- Published on 24 May 2014
- Written by Paul Armentano,deputy director of NORML
By any objective analysis, cannabis and cannabinoids exceed the FDA’s existing standards for medicine. Medical cannabis opponents are fond of promoting many myths and misconceptions about the herb. Here are the facts.
1-Medical cannabis is too dangerous to recommend as a medicine
The cannabis plant and its biologically active constituents, known as cannabinoids, possess an impressive safety profile compared to other conventional therapeutic agents. According to the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, marijuana possesses an estimated dependence liability of less than ten percent. (Others have acknowledged that pot’s true dependence potential is likely even lower.) This percentage is approximately the same as anxiolytic drugs like Xanax and Valium and far lower than that of many other licit prescription drugs or recreational substances, like alcohol (15 percent) and tobacco (32 percent).
Moreover, unlike the active compounds in many conventional prescription medicines, cannabinoids are relatively non-toxic to fully developed healthy cells and organs. Cannabis also possesses no lethal overdose potential. As acknowledged by no less than the DEA’s own administrative law judge, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”
2-Medical marijuana hasn’t yet been subjected to adequate scientific study
Cannabis possesses a far longer history of human use as a safe and effective therapeutic agent than virtually any comparable substance. Archeologists have identifiedcannabis-based textiles dating to 7,000 B.C. in northern China and the plant's use as a medicinal and agent date back nearly as far. For example, in 2008, archeologists in Central Asia discovered over two pounds of cannabis buried in the 2,700-year-old grave of an ancient mummified shaman. After conducting extensive testing on the material's potency, researchers affirmed, "[T]he most probable conclusion ... is that [ancient] culture[s] cultivated cannabis for pharmaceutical, psychoactive, and divinatory purposes."
In addition, the marijuana plant is also one of the most studied biologically active substances of modern times. A search on PubMed, the repository for all peer-reviewed scientific papers, using the term “marijuana” yields nearly 20,000 scientific papers referencing the plant and/or its constituents, nearly half of which have been published just within the past decade. By comparison, a keyword search using the term “Tylenol” yields 17,370 published papers. A keyword search using the term “ibuprofen’ yields 10,500 published paper. A keyword search using the term “Ritalin” yields 7,012 published papers, and a keyword search using the term “hydrocodone” yields only 630 published papers.
3-There aren’t sufficient clinical trials evaluating pot’s safety and efficacy as a medicine
More than 100 controlled trials, involving thousands of subjects, have evaluated the safety and efficacy of cannabis and/or individual cannabinoids. Most recently, a review of FDA-approved pot trials conducted by various California Universities concluded, “Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification (for cannabis) is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking.”
This body of clinical evidence exceeds that of many FDA-approved prescription drugs. According to a 2014 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of the 188 novel therapeutic agents approved by the FDA between the years 2005 to 2012, “The median number of pivotal trials per indication was two [and] 74 indications (37%) were approved on the basis of a single trial.”
4-No major medical or health organizations support medical marijuana access
- Published on 27 April 2014
- Written by Paul Armentano,
Why do prohibitionists keep pushing lies about legal weed?
Those opposed to the legalization and regulation of marijuana for any purpose, including the plant’s therapeutic use when authorized by a physician, often allege that the adoption of such laws will result in a significant increase in pot use by young people.
“The damage of marijuana—and these laws—is clear,” claims David Evans, executive director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition, in a recent open letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder and DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart. “Legalization of marijuana for ‘medical’ use and recreational use in those states has resulted in more marijuana use, particularly among young people.”
Adds Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project SAM and a former senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (aka the Drug Czar’s office), “Research shows that residents of states with medical marijuana laws have abuse and dependence rates almost twice as high as states with no such laws, and teen use rates are significantly higher in states with medical marijuana laws compared to other states. Moreover, youth perception rates of the harmful effects of marijuana have significantly decreased in states that have legalized medical marijuana.”
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? It's supposed to. But here’s the reality check: virtually every study to evaluate the potential impact of these laws on teen use rates proves these claims to be woefully false.
The most recent peer-reviewed smackdown of this stock prohibitionist claim appears online this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University assessed the impact of medical cannabis laws over a 20-year period by examining trends in self-reported drug use by high schoolers in a cohort of states before and after legalization. Investigators compared these trends to geographically matched states that had not adopted medical marijuana access laws during this time.
Here’s what they found. “[O]ur study of self-reported marijuana use by adolescents in states with a medical marijuana policy compared with a sample of geographically similar states without a policy does not demonstrate increases in marijuana use among high school students that may be attributed to the policies.” In fact, researchers determined that in some regions of the country, the adoption of medical cannabis laws was associated with decreased cannabis use by young people, a finding that led the authors to acknowledge, “[C]oncerns about ‘sending the wrong message’ may have been overblown.”
They concluded, “Our study suggests that… the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes has not increased adolescent marijuana use, a finding supported by a growing body of literature.”
- Published on 20 April 2014
- Written by Paul Armentano
Photo Credit: Darren J. Bradley / Shutterstock.com
The mainstream media launched into a reefer mad frenzy this week after researchers from Harvard University in Boston and Northwestern University in Chicago published the results of a neuroimaging study assessing the brains of a small cohort of regular marijuana smokers and non-users. The brain scans identified various differences between the two groups in three aspects of brain morphometry: gray matter density, volume, and shape. These differences triggered dozens of high-profile media outlets to lose their collective minds. Here’s just a sample of the screaming headlines:
CNN: Casual marijuana use may damage your brain; Science Daily: More joints equal more damage; Financial Post: Study proves occasional marijuana use is mind altering; Time: Recreational pot use harmful to young people’s brains; Smoking cannabis will change you. That’s not a risk, its a certainty.
Just imagine how the media would have responded if the study in question had included more than 20 actual cases — or if the authors had actually bothered to assess its subjects for demonstrable deficits in cognitive performance. Yes, that’s right. Despite the sky-is-falling rhetoric and the shock claims of permanent brain damage, a careful review of the study and its findings reveals little, if any, cause for alarm.
So what did the study find? In truth, not a whole lot.
Using high–resolution MRI imaging, scientists identified specific changes in particular regions of the brain that they inferred were likely due to marijuana exposure. (Since researchers only performed a single MRI session, they could not say definitively whether these changes were, in fact, caused by cannabis or whether they existed prior to subjects’ use of the plant.) Notably, however, these changes did not appear to be associated with any overt adverse effects in subjects’ actual cognition or behavior. (Separate studies assessing youth use of legal intoxicants, such as nicotine and alcohol,have also been associated with documented changes in brain structure. Ditto for caffeine intake in preclinical models. These findings have received far less media attention.)
Both the cases (20 marijuana users) and controls (20 nonusers) in the study were recruited from local universities, undermining the notion that the alleged ‘ brain damaged potheads’ were any more academically challenged than their non-using peers. Further, as summarized by HealthDay: “Psychiatric interviews revealed that the pot smokers did not meet criteria for drug dependence. For example, marijuana use did not interfere with their studies, work or other activities, and they had not needed to increase the amount they used to get the same high.”
In other words, case subjects and controls appeared to function similarly in their professional and academic endeavors.
That finding should hardly come as a surprise. Dozens of separate neurocognitive studies consisting of far larger sample sizes find no substantial, systematic effect of long-term, regular cannabis consumption on brain functioning once the users have abstained from the drug. As concluded in one recent meta-analysis of 33 such studies, published in the journal Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology: “As hypothesized, the meta-analysis conducted on studies evaluating users after at least 25 days of abstention found no residual effects on cognitive performance. ... These results fail to support the idea that heavy cannabis use may result in long-term, persistent effects on neuropsychological functioning.”
A separate review of nearly a dozen studies (involving a total of 623 cannabis users and 409 non- or minimal users) published in the Journal of the International Psychological Society similarly reported, “The results of our meta-analytic study failed to reveal a substantial, systematic effect of long-term, regular cannabis consumption on the neurocognitive functioning of users who were not acutely intoxicated.”
Moreover, other studies, though admittedly comprised of small sample sizes, have indicated that in some instances cannabis may actually protect the brain, particularly against the potentially damaging effects of alcohol.
This is not to say that consuming marijuana, particularly in heavy quantities, is not without potential risk to learning retention, short-term memory, and other potential cognitive skills—especially when it is consumed by young people whose brains are still developing. However, after decades of marijuana use by significant portions of the public (despite the plant’s prohibition), it is apparent that these associated potential risks are not so great as to warrant the continued arrest of some 700,000 Americans annually for possessing the plant. Nor do these potential risks justify marijuana’s present status as a schedule I controlled substance, a classification that equates the purported dangers of pot to be equal to those of heroin.
Such fear-mongering and sensationalism by the mainstream media in regards to the supposed harms of pot upon the brain are nothing new. It wasn’t long ago that the mainstream media was boldly claiming that cannabis use permanently lowered IQ, a finding that marijuana prohibitionists and anti-drug bureaucrats were happy to repeat ad nauseam.