What We Don’t Know About Marijuana

We don’t have answers about the medical ramifications of marijuana.

“I’m afraid I’m sounding like this is an evil drug that’s going to ruin our civilization and I don’t really think that,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in USA Today. “But there are aspects of this that probably should be looked at more closely than some of the legalization experts are willing to admit.”

With these words, I have a new hero. The head of the National Institutes of Health has pointed out that we just don’t know what the long-term side effects are of marijuana. At least partly because it’s been illegal, medical researchers have not been able to conduct significant, human studies.

Collins went on to say, “We don’t know a lot about the things we wish we did. I’ve been asked repeatedly, does regular marijuana smoking, because you inhale deeply, increase your risk of lung cancer? We don’t know. Nobody’s done that study.”

The reason the director of the NIH is my hero is because he is asking the question that we ask every day at MedShadow Foundation – what are the long term effects? Can we anticipate them? And do the long-term risks outweigh the benefits we get today?

Here are some concerns we should know more about:

  • DrugAbuse.gov reports, “Marijuana smoke is an irritant to the lungs, and frequent marijuana smokers can have many of the same respiratory problems experienced by tobacco smokers, such as a daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, and a heightened risk of lung infections.”
  • Small studies indicate that marijuana use could lead to lowering IQ by 10 points. Since an IQ of 100 is considered exactly average, does that mean a regular user might be lowering his or her own intelligence by 10%?
  • One study MedShadow blogged about, strongly shows that marijuana use can impair brain function in early teen years. Smoking pot limits the connectors developing in the pre-frontal cortex. The brain cannot “catch up” in later years, so those missing connections will never be made. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that manages planning and mature judgment. As adults, the study participants also seemed to be at higher risk for psychological issues like schizophrenia. The study participants were mice, not humans.

There’s no question why marijuana use continues despite decades of “Just Say No.” A CBS News Report stated, “When marijuana is eaten, THC acts on cannabinoid receptors in the brain in areas that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, coordinated movement and sensory and time perception, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This can lead to distorted perceptions, disrupted memory, impaired coordination and difficulty thinking and problem solving.” Many people use it to unwind from stress or as a more pleasurable “high” than alcohol. How many? We don’t know. But based on the support for legalizing it, it’s gotta be a lot.

In my opinion, keeping marijuana illegal is reminiscent of Prohibition. It creates criminals out of too many of our citizens. But when liquor was decriminalized our justice system had in place guidelines for when, where and how much was appropriate and safe to use. As always, what you do in the privacy of your home is your business. But we haven’t answered questions like, can you drive while you’re high? How high? How is it measured and standardized? We need the equivalent of a “breathalizer” for pot users and they need to know before they get into trouble or create trouble inadvertently.

It’s only fair to the users also that they know what they are buying. Marijuana sold legally for either social or medical use needs to have a potency number on it, just as alcohol has a proof number for comparison with other alcohols.

Let’s stop making criminals of an unknown, but probably significant, portion of our citizens. But let’s do it intelligently. Use a standard proof level, keep it low in the first years while it can be tested. Protect those in public areas who have not altered their consciousness with alcohol or marijuana by creating guidelines for those who choose to use. Drive? Operate heavy machinery? Stay in your home? Just make it safe, fair and – why not? – fun.

Suzanne B. Robotti

Suzanne Robotti founded MedShadow Foundation in 2012. Learn more about Su and her mission.

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