Nothing funny about comic strip character's wasted life


YOU GOT pretty testy defending marijuana in a recent Doonesbury comic strip.

Over the years, you've made jokes about your own pot-smoking in several panels, but we think your problem may be worse than you've let on.

We'll put it to you straight, Zonk: You're in denial.

First of all, you're not a convincing advocate for marijuana users - you've never held a real job since leaving Walden College 30 years ago. Baking marijuana brownies for cancer patients this Christmas doesn't count as a real job.

But on Dec. 29, when you dropped your fuzzy, laid-back smile and angrily argued that marijuana is "a nonaddictive drug that kills nobody," it heightened our suspicion that you're a comic strip character hiding a dysfunction. Maybe you're right that the prohibition against the medical use of marijuana is ridiculous. But your suggestion that abusing marijuana is OK because it's not as dangerous as abusing tobacco and alcohol is equally ridiculous.

Ask anyone who works in addiction treatment if they ever diagnose cannabis dependence, the psychiatric term for someone who can't quit smoking marijuana. It's fairly common. There are a lot of daily pot-smokers who start first thing in the morning and stay stoned 'round the clock, and many of them can't quit without the help of addiction treatment. They usually end up seeing psychiatrists because they suffer from problems that chronic marijuana use can cause - depression, panic attacks and, oddly enough, outbursts of uncontrollable rage.

Cannabis addicts are often embarrassed to ask for help because everyone says marijuana is not addictive. When you repeat this misinformation in the funnies, you make it harder for marijuana addicts to get help and easier for occasional users to ignore the very real risk of addiction.

You're right, Zonker, that alcohol and tobacco are legal, and in many ways more harmful than marijuana. But so what if marijuana is less bad? Do we really want another legal drug to abuse?

Marijuana may not be as addictive or dangerous as cocaine or alcohol, and it kills fewer people, but that's hardly a selling point. Should we legalize petty theft because it's not as bad as grand larceny?

You say marijuana never killed anybody?

A study in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at people arrested for reckless driving who hadn't been drinking. One-third of them tested positive for marijuana only, clear evidence that it impairs driving. For the more than 50,000 people killed in car accidents each year, alcohol is the main culprit. But if marijuana can cause such a high rate of reckless driving, it must take its own share of lives.

A study in the Journal of Addictive Diseases found that greater frequency of marijuana use among inner-city kids was associated with a greater likelihood to commit violent offenses. The more we learn about marijuana, the less benign it seems.

Research shows that regular marijuana users have serious life problems. In school their grades are worse, at work their thinking is unclear, in relationships they can't communicate. They have low self-esteem and feel disconnected from friends and family. They tend to be under-employed in unchallenging jobs. It's not the violence seen with cocaine and alcohol addicts, but the loss of a productive life is equally tragic. Any of this sound familiar, Zonker?

Somebody, maybe Mike himself, needs to tell Garry Trudeau to stop enabling you. No matter how hard he tries to hide it, snippets of the painful truth come out - you can't hold a job, you've never had a relationship, you completely lack ambition and you still live with your parents when you're not mooching off B.D. and Boopsie.

We all laughed about it when you smoked a joint in the huddle at a Walden football game 30 years ago. Back then, most people thought marijuana was harmless. Today, we know it's not, so the jokes are wearing thin. Is it wearing thin with you, Zonk?

For how many years have you actually been suffering, between panels, from panic, anxiety and social isolation? And now you're lapsing into denial, rationalizing your own drug abuse by trying to convince readers that a harmful, addictive drug is safe and innocuous.

Really, Zonker, that makes you no better than Joe Camel or Mr. Butts.

Ed Gogek is a psychiatrist in Arizona. Jim Gogek, an editorial writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellow in reducing substance abuse.

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