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Cannabis news worldwide -- The truth about marijuana's health effects





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The truth about marijuana's health effects

When California legalised the recreational use of cannabis this month, it also triggered an international debate: is it time to recognise the benefits of a drug once associated with criminal gangs and free-loving hippies? Or is there an urgent need for a crackdown?

Almost two-thirds of Americans are in favour of relaxing marijuana laws, according to an October 2017 Gallop poll, but critics warn the move sends the message that the psychoactive drug is safe to use - a conclusion that many dispute.

With the recreational use of cannabis now permitted in eight US states, and many European countries including Norway moving towards legalising or decriminalising the drug, The Week looks at the associated health risks and medical benefits.

What do supporters say?

Cannabis has long been promoted as an effective treatment for a host of medical conditions, including epilepsy and chronic pain.

The California Medical Association is among the doctors’ groups that have called for the full legalisation of marijuana, arguing that the drug “should be strictly regulated like medicine” to ensure safe and appropriate use by patients with legitimate health problems.

Supporters also argue that legal recreational drugs such as alcohol and tobacco pose a far greater risk.

“In several respects, even sugar poses more of a threat to our nation’s health than pot,” says clinical psychologist David Nathan in an article for the CNN website.

Reporter Christopher Ingraham, who covers drug policy for The Washington Post, agrees. It takes “extraordinary chutzpah to rail against the dangers of marijuana use by day and then go home to unwind with a glass of far more lethal stuff in the evening”, Ingraham writes.

What do critics say?

In the Los Angeles Times, political columnist George Skelton asks: “Why the hurry to legalise consumption of another poison? We’ve already got alcohol, which can ruin lives. Tobacco causes cancer. Cannabis? It can mess up the mind. Plenty of research shows that.”

Opponents also claim that the potency of the drug has increased dramatically in recent years, especially when consumed in food and drinks.

Modern marijuana “isn’t like the crappy pot you were smoking in college”, says Andrew Acosta, spokesperson for the “No on 64” campaign, which fought against legalisation in California.

“This is high-grade stuff they’re putting in candy bars and you’re climbing the wall.”

What are the medical benefits?

Despite being listed as a Schedule 1 drug in the US - a classification that defines a drug as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” - marijuana and its many derivatives have been found to be beneficial in treating or alleviating some health conditions.

In one of the most wide-ranging studies on the health effects of recreational and therapeutic cannabis use to date, the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine last year published a comprehensive review of 10,000 research papers.

The review found “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis or its other compounds, known as cannabinoids, can be an effective treatment for chronic pain, muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Separately, a clinial trial published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year found cannabidiol, a marijuana derivative, to be beneficial in the treatment of a complex childhood epilepsy disorder.

Gregory Gerdeman, a neuroscientist who specialises in the physiological actions of cannabis, says it is “already widely understood that marijuana is valuable and safe as a palliative medicine, which undermines the tenets of the Schedule 1 status”, reports Time magazine.

Additionally, there are anecdotal patient reports, increasing numbers of clinical case studies and a wide range of pre-clinical studies that indicate cannabinoids could also help shrink some of the most serious types of tumours, Gerdeman told Time.

However, scientists say more research is needed to determine whether the drug can serve as an effective cancer therapy.

What about the risks?

Cannabis is roughly 114 times less deadly than alcohol, according to research published in 2015. But it’s important to note that “safer than alcohol” doesn’t mean “safe, full stop”, says The Washington Post’s Ingraham.

One of the biggest concerns is marijuana’s effect on mental health. The NHS website warns that regular cannabis use increases a person’s risk of developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia. The risk increases if a person starts using cannabis at a young age, smokes stronger types of the drug, such as skunk, or smokes regularly or for a long time, the health service says.

In a 2015 study, King’s College London researchers found that people who smoked skunk every day had five times the normal risk of psychosis.

However, such studies “do not prove beyond doubt” that cannabis causes mental health problems, says The Guardian’s health editor, Ian Sample.

The NHS also suggests that heavy cannabis users are more likely to develop bronchitis, but researchers have drawn varying conclusions. Some studies point to the positive effects of  tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, on opening the airways, while others highlight the negative outcomes of marijuana smoke inhalation, according to the US Lung Institute.

Ultimately, says scientists, far more research into the drug is needed.

“It’s actually quite amazing how little we really know about something that has been used for thousands of years,” says Sachin Patel, of Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University, who studies cannabis.

“We desperately need well-controlled unbiased large-scale research studies into the efficacy of cannabis for treating disease states, which we have very little of right now,” Patel told Time.

So what is the consensus?

The evidence suggests cannabis is a relatively safe drug that provides a host of medical benefits, but that it is not harmless and that its potential risks to physical and mental health should not be ignored. More research is needed to determine whether or not the long-term risks outweigh the rewards.

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