Mayor sees complexities of pot

September 24, 2007

Wendy Leung, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

When it comes to questions about marijuana, Don Kurth rarely has yes or no answers.

Rancho Cucamonga's multifaceted mayor likes to begin his sentences with, "on one hand," then moments later add "on the other hand."

He can go back and forth like this for hours - his way of demonstrating that the seemingly endless debate about marijuana isn't black and white. In the vast expanse of gray that lies between, all the nuances to such a heated issue should be fleshed out, he said, but instead are often ignored.

On one side, marijuana advocates want the

controversial herb legalized because it helps those suffering from certain illnesses, and hasn't been proved to be especially harmful when used recreationally. For decades, smoking marijuana has been as ubiquitous as underage drinking, advocates say, and it's only the out-of-touch federal government that considers it an illegal substance.

Across the aisle are those who think the illicit drug might cripple communities, leading to crime and debauchery. These people think pot dispensaries let the drug seep into schools and onto the streets.

With high emotions on both sides, Kurth, 58, said it's hard to get society to a middle ground.

"I don't think anyone would want a society where the majority of people lead unproductive lives and don't contribute to society ... smoking pot all day or smoking opium all day long," he said.

"On the other hand, if people like having a drink at the end of the day or socializing with friends, going on a wine-tasting tour in Northern California - I don't think there's any harm in that. ... Is there a role for marijuana in that? Maybe there is. There seems to be.

"There's a lot of people who smoke on a recreational basis. I'm not so rigid that I think we need to stop people from having fun."

It may seem that his middle- ground approach is just a politician's way of pandering to a large crowd. But Kurth's diplomacy springs from a life of many roles.

In addition to his work at the Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center as chief of addiction medicine, he is mayor of a growing and affluent city, and has the opportunity to influence policies at the heart of the marijuana debate. In fact, like many other city leaders in the Inland Valley, Kurth initiated a temporary ban on the establishment of pot dispensaries in Rancho Cucamonga.

But his past experience with drug addiction is what colors his views on the topic with such an interesting light. As a young man, Kurth had a bitter battle with drug addiction. At age 12, he had his first drink. At 16, he tried marijuana, his first drug.

"The '60s were a different era," said Kurth. "Drinking was more passe. Marijuana was the thing to do."

Pot was not his downfall. The New Jersey teenager became a heroin addict and, just shy of the legal drinking age, hit bottom.

Drug rehabilitation began his turnaround. Once clean, Kurth earned an Ivy League education, graduating cum laude from Columbia Medical School.

In the debate over whether marijuana is a gateway drug, Kurth believes that it's not so much the substance that opens the gate as it is the genetic makeup of the user. Smoking marijuana may make a person lower their defenses against the desires to take other drugs, he said, but it's their genetic makeup that makes them more likely to be chemically dependent.

"There are a lot of examples in society today where people who smoke marijuana in high school and in college stop, and they want to end that period in their lives," said Kurth. "Other times, people smoke intermittently throughout their lives and may be professional, tax-paying citizens.

"But it's not that way for everybody, and that's the problem. Those of us who are in the field of chemical dependency see all too often where it does cause a problem, where people are using marijuana or other drugs on a daily basis."

Marijuana addicts are not admitted to the chemical dependency unit where Kurth practices, but he said those who use it in conjunction with other drugs are.

Kurth said physicians have not reached a consensus as to whether marijuana as medicine has value, though studies support pro and con views.

"Most physicians don't think it's medicine," said Kurth. "As a physician, I think there's some evidence that it helps some people. I don't know how you can deny that.

"If people with serious, potentially lethal illnesses are saying it's helping them get through the day, what's the harm? Why not let them have some relief? But if every 18-, 19-year-old claims to have fibromyalgia or a headache and needs to have unlimited marijuana to have fun with friends, that's not the way to go."

For it to be used as medicine, said Kurth, it needs to be regulated and distributed by physicians and in doses recommended by physicians. In other words, pot needs to be treated the same way as mainstream medicine.

"It's hard for us to dispense three joints," said Kurth wryly. "Milligrams, we know about. But how many tokes on a bong? I don't have any training in that."

As mayor, Kurth said he has an obligation to prevent medical- marijuana dispensaries from opening and causing problems in the city. Rancho Cucamonga has no such dispensaries, but in May, the City Council banned the establishment of them for 10<MD+,%30,%55,%70>1/<MD-,%0,%55,%70>2 months. The decision followed similar moves made by Norco, Pomona, Ontario and many other communities.

The temporary ban gives cities time to weigh the outcomes of court cases hashing out the conflicting state and federal laws governing medical marijuana.

"The federal government says one thing, and the state initiative says something else. As a city, we're kind of stuck in the middle of it," Kurth said.

The fear that pot from marijuana dispensaries could be abused and sold to addicts and young children has spawned a backlash against Proposition 215, the initiative that legalized the use of medical marijuana in California.

But Kurth said the government shouldn't necessarily clamp down on marijuana use. Using scare tactics against pot would actually encourage drug experimentation, he said, especially when people realize that the government is overreacting.

"Historically, our government has taken a hard-line view against marijuana, which may not always have a scientific foundation. When people begin experimenting with marijuana, they'll realize, `These things aren't true. It's really not a demon weed ... reefer madness,"' said Kurth, referring to the 1930s propaganda film.

People who try marijuana and realize it's not the lethal drug the government makes it out to be may assume the government is lying about all drugs, said Kurth.

"I'm not so moralistic that I think smoking pot is the end of the world," said Kurth. "There are lots of worse things to do."

Staff writer Wendy Leung can be reached by e-mail at, or by phone at (909) 483-9376.

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