Medical marijuana is a hot topic nowadays. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party is playing peekaboo with the possibility of legalizing marijuana and certainly helping grow the number of “medical” marijuana dispensaries throughout the country.
One look at social media and google and you get thousands of messages about the miracle healing capacity of Cannabis Sativa. It appears there is nothing a little pot won’t cure. Claims range from pain relief to cancer prevention. Remarkable!
My question is, are these claims true? Or are they a good dose of wishful thinking to help make the bitter pill of legalizing drugs taste better?
Let’s take a closer look.
First, you have to realize that less than 7% of all studies done on marijuana are researching its medicinal purposes. This is probably due to the fact that most marijuana research is funded by government agencies and these tend to relate to drugs in a negative sense. Government has a vested interest in understanding the negative effects of drugs in order to treat addicts and form drug use prevention methods. Pro marijuana advocates will say that the big pharmaceutical companies and the government are both invested in the continued ban of legal marijuana and so will continue to only look in the negative direction and downplay positive research.
Is this true?
In part, I would agree that a large amount of research done by medical schools and even universities are funded by drug companies. And these companies have much less interest in finding natural cures than they do in validating synthetic drugs as the core of health care. Furthermore, there are a growing number of areas in which our culture is becoming aware of the plethora of natural cures available that Big Pharma drugs are not able to out-perform. Natural alternatives to anxiety, depression, blood pressure issues, pain management, etc are emerging as we better understand nutrition, exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy as well as other natural remedies. And if you delve into the realm of anecdotal evidence (both in your circle of friends and online) you will run into some convincing cases in which a marijuana compound was found more effective than a pharmaceutical alternative. I have not problems with the notion of finding natural alternatives to health issues, even in the Cannabis Sativa plant.
But how confident can we be that marijuana has very strong medical benefits? And are there any side effects worth knowing about?
For thousands of years mankind has used both Cannabis Sativa and the poppy seed for its felt effects. In regards to poppy seeds, they have long been known to help induce sleep. Likewise, cannabis has been known for the intoxicating effects of its most famous cannibinoid compound: THC. For at least the past 5,000 years, humans have known how to extract opium from poppy seeds. And since 1804, we have known how to extract morphine from the poppy seed as well. To this day, morphine continues to be our most potent pain killer. And it is a completely natural extract. My point? Poppy seeds have a very specific medical use that works universally: pain killing. No one can doubt or disprove this. There is no need to hunt through conflicting anecdotal and peer reviewed accounts to see what (if any) are the medically useful aspects of poppy seeds. In contrast, even though we have been experimenting with cannabis for as long as we have been with poppy seeds, we know of only two universal effects that come from marijuana: intoxication and appetite stimulation.
Since at least the 1980’s, hospitals have been giving synthetic THC to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy because of its remarkable ability to stimulate appetite even in extreme circumstances. But the effectiveness of marijuana for the entire host of claims made online remain tenable and less than solidly proven. There are hundreds of cannabinoid compounds in marijuana, THC is only one of them (and the only real psychoactive one). Cannabidiol is another of these and it has little to no intoxicating effects, making it less controversial. Cannabidiol has been touted mainly as an anti-psychotic and anti-convulsant. Yet its effects are nowhere near universally true (in contrast to morphine) or even very repeatable. Some studies have shown some value in cannabidiol for sleep inducement as well as pain killing and muscle relaxants for Multiple Sclerosis and epileptic patients. But the strength of the evidence is not overwhelming at this point. More time is needed because studies have gone in both directions. Cannabis simply does not have a singular, universal medical value that can be proved conclusively.
As for THC, it does indeed decrease fluid pressure inside the eyes and so will relieve glaucoma symptoms. But the effects only last a short while and because THC is psychoactive, intoxication co-exists with the effects, making it unlikely to be safe or helpful for people who have to go to work with their glaucoma medication. To be under the effects of THC all day is not a recommended lifestyle. Especially when safe, non-intoxicating and long lasting drugs do exist for glaucoma sufferers. THC also dilates the small airways in the lungs, bringing relief to those with asthma, COPD and other chronic lung conditions. Again, this effect is short lived and comes with intoxication and alternative exist in both the natural and pharmaceutical realms.
All in all, the effects of marijuana on a variety of medical conditions is not cut and dry. Even when positive studies are found, they are not very strong and often you will find other studies that failed to replicate the findings. However, if an individual is finding success with a cannabinoid compound, I am not against its use. I support the right for doctors to oversee and prescribe a variety of cannabinoids (often with little to no THC) in the few cases in which better alternatives do not seem to exist. I don’t see, however, how wholesale legalization has to come hand in hand with the few cases in which genuine medical marijuana usage can be rationalized. It is also curious that it is mainly the psychoactive THC that gets most of the attention from medical marijuana activists. Could it be because it is marijuana’s main intoxicant? And that rationalizing its use would excuse chronic intoxication? Maybe. Just maybe.
Before closing this brief article, I have to speak about the negative side effects of THC and marijuana.Since the 1980’s, the percentage – by weight – of marijuana that is THC has arisen in the United States from an average 3% to approximately 12%. This has not occurred naturally but is the result of synthetically manipulating the strains. Much the same way men have bred animals and plants over the centuries. Obviously, the main drive for increasing THC concentration is to maximize intoxication in chronic users who are now desensitized to former dosages. This phenomenon occurs with all artificial intoxicants. And the 12% figure is an average in the U.S., not worldwide. Some strains have been found to be as high as 35% THC by weight. A staggering dosage that is not in the least naturally occurring.
With the rise of THC percentages in recreational marijuana we have seen a rise in the ill effects of this drug. The most susceptible — as is always the case — are youths. Studies in both the U.S.1 and Canada2 have shown — with functional MRI’s, blood work, psychological evaluations, brain mapping and sociological research — that a developing brain exposed to marijuana use well before the age of 17 is at risk of cognitive, mood and behavioural disorders. Further, the higher the usage, the lower the youth’s chances are of attaining financial health and independence in adult life. Chronic early use is needed to truly trigger serious disorders but the risks are still ominous. Considering the growing push to render marijuana use socially acceptable combined with the sharp rise in THC concentrations it should be no wonder that health care facilities are reporting more and more issues with adolescent and young adult marijuana use.
Proponents of marijuana legalization will say that alcohol is also a drug and that it causes more carnage in our culture than marijuana. Both claims are true. However, alcohol use is much, much higher than marijuana use. Partly because it is legal and mostly because it is culturally acceptable. If marijuana use reached the same levels of use in North America the societal ills caused by this drug would not diminish, they would only grow exponentially. Unleashing another negative substance on our youth and culture is not an improvement by any means. I cannot comprehend this version of the pro-legalization argument.
Remember that alcohol can be used in moderation. A glass or two of wine can even be beneficial in every way to your health with zero side effects. It is much harder to use marijuana without intoxication or side effects unless you strip it of its psychoactive compounds (which I do not see any medical marijuana dispensaries doing as this would most likely curb sales downward). And before singing the praises of local dispensaries, realize that a Journal of American Medical Association study, John Hopkins Medicine study as well as a Globe and Mail investigation found that the labels on pot products from such stores were grossly inaccurate. Shedding a poor light on the ability of such outlets to regulate the quality and safety of their drugs. Considering the negative side effects of THC and the shakily established “medicinal” value of Cannabis Sativa, pushing for nation-wide legalized marijuana on every street corner – a la neighbourhood liquor store — seems to be a thinly veiled attempt at plainly and simply legalizing an intoxicant for the pleasurable effects it produces. Arguments can be made as to the economic consequences of legalizing pot, yet this is a different argument than the medicinal one.
All things considered we have pain-killer drug addictions and alcoholism rates on the increase so why should we legalize yet another intoxicant on our future generations? For those who truly derive benefits from cannabinoid compounds, let hospitals monitor and administer dosages such as they do with the all natural morphine and other opioids. In my honest opinion, at this juncture, any other call to wholesale legalization is not supportable by hard clinical science. It would also dangerously fool youth into sinking into potentially life altering disorders if they follow the pied piper down the unrestrained use of a drug that is now getting a make over as “super healing compound.”
Be wise. Be prudent. Be informed.