November 14th, 2014

Marijuana: Finding Balance

For many years, marijuana was widely and freely used. Then, from the 1930s to the 1960’s, its use became criminalized primarily due to the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics director Harry Anslinger. As a result of the campaign he waged against it, marijuana was locked way, so to speak. However, more people now want to legalize marijuana.

Now it’s being unlocked as states legalize marijuana use for both recreational and medicinal purposes. As marijuana becomes more readily available, people in all sectors, from doctors to economists, have made all kinds of predictions, ranging from   “This is terrible” to “It won’t make any difference.”

Finding a balanced position between these extreme opinions is important, but we are hampered by a surprisingly limited amount of reliable data about the effects that marijuana has on those who use it. In my post last week, I described one reason for this as being its placement by the U.S. Government into Schedule 1 of the 1970 Controlled Drug Substances Act.

Let’s look at what scientific evidence is currently available on both the harmful and beneficial effects of marijuana use. Because of the way that government restrictions on marijuana research are written, getting permission to research the positive effects is more difficult that exploring its negative effects. Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports finding that only 6 percent of research articles were focused on beneficial effects to legalize marijuana.

Harmful Effects to Legalize Marijuana

  • The drug has an acute negative effect on people’s ability to perform basic tasks, such as driving a car, especially when used with alcohol. A delayed effect has also been noted. For example, airline pilots in a flight simulator demonstrated decreased performance one day after smoking a single marijuana cigarette and had no awareness of their impairment.
  • In an earlier post, I referenced a study that found a direct correlation between heavy, long term marijuana use in teenage years and subsequent loss of IQ.
  • It’s clear that marijuana can be addictive both in classic sense of continued use despite adverse consequences as well as causing physical withdrawal symptoms when stopping its use. However, the potential for addiction is lower than with alcohol and tobacco. (Source: Institute of Medicine, 1999)

Beneficial Effects to Legalize Marijuana

  • Many people experience a rapid sense of pleasure or relaxation as others do with alcohol or tobacco.
  • People use it to help them fall asleep. (Over the long run, however, it can actually make underlying sleep problems worse.)
  • Marijuana can be helpful in managing the symptoms of acute conditions. For example, the FDA has approved the use pharmaceutical grade THC as appetite stimulant for HIV-AIDS patients who experience wasting syndrome and to reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.
  • Although not FDA approved, it has been found to reduce muscle spasms experienced by people with multiple sclerosis.
  • Its effect on pain has been particularly controversial. Two good recent articles that  suggest that it is useful for pain management are
    • “Cannabinergic Pain Medicine: a Concise Clinical Primer and Survey of Randomized-Controlled Trial Results” (2013) by Sunil K. Aggarwal in the Clinical Journal of Pain
    • “Cannabinoids for Treatment of Chronic Non-Cancer Pain; A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials” by Mary E. Lynch and Fiona Campbell (2011) in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

To broaden our knowledge about both the beneficial and harmful effects of marijuana, reducing current barriers to conducting legitimate scientific research will be critical. The more we know, the better informed will be our decisions about this complex issue.

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