Originally delivered on UC Berkeley campus during a rally in favor of California Proposition 19 in November 2010:
Imagine yourself as an alien from another world. You come to Earth because you want to learn about the chemistry of the living things found there. You are especially intrigued about plant chemistry. Perhaps because of their lack of motility you notice that plants have adapted an extremely complicated chemistry to aid with their interactions with other living things. Some release chemicals that attract insects to help them pollinate and reproduce. Others create very potent poisons to prevent themselves from being eaten. But some interactions are far more complicated. It turns out that some of these poisons when taken at the correct low dosage are actually wondrous medicines for some animals. For instance there is a tree called the Pacific Yew that creates an extremely deadly poison. This poison prevents an animal cell from dividing to make two new cells. It is a poison that attacks the single simplest and most vital step in animal life. The ability to create more life. But strangely, complicated animals seem to sometimes suffer from an overabundance of life within themselves. This problem is called Cancer. And someone realized that when this problem occurs if the person in question were to take just the right amount of this poison it could actually extend their life. But this just grazes the surface of how plants make poisonous medicines. Some of these poisons can interact with an animal’s nervous system and actually alter conscious experience. These too can be both poisons and medicines depending on the dosage. You, the alien, notice a plant called the Opium Poppy. It has a chemical named Morphine that has the ability to rob an animal of their ability to breathe. But at a lower dose it can diminish the debilitating experience of pain. When doctors first discovered this potential they were thrilled a grateful. A gift from a plant that actually allowed them to improve the life of their patients in pain. Another plant, the willow tree, makes a different pain killer whose modern equivalent aspirin has also been a great gift to doctors, both of antiquity and modern times. But these painkillers are both strong poisons, capable of killing as well as healing with only a marginally larger dose. Then you, the alien, find something astounding. It was hard to find. When you asked human leaders about it you were told it was the Devil’s weed. You were told horror stories of what this plant made people do and what it did to people. You had already seen the poisons accepted by humanity. The medicines, and even the recreational poisons accepted by human society. You saw what terrible things the accepted poisons were capable of and thought that this weed must be something completely beyond the pale to be scorned by a race willing to accept such terrible poisons already. Eventually you found it. Cannabis. Not surprisingly like the other poisons you found something that could be medicine. In fact it seemed to be a medicine for a wide variety of ailments. It gives the blessing of hunger to those wasting away with food in front of them that they otherwise cannot bring themselves to ingest. It grants sleep to those who lie awake at night. It even reduces the pressure of the fluid in the human eye to prevent blindness caused by too much of this pressure. And like the other plants I mentioned it relieves pain. So clearly with all of this gain you would expect it to be a deadly poison. But no. In fact of every pain killer on earth from either plant or human origin it is by far the safest. It seems utterly impossible to take an amount that will kill you. You ask a doctor how much it would take to kill a person with it. They say “we don’t know, it’s never happened.” Well how about the long term. Does it kill on the long term. That other smokable you found, tobacco, gives humans lung cancer. So you ask a doctor, does smoking cannabis increase your risk of lung cancer? They admit that because the plant is scorned it is hard to study such a thing but so far studies of heavy cannabis users show that they are not any more likely than anybody else to get lung cancer. OK. Well if it such a good medicine and does not kill then surely there must be some other reason that humans have scorned it. Perhaps it makes people violent? Maybe it causes people to hurt or steal from each other? Well no it doesn’t do that. Even those that rally against Cannabis abandoned this claim decades ago because of its obvious falsehood. OK. Well if the drug effects of the plant seem to pose no real danger, then it must be that the plant itself is bad for some reason. But no again. This plant doesn’t hurt. Hell it helps even as just a plant. It creates some of the cheapest and most durable plant fibers for clothing and building of any plant on the planet. And it’s seeds are even nutritious as food, and not psychoactive, containing high levels of those south after Omega-3 fatty acids. So, you, the alien, are pretty confused at this point. You have found this plant that gives and gives to these humans and yet they banish it. They are willing to accept the pain killers as medicines that can easily kill them. They’re willing to accept alcohol as a recreational drug despite the fact that it is clearly a large source of the violence and crime in their society. You return to home plant and are asked for your report. You tell your leaders that there are wondrous plants to be found on earth. Unfortunately there is no intelligent life.