It appears that Marijuana use has now become a socially acceptable practice. Not only are states falling in line to legalize recreational use (I don’t like that term for it seems to equate smoking weed to working out at the gym), but I was surprised the other day when I happened on to an interview with Liz Post who is the great granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, the etiquette guru. Liz has taken up the etiquette banner and continued as director of Emily’s foundation for the last 30 years. She has written her own books of etiquette, this latest of which caught my attention. It is titled Higher Etiquette, and is all about proper behavior in marijuana involved social situations.
A few days later, I was confronted with a full front-page spread in our local newspaper about our county’s latest industry, a facility for growing marijuana on a large scale. It was hailed as a major success for the area and projected that it would eventually employ more that 100 people.
The story featured a half-page picture of the interior of a huge greenhouse inhabited by large plants. Apparently, since the owners realized potheads would see the photo as their idea of heaven on earth, they assured us that the facility would be heavily guarded. Medical marijuana (whatever that is) was legalized in our state in September 2016.
The new law only authorizes the use of cannabis orally or topically in the form of pills, elixers, tinctures, and lotions etc. Dispensaries were licensed by the state and product can be obtained with a note from a licensed physician confirming that the person is suffering from one of a list of 21 maladies; although the state medical board is authorized to add diagnoses to the list as they see fit. The law prohibits home growing of weed and smoking it, but allows inhalation through a vaporizer. (I would anticipate there will soon be a brisk business in vaporizers). Not only does this and similar laws across the country violate federal law governing the use of marijuana, it appears to me to bypass Federal Drug Administration procedures which require extensive testing for both efficacy and safety before any drug can go on the market.
Efficacy of Cannaboids
There is a great deal of anecdotal information concerning the efficacy of cannabinoids for a variety of medical problems. In the early 1800s an Irish physician found cannabis extracts helpful in relieving stomach pain and nausea in people suffering from cholera, and recently the FDA approved 2 drugs containing THC, Marinol and Syndros, for treatment of nausea and anorexia in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. It is also said to be useful in the treatment of refractory epilepsy, chronic pain problems, glaucoma, and various neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis to name a few. Prior to the dawn of modern pharmaceuticals, cannabis extracts were widely sold as a treatment for stomach ailments. Now, nearly 200 years later we don’t know much more about them than we did then.
Other Naturally Occurring Plants in Medicine
This is not the first time that a naturally occurring plant would be found to be useful in treating medical conditions. For example, back in the dark ages when I was a general practitioner, digitalis, which was extracted from the foxglove plant was the treatment of choice for a variety of cardiac problems. More recently, taxol, a substance extracted from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree has proven effective in the treatment of ovarian cancer.
The Problem with Pot
The fact that THC is a mood-altering drug complicates the issue of doing the proper research to discern its effectiveness, side effects, and dangers both in the short term and with prolonged use.
There is also the possibility of an enhanced placebo effect. Does drug-induced euphoria tend to mask symptoms, and if so is that bad thing?
The more significant reason for the lack of knowledge as to the effects of marijuania on the human body is due to Federal Drug Administration’s reluctance to allow scientists to possess it in order to evaluate it properly.
In 1970 Nixon signed into law The Controlled Substances Act which listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin, LSD, and other dangerous and /or highly addictive drugs. This was during the time of the War on Drugs, and the FDA was so uptight that they refused to allow possession of any of these drugs for research purposes. Of course, as usual they zigged when they should have zagged for this was a time when new tools were becoming available to researchers with which to evaluate the effect of drugs on the brain, and an opportunity to learn more about the drug was lost. With such information, they could have been in a position to inform us as to the possible consequences of their use, and perhaps more specifically define how or where they might be useful or harmful.
Follow the Money
With one foot firmly planted in the door with the medical thing it is not surprising that the Marijuana Rights and Regulations Amendment will be on this fall’s ballot. It would legalize the use, possession, and sale of marijuana for persons over the age of 21, and would allow the Ohio General Assembly to enact a tax on its retail sales. As nearly as I could tell there are no proposed restrictions and if passed, potheads can rejoice at their new found freedom. Likewise, entrepreneurs would like to see some of that drug cartel money stay right here in the US of A, and why shouldn’t stoners throw a few bucks into state coffers for the privilege of getting high? Those who grow their own (in limited amount) will pay $50 for a license which is not a bad deal when one considers a cigarette smoker pays $1.97 in taxes for a pack of carcinogens.
If one follows the money, it would seem that the proposed bill would pass, and become law. According to one PR organization (ABCD Inc.) the potential profits are nothing to sneeze at. In their 2018 Cannabis Price Index, they project that in New York city alone 77.44 metric tons of pot was consumed in 2018 with a revenue of well over $8oo million, and if taxed at the same revenue as cigarettes $354 million for the city. I have no idea how they came up with those figures, but if true it is little wonder there appears to be an active campaign espousing the virtues of cannabis involving not only established stoners, but big business and politicians as well.
History of Pot
According to the DEA Museum, the oldest known written record on cannabis use is from the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2727 B.C. There is some evidence that its psychoactive qualities were known then. However, the plant was used primarily for its fibers, which were used to make rope, cloth, and a variety of other products, and is thought to have been low in the concentration of psychoactive chemicals. Although hemp and marijuana are of the same species, i.e. cannabis, it is thought that one variety was developed over time with the goal of increasing the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for its mind-altering effects.
A Higher High
The process of increasing the potency of weed has continued and has accelerated during the last 20 years – not surprising since users are always looking for the “good stuff.” One study found the average potency in Europe and the U.S. to have nearly doubled between 2008 to 2017. The THC levels had gone from 8.9% to 17.1% with one variety reaching 67%.
This same study compared rates of psychosis between areas with different levels of cannabis potency and found that indeed those cities with the more potent stuff reported more psychotic episodes. As a matter of fact, those who had used higher potency stuff were twice as likely to eventually have a psychotic episode compared to those who had never used. Even more worrisome was the stat that daily users of high potency weed were four times more likely to experience psychosis. This raises the question as to whether THC may have long term side effects. This is not at all surprising; after all THC has long been categorized as an hallucinogen even though until now a weak one.
Pot and the Teen Brain
With the frightening (to some of us), statistics as to the prevalence of pot smoking among adolescent and even younger children has come realistic concerns as to the effect of pot smoking on their brains. This has become increasingly worrisome with recent discoveries of the so-called “plasticity” of the developing brain i.e. the effect that various stimuli may have on its structure and function. Such changes may not become readily apparent until years later and to that end the National Institute of Health has instituted The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study that will follow 10,000 children through adolescence hoping to find what sort of factors, including drugs, affect their brains. Unfortunately, it will take many years for the study to be completed.
Not So Fast…
Although such information is incomplete, I feel it is premature to judge cannabis to be an innocuous substance, as many would have us believe. I recall similar reassurances regarding cigarettes, e.g., that they were not addictive, harmless, and simply a relaxation aid. It was true those people on billboards, in the magazine ads, and the movies looked really cool with one between their fingers. I was one of those gullible slobs who tried looking cool for 50 years, and was rewarded with a couple of cancers. I was also left wondering how much damage I had done with all that second hand smoke. Of course, I knew that I was not addicted for I could quit anytime I wanted, it was just that I didn’t want to (the same words I have frequently heard from my pot smoking patients).
We’ve Been Down This Road Before
At the beginning of the 20th century, cocaine was toted as a wonder drug with the potential to cure a potpourri of illnesses including drug addiction. Its health benefits were even extoled by adding small amounts to a soft drink which in honor of the presence of cocaine was named Coca Cola. Two of the best-known pioneers in their respective fields of medicine became addicted as a result of their experiments with the drugs. William Halsted who is credited with devising many of the surgical techniques still in use today became incapable of functioning due to his addiction as did Sigmund Freud who likewise became addicted by testing the use of cocaine for psychiatric illnesses. In the 1960s along comes Timothy Leary a Harvard psychologist who promoted more potent hallucinogens as treatment for depression, to increase awareness of otherwise untapped spiritual states of being and other kooky stuff. He was eventuallyHe was eventually disgraced when he was found to be using prisoners as subjects for his experiments.
Whenever there are discussions with anti-dopers about mood altering drugs, the question frequently arises as to “why they do it.” Freud attempted to answer that question with his “pleasure principle” theory, an idea which was a couple of thousand years old having previously been described by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. This was the idea that the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain are the essence of life, and therefore all behaviors can be explained by this instinct, furthermore conforming to societal norms is simply to delay gratification of those instincts.
The term addiction is not easily defined as it seems to be used in different contexts, but it is clear that the more pleasant the effects of a substance, the more likely it is that one moves on to an insatiable craving. With prolonged use physiologic changes occur as our body adjusts to the presence of the new substance and bad things happen when it is suddenly withdrawn. The extent of its effect on our body/brain is called its potency. A 2- pack-a-day cigarette smoker is apt to have some headaches and grumpy days for a week or so, but a very heavy use of alcohol over a long period of time can result in delirium tremors, a condition which carries a significant mortality rate when untreated. It appears that in some heroin users, the passage from craving to addiction is almost instantaneous.
Of course, the foregoing description of addiction is woefully simplistic for it is a very complex subject with much disagreement among the experts. My point is that without some regulation governing potency of cannabis we may be in for some unpleasant surprises. Having over the course of my career seen large numbers of marijuana smokers, I am convinced that it is by no means innocuous. I also question the conclusion of pot supporters that it is in no way addictive. I believe that it is especially dangerous in children and that many who are exposed at a young age may be permanently damaged.
So, What’s the Answer
Many of you may be thinking: “OK smarty pants, if it is such a big problem, what can be done about it?” The answer is not much. It is clear that the current situation has not worked except to provide opportunities for criminals to make a buck and for addicts to sell in order to finance their habits. Apparently, we did not learn our lessons from the results of prohibition. As with alcohol, cannabis is easy to produce in most any climate and even more difficult to control than opiates, which must be imported. There are some steps I think would be helpful in minimizing the problem:
- For the states to continue to have their own laws about pot causes confusion. The federal government should legalize the stuff.
- The FDA should set standards and monitor compliance.
- It took 100 years for the realization that tobacco companies were spiking cigs with extra nicotine, we should test cannabis for potency.
- Anyone who gives or sells the stuff to kids should spend significant time in the slammer (I have seen instances where pot smoking is a family affair).
- Many organizations saved lives with an all-out effort to make smoking uncool, let’s give marijuana the same treatment.
- With legalization will come more use, encourage NIMH to make research into the drug a priority
- Please, please, no advertising. Think it couldn’t happen? That’s what the temperance union thought following the repeal of prohibition.
After pushing pills and other remedies for well over a half century I have concluded that there is usually a downside to whatever chemicals we put in our bodies regardless of their positive benefit. In spite of rigorous evaluations, clinical trials and such we often see unexpected side effects…sometimes years later. The current practice of prescribing cannabis based on anecdotal information without benefit of rigorous clinical testing is in my opinion irresponsible. Nevertheless there is little doubt we have a serious drug problem, and the consensus is that cannabis is safer than most other street drugs. Prohibition offered further proof that “the pleasure principle” thing would not be denied no matter the consequences. Legalizing alcohol did not solve the problem, but it was not as bad as the alternative, and following that model seems to me to be the more sensible approach in dealing with cannabis.