Cannabis (aka marijuana) was not always considered the problematic substance it is today. In fact, cannabis was a common ingredient in many medicines right up until the early twentieth century when politicians played on people’s fear of the Mexican refugees who were fleeing to American safety during and after the Mexican revolution and then decades later it was labeled a Schedule I narcotic in the Controlled Substances Act. You can read more details here.
Of course, most doctors understand its scheduling to be a fluke political move, as the dangers of cannabis hardly compare to that of other drugs in the schedule (like heroin). And, toward the end of the twentieth century and into the beginning of the 21st century, doctors and politicians began making the case for legal use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
This, of course, fed people’s desires to have the “drug” completely declassified and made legal. Because of this effort, cannabis is now legal for both medicinal and recreational use in four states and in Washington DC.
Because the tide seems to be changing, there are some who insist that it is only a matter of time before cannabis is completely legal everywhere and there are many, according to the Desert Hope blog, who hope to see it made legal at the federal level.
Is Legal Pot a Good Thing?
This is a hard question to answer. There are arguments to be made on both the pro-legal and anti-legal side.
On the pro-side, legalizing cannabis (and it’s many forms of ingestion) and then taxing the heck out of it is a great money maker for the states in which it has been made legal. It has also proven to be a boon to local economies as more and more people open independent dispensaries and grow shops. It will also do a great deal to reduce the rate of incarceration–currently the minimum sentence for pot possession as a first time offender is one year of time served.
On the anti-side, is the argument that pot, when used regularly, can become addictive. Drug addiction is a huge problem for the United States and many worry that legalizing cannabis will make our addiction issue worse, not better. There are also worries that crime rates will spike as dealers lose their business to legal dispensaries.
Does Pot Actually Help ?
Finally, there is the question of whether or not cannabis is actually medically helpful to those who partake of it as a treatment option.
An extensive meta-analysis of 79 trials that studied the medical benefits of marijuana found that the various cannabinoid compounds did not help with nausea, vomiting, or loss of appetite, but slightly improved chronic pain and spasticity. Moreover, most of the studies were poorly made, lacking control or placebo groups and also showing increased risk of bias. In short, this rigorous analysis found no conclusive evidence that supports the much heralded added benefits of medical marijuana.
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Cannabis is illegal in most of the United States, but twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. have laws permitting medical marijuana use. In the published paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the authors warn that medical marijuana approval was based on poorly conducted studies, patient testimonials and other evidence borderline-scientific at best. For instance, marijuana is approved as a medical drug for treating Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, kidney disease, lupus and Parkinson’s disease despite there’s little evidence to support such a measure.
Marijuana “is a complex of more than 400 compounds including flavonoids and terpenoids and approximately 70 cannabinoids other than delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC),” they wrote, (most FDA approved drugs contain one to several compounds, not hundreds). “These cannabinoids have individual, interactive, and even entourage effects (effects of a compound that are only appreciable in the presence of other compounds) that are not fully understood and that contribute to the net effect of marijuana.”
“If the states’ initiative to legalize medical marijuana is merely a veiled step toward allowing access to recreational marijuana, then the medical community should be left out of the process, and instead marijuana should be decriminalized,” they wrote. “Evidence justifying marijuana use for various medical conditions will require the conduct of adequately powered, double-blind, randomized, placebo/active controlled clinical trials to test its short- and long-term efficacy and safety.”
Dr. Mark Ware, Associate Professor in Family Medicine and Anesthesia at McGill University has conducted the first ever long term study on the effects of Medical Cannabis; he studied 216 individuals with chronic pain, and 215 controls (chronic pain but no current cannabis use) from seven clinics across Canada. While there were some adverse effects on consumers, no serious effects were reported. However, the reduction in pain also seems to be very small.
Pot doesn’t look like a miracle drug – far from it- but at the same time, the science seems to suggest it’s almost harmless, unless you’re a teenager and abuse it. Or if you really abuse it, regardless if you’re an adult or not. This year, ones study found that substances like alcohol or tobacco are much more dangerous than marijuana. Alcohol is actually the most dangerous substance studied here – more dangerous than heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or meth. Yet, alcohol is legal and marijuana is not. It sounds arbitrary. Following this train of thought, marijuana should also become legal under the same regulated status as alcohol. Or both should become illegal, and we know how well that went. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I substance by the federal government, meaning according to the government, not only does it have no medical value , but is put on the same wagon with substances like cocaine or heroin.
What’s preposterous even today is that it’s ridiculously easy to buy marijuana off the street anywhere, yet scientists have to go through immense hurdles to study it. You first need to get it (dealers don’t count) and be approved by a number of government agencies (FDA, DEA etc.), then go through a cumbersome bureaucratic process. I’m sure we’d be able to find more potential medical values of cannabis, but also long-term side effects that people ought to know if they use cannabis. The only way to know is more research. Unfortunately, progress is slow.
“As far as federally approved research, nothing is going on that I’m aware of, except for Mississippi [where the National Institute on Drug Abuse grows marijuana for its research] and a study going on in California,” said Lyle Craker, a horticulturist who directs the Medicinal Plant Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
“Scientists can get research marijuana from a special farm in Mississippi, which is astonishingly located in the middle of the Ole Miss campus, but it is challenging. When I visited this year, there was no marijuana being grown,” wrote Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and TV producer.
Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?
Medically, its benefits are still a matter of debate. Its adverse effects are minimal, by all accounts. The money brought into local and state economies through frequenting local businesses and the taxes paid by those businesses has proven very helpful in the states that have legalized cannabis. There are also studies that show that after cannabis was legalized–particularly for recreational use–crime rates actually fell and have continued to fall.
Obviously, there is also something to be said for personal issues here too. Many people are allergic to cannabis and experience extreme negative reactions to even the smell of the substance. Legalization certainly can’t solve those problems.
Ultimately, what is important to remember is that legalizing marijuana is not the same thing as requiring everyone to begin to use it recreationally.