By Brendan Lalor and Philip Lamy
Commentary | April 10,2016
Editor’s note: What follows is Part 1 of a commentary piece by Brendan Lalor and Philip Lamy. The second part will run in a future edition.
We are concerned by the marijuana misinformation in circulation — and in particular by the number of “expert” sources ignoring relevant scientific data. Vermonters look to medical and scientific bodies to inform our marijuana policy discussion yet find so many so-called experts repeating half-truths and outright falsehoods. Hence, we write to promote greater integrity in our marijuana policy discussion.
Myth: Marijuana makes people lazy
Dr. Paul Parker’s commentary (Feb. 4 in the Rutland Herald and Jan. 20 in The Times Argus) is typical. He claims that science proves cannabis consumers develop “amotivational syndrome” — used here as a scientific-sounding way to say “lazy pothead.” This unwarranted stereotype persists through ignorance, so it warrants comment.
Like most products that have been in the culture over millennia, cannabis is not a single, precisely defined item but one that has an array of varieties and uses.
Indica-heavy varieties of cannabis (especially those high in the terpene, myrcene) are known by science to promote relaxation of body and mind, while sativa-heavy cannabis is energizing, uplifting, and cerebral. Marijuana does not make people lazy. Ignorance does, though. Just as differences between beer, wine, and liquor are covered in the first lessons in alcohol education, a world in which marijuana is legal would be one in which such basic information would facilitate smarter cannabis use while eroding unhelpful stereotypes.
Myth: Marijuana kills IQ
The Vermont Department of Liquor Control offers its publication, “Making the Right Decisions,” as a guidebook for teens sorting out “myths and facts.” It claims, “Heavy marijuana use is associated with cognitive decline in about 5 percent of teens, which suggests that the heaviest users could lose 8 IQ points.” That claim contradicts a lot of science, including a brand-new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which researchers comparing long-term marijuana use in teenage twins found no IQ differences traceable to marijuana over 10 years. In fact, it turns out cannabis can be an IQ-saver: In Israel, which leads the world in medicinal marijuana research, doctors inject marijuana’s main psychoactive component into brains “to prevent long-term cognitive damage after brain injury” (Jerusalem Post, May 27, 2013).
Myth: Marijuana is bad for your health
The Department of Health’s report, “Marijuana Regulation in Vermont,” relies on the partisan dishonest drug warriors at the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Typically, their numbers are willfully misleading, including every ER patient who mentioned using marijuana at any point. Dr. Randolph Knight, of Weathersfield, told members of the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee that in his 20 years of practice as an emergency room doctor — with close to 50,000 patients — he had yet to see an overdose from marijuana (“ER doctor urges pot legalization,” Jan. 20).
While Dr. Parker admits that it is “not yet … shown to be the case,” he is somehow nonetheless “confident that smoking marijuana will eventually be shown to be a cause of lung disease.” The Department of Liquor Control, like Parker, warns of cancer (“Making the Right Decisions”). It’s a common-sense guess but actually has no backing in the evidence. We expect more than that from experts.
Check the American Lung Association page on marijuana, and you’ll find the words “cancer,” “emphysema” and “pulmonary disease” are absent. Check the annals of the International Journal of Cancer for the most recent study looking for a link to cancer, and you’ll find the investigators conclude, “Results from our pooled analyses provide little evidence for an increased risk of lung cancer among habitual or long-term cannabis smokers.”
There are many significant studies that reach the same conclusion in journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, and others even showing genuine benefits, e.g. that cannabis retards tumor growth. (To the credit of the Department of Health, its report lists the effect of marijuana on respiratory cancer as “unclear.”)
Dr. Parker claims that marijuana “has been shown to be associated with the development of mental health illness.” An alliance of physicians’ organizations, too, claims marijuana causes “increased future mental health problems” (“Six Vermont Physician Groups Caution Legislature About the Dangers of Legalized Marijuana,” Vermont Medical Society website). These were certainly common if unsupported views in the medical community during the 1960s and 1970s. But what does today’s science say?
February’s Journal of the American Medical Association reports new research based on 34,000 American adults finding that marijuana does not pose a risk of mood or anxiety disorders for the general populace. Cannabis can even be used to treat depression and anxiety effectively; moreover, there are strains of marijuana used medicinally to mitigate the effects of schizophrenia. While it is possible that cannabis may trigger or exacerbate schizophrenia in those genetically predisposed, that group is extremely small. Overall, prohibition is surely a cumbersome, ineffective way to address this health problem, especially since science is already sorting out who this concern affects, and who it doesn’t. (Again, to the credit of the Department of Health, its report acknowledges the genetic factor, and notes that “schizophrenia is a rare disorder, whether marijuana is an exacerbating risk factor or not.”)
So is marijuana dangerous? As Dr. Lester Grinspoon, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, puts it, “Marijuana is not only non-toxic — but remarkably non-toxic.” “Despite its use by millions of people over thousands of years, cannabis has never caused an overdose death.” Its record as a medicine extends back more than 4,500 years. Its use continued through the 19th century when cannabis was popular in England and Ireland to treat a range of ailments from the pain of rheumatism to convulsions and muscle spasms.
Today, even though politically motivated draconian laws dating from the 1930s have hamstrung legitimate medical research, marijuana’s natural ingredients are used to treat seizures (e.g., in epilepsy), basal-cell carcinoma and many other cancers, post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, AIDS, glaucoma, psoriasis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, insomnia, lack of appetite — and to replace or reduce use of synthetic painkillers. Many Crohn’s patients can forgo steroids and surgery. According to a study in the American Journal of Medicine, consuming marijuana is associated with a decrease in the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes. For the majority of the human population, cannabis is less dangerous than most medicines — even common pain relievers like aspirin.
Vermonters, be wary
If you are willing to sift through a mix of facts and reefer-mad misinformation, then tune in to Dr. Parker, the Department of Liquor Control, these physicians’ organizations, and the less-misleading but still disappointing Department of Health. Their evidence is highly selective, out of date, and certainly provides no adequate informational basis for Vermonters thinking about marijuana policy.
Dr. Parker, who chastised legislators for “not listening to the scientists and experts on scientific topics,” writes that anyone who opposes his warnings about “the deleterious mental, physical and cognitive effects of marijuana … is in serious denial, or ignorant.” Such self-righteous authorities who pose as experts, but who turn a blind eye to the science, bring us to another significant concern, the crisis of confidence among the youth.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 68 percent of millennials (people between the ages of 18 and 34) support the legalization of marijuana. Remember that they have access to science via the Internet, and also have the testimony of brilliant proponents of marijuana from within the scientific community (e.g., true medical experts like Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Grinspoon, as well as prominent names from across the sciences, such as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman in physics, Stephen Jay Gould in paleontology, and Kary Mullis in chemistry — some of whom are Nobel Prize winners).
Robert Gershon is right (“Aligning law with good sense,” Feb. 12): Authorities who defend hypocrisy-laden marijuana policy demonstrate their untrustworthiness to teens. They cry wolf about cannabis and thus maintain no credibility when they warn about real dangers. This is why we believe it is essential that real, honest experts run the drug education programs to be funded by revenues collected from marijuana sales.
Let’s make marijuana legal, and let’s start telling ourselves and our children the truth about it.
Brendan Lalor is a professor of philosophy at Castleton University. Philip Lamy is a professor of sociology at Castleton University. The views expressed are theirs alone.