What the research says about physical effects, health impacts
When a good friend of mine was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, it was Big Pharma that saved her life. Fifteen years ago, only about 15 percent of patients beat this particular form of the disease, until a drug was found that increased the survival rate to 85 percent. That finding came after years of rigorous study in controlled settings, where side effects, dosage and long-term impacts could be assessed. Eventually, the FDA granted approval and the drug was made widely available to patients.
Contrast that with the proliferation of “medical” marijuana. While compounds in the cannabis plant show some promise in pain relief, control of nausea and epilepticseizures, and appetite stimulation, pro-pot advocates aren’t pushing for more clinical trials to study the drug’s medical benefits or how to create an appropriate dosage of the compounds in the plant – rather than the raw product — while minimizing side effects. They are using emotion and heart-wrenching stories of elderly cancer patients and epileptic kids to push an illegal substance onto states across the country. Because their propaganda is easier to hear – marijuana is medicine – it’s worked in many places. But even if you can accept that line, the scientific equation must be balanced with what we know about the physical and mental health impacts of marijuana.
I’ve had the opportunity in this last year to debate pro-pot folks, and I’m always astounded by the lack of scientific evidence they use to support their assertions and their shameless use of red herrings to confuse the argument. Case in point: Marijuana isn’t addictive and hasn’t killed anyone. Wrong on both counts. While marijuana fatalities aren’t exactly commonplace, there have been a few cases of death attributed to use of the drug. But let’s be real – why is death our only standard here? What about marijuana users who become addicted? About 9 percent of users will develop an addiction, and for kids that increases to 17 percent or one in six. What about those whose addiction keeps them from holding a job or engaging with their families? Or those who develop depression, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis or other mental health conditions that have been shown to correlate with smoking pot?
For kids, the implications are even greater. Loss of IQ, impaired learning ability and memory deficits have all been found to occur when a child starts smoking pot before their brain is fully developed around age 24. Pot supporters say they don’t want more kids to use marijuana, but in pushing their agenda, they ignore 30 years of scientific prevention research that shows the more available a substance is, the more it’s going to be used. Just look to the alcohol example. That’s a legal drug and it harms more people, pot advocates fervently argue.
Which begs the question: Why do we need to legalize a third addictive substance (after alcohol and cigarettes), especially when we know the impact on our kids? It’s no coincidence that alcohol is also the most used substance by youth (no it’s not prescription drugs as many believe). Volumes of research conducted using rigorous standards by legitimate scientists and published in peer-reviewed journals has documented the link between the availability and accessibility of a drug (for example, alcohol) and how much it is used (youth use). More recent studies have found links between early marijuana use and later consequences like disability and mental illness.
The elephant in the room, of course, is whether marijuana has medicinal properties. There’s enough anecdotal evidence (though not scientific research) to suggest that components of the drug help people in pain or with severe seizure conditions, like the children suffering from Dravet syndrome whose families successfully lobbied to legalize on oil extract of the cannabis plant that seems to control the condition. That product, known as Charlotte’s Web, also isn’t FDA-approved – which means there is no standardized dosage, purity control or side effects information. Worse still, pot advocates flatly ignored a pharmaceutical- grade equivalent that’s available free of charge in clinical trials for patients here in Florida, which underscores that this argument really isn’t about helping the sick and suffering. If pot advocates really wanted to help patients and protect our kids, they would be pushing the federal government for more research to validate the reported benefits. After all, we don’t tell cardiac patients to brew up beta-blockers in their home kitchens or parents to harvest mold for penicillin when their kids get sick; we give them medicines that have been tested and proven to work. Americans have benefitted enormously from advances in science, drug manufacturing and safety protocols governing our supply of medicine. It’s not a perfect system, but because it’s there, we are better educated about the drugs we’re taking and how we stand to benefit – and suffer – from them.
Margaret Sotham is the director of the South Miami Drug-Free Coalition, the county-wide coalition spokesperson on marijuana, and a mom of two.