The UCI Wellness Center hosted a panel discussion on cannabis last week on April 20, colloquially known as “pot day.” Panelists included UCI Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology Dr. Daniele Piomelli, UCI social sciences professor Dr. Al Valdez and clinical psychologist Dr. Jerry Brown.
The event titled, “Let’s be Blunt: A Town Hall Meeting about Marijuana,” attracted about 100 students and community members to HIB 100 to hear what the experts had to say about the drug.
Each speaker first presented their personal opinion on the topic. Dr. Piomelli said that cannabis is unique because no other drug replicates the same effects. Cannabis use is known to cause euphoria, forgetfulness and hunger. Piomelli also explained that he isn’t necessarily for or against smoking cannabis.
“I’m an advocate for data. I’m an advocate for facts. To me, there is no such thing as a good thing or a bad thing,” said Piomelli. “Everything is both good and bad. And so is cannabis. Cannabis has got positive effects and it’s got negative effects. We have to be aware of both.”
Dr. Al Valdez is also a former police officer and district attorney who brought a law enforcement perspective to the issue of marijuana. In his first felony arrest in 1977, Valdez said he was forced to arrest a 19-year-old male for possession of half a joint. He acknowledged that laws have changed, particularly in California, but “Uncle Sam and the federal government still has outlawed [marijuana], and federal law will trump state law.”
Valdez experienced exposure to various drugs during his 28-year law enforcement career in narcotics and undercover operations. He doesn’t advocate against using marijuana to relax, as long as an individual doesn’t drive under the influence. According to Valdez, any sign of impairment, including being under the influence of marijuana, is grounds for an intoxicated driving arrest.
“There are some things that cannabis does to you that you cannot control,” says Valdez.
Dr. Brown admitted he’d had personal struggles with marijuana and alcohol in the past. Even though he’s now been sober for 38 years, Brown still doesn’t object to marijuana use for recreational purposes if the user doesn’t take it to an extreme, but this can be hard because people don’t often realize they have a problem, he argued.
“We need a lot more education,” said Brown. He also stressed that marijuana should not be used to fight anxiety or boredom.
The main issue all three speakers highlighted is the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it has no medicinal value and overdoses can prove fatal. However, as Valdez points out, cannabis does have medical benefits and there has never been a case of someone dying from a marijuana overdose.
Piomelli explained that in post-prohibition America, when alcohol became legal again in 1937, law enforcement needed a new target and marijuana seemed the obvious choice, despite lack of widespread knowledge about it. The first marijuana study, commissioned by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1939 and released in 1944, found that the drug was not dangerous. The findings were not able to change federal opinion.
Standing up in frustration, Piomelli revealed the difficulties he currently faces in researching cannabis. He is now working with the Children’s Hospital of Orange County to examine the effects of cannabis on human stem cells found in fetuses. Piomelli holds a license for cannabis research, but his collaborators at the Children’s Hospital do not. Therefore, the research cannot continue.
Brown says that marijuana being classified as a Schedule 1 drug is “the most ridiculous thing that we can continue to do in this country.”
For all panelists, the most important message was spreading awareness of the social, medical and cultural impacts of the drug.
“We need to have a frank and candid discussion about the white elephant in the room, and we have to have a real discussion about this because there are some serious issues out there,” said Valdez.
Event host and organizer Randy Haveson, who serves as the Alcohol and Other Drugs Programs Manager at the UCI Wellness Center also wanted to emphasize the importance of maintaining an ongoing discussion.
“The whole point of this is not to be negative, positive, pro, con,” said Haveson. “This is about information. And it’s about getting the information to you for those of you who do use or know people who use [marijuana]. To make informed decisions.”
“We stereotype everything,” said Brown. “We have a drug-free White House, but they can drink. And alcohol is the number-one drug problem in the country. And most people don’t realize the severity. There are more alcohol deaths than [drug-related deaths] combined. But we don’t think about it like that because it’s legal. Pot is illegal [on the federal level]. So we say pot is bad and alcohol is good.”
Emily Grande, a student who works with Haveson at the Wellness Center, said that the event was designed to bring a taboo topic out in the open.
“The big reasoning behind the event was just to educate the public so students can feel welcome about talking about the subject because marijuana is really stigmatized,” said Grande.
Additionally, all panelists agreed that those under the age of 21 should not use marijuana, not only because it is still illegal in California, but also because the brain does not fully develop until puberty stops.
“Cannabis use can affect development,” said Valdez. “Why play Russian roulette?”