surprised it took this long for recreational marijuana to become legal in Washington?
A: No. When legalization was proposed in the past, it involved simply repealing all criminal penalties for growing, selling, and possessing marijuana. That approach to undoing prohibition’s injustices wouldn’t address the drug’s health, behavioral and safety risks. In 2012, voters in our state were presented with a public health alternative to prohibition, i.e., tight regulation of the market and the earmarking of substantial marijuana tax revenues for public education, youth-focused prevention, treatment, research and evaluation of the new law’s impact. This model of policy reform was a major innovation, and clearly the voters found it preferable to criminal prohibition.
Q: You write that your ideas about marijuana continue to evolve. Have any of your beliefs changed since I-502 was approved by Washington voters?
A: Only to view I-502′s health and safety provisions as even more important. Over time I expect to see reductions in marijuana use disorders, fewer marijuana-related automobile accidents, fewer young people initiating marijuana use in their early teens, and fewer marijuana-related dropouts from school. If our state gets it right in how it implements the initiative-funded harm reduction components of this new policy, I believe there will be fewer victims even if marijuana is as or more popular than it is now.
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