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Friday, May 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Did Homer go to pot?

Special to The Times

We often hear the bad things that drugs do, and messages aimed at deterring drug use are the norm. Rarely do we see messages that drug use has benefits.

We believe there are good reasons for a more honest dialogue about the positive and negative effects of marijuana use. A recent episode of the popular TV show "The Simpsons" highlighted the pros and cons of marijuana use, and Homer Simpson's experiences with marijuana provide an example of what we mean.

After a run-in with some angry crows, Homer was prescribed medicinal marijuana for the pain from eye injuries. In addition to the pain relief, Homer found himself having an enhanced appreciation for music, food and a variety of sensory experiences as a result of his marijuana use. He became more relaxed and enjoyed life in ways he hadn't before.

These are real effects reported by many marijuana users, and we would be hard pressed to call them anything other than benefits.

Homer became preoccupied with smoking marijuana and some not-so-positive effects showed up. He spent more time with other users and less with his family. His friends thought that he was too "spacey" and noticed a change in his personality. Yet, Homer continued to function reasonably well at work and was actually liked better by some people.

Eventually, problems with memory and attention became evident when Homer and other marijuana users lost track of the date and scheduled a pro-marijuana rally the day after an important vote was taken on whether medicinal marijuana should be legal. Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but clearly there are costs of marijuana use similar to these that are experienced by real-life users.

It shouldn't surprise us that there is a positive side to marijuana use. After all, why else would people smoke it? It's also not surprising that drug education usually emphasizes the negative effects. Some believe that talking too much about the positive effects might encourage more people to start using and lead to more negative effects in the long run.

But there are over 10 million people in the United States who currently use marijuana, and they already know about the positive effects.

Might some of them have noticed some of the not-so-positive effects? Like Homer, they may be wondering if the costs of using outweigh the benefits, or vice versa.

Depending upon our own personal experiences, either answer may seem obvious. But it's not always that easy. Even Homer's intelligent, sensitive and thoughtful daughter cannot clearly decide which Homer she prefers: the mellow, spacey and less-available Homer or her newly abstinent and increasingly ornery father.

Could Homer approach most drug-treatment providers and expect to get a fair assessment of the pros and cons of continuing use? Probably not. The business of drug-abuse treatment is to help people to overcome dependence. Therefore, most drug users do not approach treatment unless the problems resulting from their use are so great that they know they want to quit. But this is a small fraction of drug users and many more are conflicted about whether to stop using.

We see many adult marijuana users who are conflicted about the costs and benefits of marijuana use and the pros and cons of quitting or reducing use. We see them as participants in a research project at the University of Washington financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. To date, 129 people have joined the project, called The Marijuana Check-Up.

The program is free and confidential. It's an opportunity to openly and honestly discuss personal experiences with marijuana use and to weigh the costs and benefits without pressure to quit.

Our research shows that some people make changes and some do not after going through the program. Almost all are appreciative of the respect they are shown, the fact that marijuana is not demonized, and the opportunity they've gotten to take an honest and unbiased look at their marijuana use.

If this type of service were readily available in our nation's drug-abuse-services system, we predict we would see many more users coming forward, and they would be a little more ready to ask for help in the future should the cost-benefit scales tip in favor of change.

Robert S. Stephens is associate professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. Roger A. Roffman is professor of social work at the University of Washington. For more information on The Marijuana Check-Up, call (206) 616-3457.

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