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While Legalizing Marijuana – Q: How Addictive or Harmful is Marijuana?
As marijuana meets the mainstream, questions abound
As the laws decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana spread from state to state, more questions about it are being asked than anyone has good answers for — especially about its addictiveness and its potential drawbacks and dangers.
Most questions these days are about how addictive it is (or isn’t). People want to know if it’s “as addictive as alcohol” or “as addictive as heroin or cocaine”. They ask, “Will I get hooked (or bored) and want to move up to a more dangerous drug? Will my kids become addicted to marijuana or something like heroin?”
Other questions are concerned about how dangerous it is (or isn’t) physically and/or mentally. For example, what effects are there other than euphoria? Can you get lung cancer from smoking it? Does it damage any other organs? Will it make me lazy and stupid, like those pothead characters in the movies?
Then there are lots of people concerned about how well marijuana smokers can perform when high — whether driving cars, operating machinery, or performing tasks in the office. Are marijuana smokers behind the wheel subject to the same laws as people high on alcohol and other drugs? For that matter, what are the roadside tests for marijuana inebriation? How will cops even know if you’re stoned, and how can they prove it?
Answers are often opinion rather than based on scientific studies
Unfortunately, when it comes to questions about addictiveness, side effects and long term harms, most answers these days are still based on a lot of really old ideas and not much science. Claims that there haven’t been enough scientific studies to answer most questions are, in fact, not so true, however.
There have been many studies, especially in Europe and other countries including Canada, and most of them are ignored — not rejected, but not even looked at — here in the US. Or they are cherry-picked to support a particular opinion or political agenda. And this is true for both sides of the coin — the pro-legals and anti-legals.
For example, there are at least two dozen studies (we don’t have space to list them all) that clearly show that marijuana can bring on dysphoria (major downer instead of euphoria or high), anxiety and depersonalization, and can precipitate or aggravate psychosis. There are at least seven studies that clearly show that marijuana doesn’t just heighten sensory perception, it can cause distortion of space and time and precipitate hallucinations and misperceptions. There are 15 studies that clearly demonstrate that marijuana depresses the central nervous system (CNS) and can cause drowsiness and somnolence (sleepiness). And these effects are additive with other CNS depressants, such as opioids and alcohol — not a good mix.
Some people are far more sensitive than others to these effects, and at different times, too, depending on goodness knows what. And they might kick in right when they shouldn’t, like when you’re behind the wheel of a car or at the controls of an intercontinental passenger jet.
So blanket statements, while arguing to legalizing marijuana, about the safety or danger of marijuana under certain circumstances are not possible, not about any of the side effects one way or the other. You might not get to find out whether you’re sensitive to this or that until after you’ve crashed your semi into a dozen cars on the freeway and exploded in flames, or you managed to stop in the nick of time.
And the same can be said for many people hoping for relief from the pain or misery of numerous medical conditions, for which marijuana has been helpful for so many others. Not everyone experiences the positive aspects either. And again, no one knows for sure why that is.
Bottom line, weed is a crap-shoot and should not be given a 100% clear bill of health.
And here’s some more reasons why — a list of side effects, determined from scientific studies, that just goes on and on. The stuff above was annoying, but this stuff is way worse; it can kill you or others in your vicinity:
- Incoordination, weakness, ataxia (loss of control of your muscles — not a great idea while driving that semi), dysarthria (you can’t move your mouth enough to talk) — 6 studies
- Tolerance (needing more weed) with chronic use, and hyperemesis (severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, electrolyte disturbance) with larger doses or chronic use — 11 studies.
- Tachycardia, premature ventricular contractions, atrial fibrillation and ventricular arrhythmia, all potentially fatal, all seen with acute doses (overdoses) — at least 15 studies
- Vasodilatation (widening of blood vessels), conjunctival redness (red eyes), supine hypertension (high blood pressure lying down), postural hypotension (drop in blood pressure, dizziness or fainting, when you stand up) — 7 studies
- Increased cardiac output and myocardial oxygen demand, and increased incidents of heart attack (myocardial infarction) and stroke after acute doses — at least 6 studies.
- All sorts of uncool effects on the respiratory system, gastrointestinal system (including liver and pancreas), and negative effects on bone healing.
On the other hand in the legalizing marijuana debate, marijuana most definitely has some exemplary positive effects on a number of medical conditions, many of these supported by fairly decent science. We won’t go into them here because they already get lots of publicity. It’s the negative side effects which seem to get little or no attention in the predominantly liberal, pot-smoking media. Popular writer Maureen Dowd’s pot-in-the-chocolate article in the New York Times, and Jacob Sullum’s similar piece in Forbes, are the kind of open, gee-whiz discussions of drug use that we would have expected to read in High Times three or four decades ago, certainly not in the staid New York Times and business magazine Forbes. But as Mr. Dylan sang all those many years ago, The Times They Are a-Changin’.
The legalizing marijuana legal scene is an incredible mishmash of conflicting opinions
When it comes to the laws governing marijuana in the US, we see an odd patchwork of conflicting opinions and ideas instead of laws based on well-considered science all around.
Under federal law it’s illegal to possess, use, buy, sell, or cultivate marijuana. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the classification for the most dangerous drugs such as heroin, LSD, and cocaine. The feds claim that marijuana meets the three Schedule 1 criteria: a high potential for abuse, no acceptable medical use and not safe to use without medical supervision.
One or more of these three requirements have been repeatedly challenged in courts for marijuana almost since the day it was scheduled, and all such challenges have failed.
In spite of the tough federal laws, roughly half the states relaxed their own statutes over the years and it’s a moving target in a few others that are still considering relaxing their laws and legalizing marijuana. But half of the states are still holding tight to the federal viewpoint.
Each state, and the District of Columbia, have unique statutes governing ‘cannabis’, the active ingredient in marijuana. These laws fall into roughly five categories, so we have an interesting cross-section, from totally legal — “I’ll pick up the weed at the market on the way home, honey” — to totally illegal — “Quick, ditch the weed, that guy looks like a narc” — and almost everything you can think of in between. Some states are still in the midst of deciding what to do with their laws as we write this article.
Makes you wonder sometimes how we fit all of us together under one flag, doesn’t it?
Anyway, the five general categories of state marijuana laws as of mid-2014 are roughly the following — and we mean, roughly. They’re arranged from least strict to most strict:
- Legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use — everything goes (licensed retailing is illegal)
- Medical prescribing ok and some decriminalization of small amounts
- Medical prescribing ok but no decriminalization
- Decriminalized possession for smaller amounts
- Total prohibition
If you look at the gray states, you can get a pretty good sense of how the majority of Americans, or at least their state administrations, are taking a long, hard look at the current trend to lighten up on marijuana — even medically, which has a pretty strong and growing scientific basis.
Meanwhile, here at Novus, treating marijuana directly as a first line drug needing detox is pretty rare. But we can tell you that most patients with drug and alcohol problems are very familiar with marijuana — and usually from an early age.
It’s a proven scientific fact that the earlier someone starts using marijuana, or any psychoactive drug, the more likely they are to get into trouble with sterner stuff later on, like prescription opioids, heroin, methadone, alcohol, cocaine or the benzodiazapines like Xanax.
That’s not because marijuana itself is so addictive, but because for some people, it’s a definite door-opener to more addictive drugs.
So if you or someone you care about — especially a teenager — is dabbling with marijuana, we hope you’ll take heed of the very real risks associated with it. Far too often, in ways so subtle it’s hard to be sure, marijuana leads people on to more dangerous places. It’s often “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
For more information about safe, comfortable and medically-supervised drug and alcohol detox, don’t hesitate to call Novus Medical Detox Center. We’re always here to help.
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